A Beach Beauty
Oceanfront restaurant’s stylish digs a feast for the eye while straightforward, understated offerings satisfy
By MICHAEL MAYO South Florida Sun Sentinel
Early in my first visit to Dune, at some point between the warm sourdough bread and raw oysters served with fresh-grated horseradish that looked like a pile of shredded parmesan, I had sizzling meat-handbag envy. Every so often, from my elevated banquette perch near the kitchen, I’d see servers stride by carrying large, gold-trimmed rectangular cases with hunks of beef, lamb, scallop and lobster. The portable boxes looked like big designer handbags, something Gucci or Michael Kors might design for Lady Gaga as an accessory to her 2010 MTV Awards meat dress – and I wanted one.
Soon enough our table would have it. They are known as konro grills, Japanese-designed contraptions with live charcoal, and they serve as the dramatic platters for the $85 mixed-grill special at Dune in Fort Lauderdale. They were all the sizzling rage on a recent Saturday night, a conversation piece in an oceanfront dining room at the base of million-dollar condos. Artfully arranged on top were slices of medium-rare beef tenderloin, two double-cut medium-rare New Zealand lamb chops, two plump diver sea scallops and a charred South African lobster tail. A bulb of roasted garlic and halved grilled lemon sat in opposite corners. Five dipping sauces came on a cutting board: chimichurri, corn crema, olive oil with Calabrian chilies, clarified butter and beef jus.
In many ways, the mixed grill sums up the DUNE experience. As food, it’s understated and straightforward (some may say dull) surf and turf with quality proteins and basic sauces. As fashion, it is elegant and gorgeous, just just like the dining room and deck designed by renowned New York-based firm Meyer Davis. As value, it depends on one’s perspective—after being pummeled by a barrage of triple-digit parrillada platters and tomahawk steaks in Miami, I found this arrangement downright generous (a $28.33 cost average if shared among three), but I’ve heard cost conscious diners gripe about the lack of sides. My biggest complaint about the dish is its availability. It is usually offered only as a weekend special, but in my mind should be a staple.
DUNE is not particularly adventurous culinary-wise, but I liked the place a lot. As soon as opened at the Auberge Beach it Residences and Spa in November, it became the prettiest restaurant in Broward. With a little polishing in service (it initially had trouble attracting experienced pros because of its late-in-the-year opening) and some more boldness from chef Edgar Beas, Dune has the potential to become the best.
The setting cannot be beat. The outdoor bar buzzes at happy hour, and the indoor dining room has good energy that allows for conversation even while a jazz trio plays. For wine drinkers DUNE is a welcome oasis, with compact list of interesting, fairly a priced wines heavy on Napa Valley and with some exciting premium wines available by the glass. The good wine program is to be expected, considering Dune is run by the same folks behind the Michelin-starred Auberge du Soleil resort in Napa Valley.
Dune is the first East Coast venture for the Auberge Resort group, and in many ways it remains a work in progress. Sunday brunch recently debuted, but there is still no weekday lunch service. Dune is still tinkering with food so much that no menu is posted on its bare-bones website. The menu isn’t overwhelming, with only a handful of dishes in each of six categories broken down to “raw, before, garden, land, sea and sides.”
Seafood is the star. Crab spatzle ($21) has been a hit, and I liked it a lot, the housemade stubby German twisted noodles showered with lump crab meat and roasted tomatoes. A new poached monkfish entree ($32) featured plump, properly cooked fish in a carrot reduction with cauliflower couscous. It was a bit sweet, but we devoured it all the same. Himachi tiradito ($14), and tuna crudo with mango and mustard oil ($15) were simple appetizers that let good fish shine.
Beas, 32, originally from San Diego, who most recently worked in New Mexico, is most likely holding back for the sake of an older clientele, but it’s all satisfying enough. At this point, the kitchen is just trying to master the intricacies of the high-temperature Josper charcoal grill-oven, an expensive toy from Spain. Most of my dishes were done right, but the seared grouper ($34) got murdered to overcooked chicken. We sent it back late, and didn’t want a replacement, but the house still graciously took it off the final tab. Beas has since replaced the grouper, which has been inconsistent, with Alaskan halibut. Score it a loss for the typical locavores.
My typical indicator of whether a restaurant is good is if I’m willing to return to spend my own money. DUNE is one of those places where I not only want to return, but I also can’t wait to bring visiting friends. DUNE speaks to what South Florida dining should be. Located on the razed site of the old Ireland’s Inn, the new property is not a hotel resort, but strictly high-end residential. The restaurant and day spa are open to the public, with a separate valet parking entrance.
DUNE is elegant without being stuffy, proper without being formal, married perfectly to its beachfront location with a casual vibe. The 166-seat dining room features marble tables with wicker placemats instead of white linen, light banquettes, cushioned seats, blond wood floors, indoor plants and candles in what look like hollowed Faberge eggs. I have no idea how the outdoor leather seating will hold up during the humid summer, but management has already felt the salty sea-air sting of daily window washings and has hurriedly installed a retractable windscreen to buffer the outdoor deck from strong gusts.
If the restaurant, hidden on the less-traveled and less-touristy northern end of Fort Lauderdale beach, could attract a more diverse crowd of locals to spice up the well-heeled homogeneity of condo residents, it would be even more attractive.
DUNE’s cost is certainly not prohibitive. A rack of lamb entree costs $29 and fish dishes run in the low $30s, a steal compared to other beach restaurants and on par with other inland eateries. The relatively affordable prices are by design, with the operators saying they want to create a restaurant for everyday dining and not just special-occasion splurges. The return of a comforting Ireland’s Inn specialty, pan-fried chicken on Sundays, is supposedly in the works.
Splurging is possible, too, what with a boutique $2,000 bottle of 2014 Harlan Estate cabernet sauvignon on the wine list.
I’ve heard that consistency has been an issue at Dune, with some members of the Let’s Eat, South Florida Facebook group reporting hot-and-cold food and service experiences in repeat visits, but my two dinners yielded mostly happy results. My second meal came on a Monday, usually a night when key personnel are off, but the kitchen seemed to perform at a higher level than on the busy weekend. A whole branzino ($31) was roasted properly in the Jasper, with crisp skin and delicate flesh bathed in lemon olive oil.
Then again, I may not be the truest barometer to gauge DUNE’s performance. I had been very much eager to check out one of Broward’s highest profile openings in years, and DUNE’s alert management team was apparently looking forward to me. On both unannounced visits (with reservations made in others’ names) I was recognized early on, and the degree to which both parties strained to keep the charade up was sometimes comical. I was assigned the same server both times, presumably the best on staff, and a steady stream of other workers kept swooping in to pour water and wine and replenish plates and silverware. General manager Jason Ray, who previously worked at Jamie Oliver’s restaurants in London, kept popping over to chat. Other tables didn’t get the same attention.
But other tables did get a cutting board with fresh lemon and lime wedges at the start, a nice touch for a seafood restaurant where many offerings can use enlivening with acidity. And everyone got the wonderful warm sourdough, also served on a cutting board with a smear of soft butter. The oysters were properly shucked, free of grit and served with fine mignonette and that fresh-ground horseradish, a rarity. It’s little thoughtful touches such as these that already set DUNE apart.
My quibbles were few. The roasted beets in the beet salad ($13) were not sweet, the weakest link in a pretty dish that featured a nice whipped goat cheese. Perhaps the item should not have been offered. And I liked the butter bean gratin ($8), but not the hefty, fatty and unchewable ham hock chunks contained therein.
I also wasn’t crazy about a delicate and somewhat runny Key lime tart ($10), but most desserts from pastry chef Audrey Scheib were pleasing, including comforting fresh-baked cookies with housemade ice cream, a double-berry turnover that was offered as a special, a not-toosweet chocolate cake and an artful coconut pudding.
With a little more fine tuning, DUNE should be sweeping South Floridians away for years to come.