I love this DIY craze that’s been hitting the American food scene! With all the attention that consumers are placing on where things come from and how they’re made, it seems as if many individuals have resorted to the notion that the best way to know the exact what, where, and how of a product is to make it yourself. In addition to controlling such things as the quality and sustainability of the food, making it yourself gives you full reign over the flavor and appearance of a finished product, as well as enabling you to add your own unique flourishes. The DIY revolution doesn’t seem to be merely confined to the home, however, as many chefs are finding more and more items that they can make from scratch, attempting everything from jams, pickles, condiments, and even cured meats...and they don’t seem to be turning back. I am so glad to see that, along with sourcing local products, the trend of making things in house is on the rise in South Florida and can be found a lot closer than I had previously thought. Big City Tavern, on the bustling Las Olas Boulevard, has always been a popular spot for good, informal meals and a convivial vibe, but I have often overlooked this restaurant as a mere purveyor of standard pub fare until a recent meal led me to discover otherwise. Local meat and produce coupled with excellently cured house-made charcuterie, along with a delicious array of homey desserts make Big City Tavern perhaps one of Fort Lauderdale’s best “right-under-our-noses” culinary secrets.
The concept of a tavern is not one that is native to South Florida, and for many natives, the word probably conjures up images of a medieval thatched roof establishment serving things like mutton and ale. Up north, however, taverns have been a part of American history since our founding fathers gathered at one to discuss such ideas as our independence more than 200 years ago. As ubiquitous as a pub in Britain or a cafeteria in Little Havana, a tavern serves as a meeting place for great drinks and dependably fantastic food, distinguishing it from a mere bar where the food can usually be seen as an afterthought. Taking to mind the tavern’s northern American heritage, Big City Tavern looks like nothing else in South Florida. Don’t expect to see the stark, airy tones and minimalist feel that is expected in South Beach’s sleek sushi bars and ultra lounges. Instead, Big City feels like you’re in a place where there are four distinct seasons and historical sites date back at least a hundred years before Art Deco was all the rage. The dark woods, ornate mantles, plush booths, and eclectic tchotchkes are kind of reminiscent of what a TGI Friday’s would aspire to look like if it ever wanted to take itself seriously and be considered sophisticated. Overall, the vibe is inviting and convivial, and it is definitely the place to be on a Friday night.
My friend and I started with a few cocktails, including one of their signature martinis concocted with pear vodka and St. Germain liqueur that was sweet enough to offer an enjoyable sip while having enough of an unusual character to make it interesting. The first course section of the menu offers a good variety of generously portioned, sharable items that showcase a variety of culinary traditions. Unless a particular ingredient can only be found elsewhere, Chef Louie Bossi tries to source as many products as he can from local purveyors, as is the case in burrata and heirloom tomato salad simply dressed with 12 year aged balsamic, extra virgin olive oil, and sea salt. The burrata, sourced from Pompano Beach, had a taught and springy exterior that gave way to the milky, tender curds that are so beloved in this byproduct of fresh mozzarella. Each variety of multicolored tomatoes hailed from Delray beach and offered a different personality with each bite - sometimes sweet, sometimes tart, and sometimes possessing that unmistakable umami characteristic - that brought out the different facets of the burrata making this dish a fine representation of an Italian classic.
The real star on the appetizer list, however, is something that will persistently be tugging on my palate, compelling me to return to Big City Tavern. If you order nothing else here, you can definitely make a meal out of the abundance that is available in their artisan charcuterie assortment, all made in house. We were treated to paper thin slices of lardo, or uncooked cured pork belly fat that is probably the next texturally luxurious delicacy after foie gras. Feathery shavings of piquant coppa offered a forward saltiness and satisfying bite, while a crispy strips of unsmoked pork belly - cooked like bacon - melted in my mouth after their initial crunch and crowned a miniature cast iron pan containing thin slices of porchetta so so good that my mouth is watering just writing about it. The butcher block of pork products arrived with a neat stack of assertively seasoned crispy flatbreads and a jar of assorted house-pickled vegetables that we nearly emptied.
Entrées at Big City Tavern are just as diverse as the appetizers and feature dishes from Chef Bossi’s Italian Heritage, including an array of creative pizzas and homemade pastas. My friend, also having Italian-American heritage, instantly gravitated towards the orecchiette with broccoli rabe and house-made Italian sausage in a light wine wine sauce with diced tomatoes and mint. I have had this dish traditionally dressed with only pasta water and bound with a sprinkling of pecorino romano, however the addition of the acidic tomatoes and mint brought a brightness to a dish that would otherwise be dominated by rich anise flavor of the sausage and the pleasant bitterness of the broccoli rabe. At our waiter’s suggestion, I went all-American with a dish of brown sugar crusted local pork chop from Palmetto Creek Farms on a bed of baked beans and sauerkraut with a savory link of house-made sausage. I was doubtful that a simple pork chop could outshine the charcuterie that we just had, but I was impressed at how flavorful, tender and juicy the cut was. A topping of house-pickled mustard seeds offered the perfect accent to cut the richness of both the pork and the sausage, while baked beans were actually well-balanced apart from being tasty, which is not something I typically comment on about baked beans.
In my dining experiences, I have found that when a restaurant does not have a pastry chef, desserts tend to be an afterthought and are just there because...well...there needs to be a dessert, right? My skepticism about Big City’s desserts was completely eliminated as, one after the other, I sampled each item on the dessert menu, my mind running in circles as it tried to decide upon a favorite. Chef Louie Bossi has to be one of the very few chefs of his calibre in South Florida that I’ve encountered to have an equal mastery of every section of the menu. A pistachio cake was moist, warm from the oven, and redolent of the unique green nut’s flavor. A warm chocolate brownie sundae topped with straticella gelato was unctuous and seemed to almost massage my soul with its deep flavors. A Granny Smith apple strudel with maple walnut ice cream and caramel sauce was arguably better than versions I’ve had in German bakeries, and a devil’s food cake and sour cherry gelato sandwich was an elegantly delicious take on a childhood favorite. Even the chocolate chip cookies were done to perfection: crispy, buttery, and teaming with moist chocolate morsels. My favorite dessert at Big City Tavern, however, was their caramelized banana sundae served in a mason jar that offered layers of vanilla ice cream, homemade banana bread, walnuts, and caramel sauce with perhaps one of the best toppings ever: burnt, homemade marshmallows.
As I am thinking of the meal I had at Big City Tavern while looking at the menu, I am planning my next visit in my mind, choosing new dishes to try in addition to their must-have charcuterie, as well as which friends I want to invite so that we can order as many of Chef Bossi’s desserts as possible. With such an affordable menu, and so many delectable options, I’m certain that there will be many more meals in store for me at Big City Tavern, a restaurant that proves that when a chef’s talent and passion are paired with a comprehensive knowledge and skill about cuisine, a DIY attitude can only yield amazing results.
Big City Tavern
609 E. Las Olas Blvd
Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33301