"Sorry, we're booked," said a pleasant voice on my first call to The Wine Cellar.
They were three words I would hear again on different occasions before finally snagging a table at one of Fort Lauderdale's oldest and most popular spots for eastern European food.
Cuisine: Eastern European
199 E. Oakland Park Blvd., Fort Lauderdale
Cost: inexpensive to moderate
Credit cards: D, DC, MC, V
Hours: dinner Tuesday-Sunday
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The restaurant is a familiar sight on Oakland Park Boulevard, operating at this address since 1984. It's cozy, cramped and looks pretty much like it always did with white lacy curtains and rooms with different personalities, including one with a glass-enclosed aviary.
Our aesthetic pleasantness was interrupted by an impatient server who was more eager to turn the table than offer professional service. We had to ask for the wine list, but were glad we did. The moderately priced compilation of global options includes a crisp Barboursville Riesling ($23) from Virginia and a spicy Chateau Bianca gewürztraminer from Oregon ($20).
Complimentary golden brown potato pancakes arrived soon after menus (applesauce and sour cream seem to be part of the table setting), along with a bread basket. The large pancakes had good potato flavor, but tasted a bit tired.
Dinners include soup or salad -- $1.95 extra for an OK Caesar trimmed with sliced ripe olives and boxed croutons, that's also available a la carte at $4.95. If you order extras as we did, you might agree that a bowl of lobster bisque ($3.25 a la carte) is too thin to be called bisque and carries little depth of flavor. Instead, have corn chowder for a soothing potage of creamed corn colored by peas and red pepper. A la carte, it's priced the same as the bisque, which doesn't make economical sense, but helps explain why we couldn't find any lobster in the bisque.
There's a goopy but good version of escargot with mushroom ragout in garlic butter ($5.95), served in a crock, or go for wafer-thin silky smoked salmon ($9.95) -- with sliced tomatoes, potato pancakes and chopped dill pickles. The appetizer of the day on this visit was a winning interpretation of breaded mushrooms ($5.95), and plenty of them. They're lightly breaded, fried to a nice amber color, placed on steamed white rice and delivered in a big bowl centered by a side of creamy dill sauce with good herb flavor.
Some recited specials add to a small menu that features a good mix of poultry, fish, meats and assorted specialties. One half pound of large shrimp goes into shrimp Wine Cellar ($16.95), a well-executed saute with onions, garlic, tomatoes, parsley and pepper. The shrimp are expertly prepared and the dense tomato saucing is good enough to scrape up any last morsels. For a sauce-free, unfussy dish, try excellent wiener schnitzel ($13.95) two oversize fork-tender veal cutlets breaded and fried to greaseless perfection. Hunter schnitzel ($13.95) is another good choice for those with a taste for veal scallopini finished with creamy mushroom sauce.
We liked chicken paprikash ($9.95), simmered in tomato-based sour cream sauce, for its old-fashioned comfort food fix of bone-in poultry (two legs, a breast and a thigh) lolling in thick saucing that adhered to the chicken yet barely puddled the plate.
But, an evening special, tilapia with spinach and crabmeat ($15.95), had me hunting for a taste of both the scarce crabmeat and spinach embedded in a bready topping covering a fillet marred by an unpleasant aftertaste.
The kitchen does a better job with salmon fillet ($15.95), available poached or baked with dill sauce.
Sides are included with dinner (some served family style) and you won't go wrong with any of them. The creamed spinach is as good as in expensive steak houses, the red cabbage isn't moist but it's still tasty, home fries (cut new potatoes) have good browned edges and the nicely resistant spaetzle is very good.
The apple strudel ($2.95) had a dry apple filling and soggy phyllo. Other desserts we sampled didn't fare much better.
In spite of our experience, it's hard to argue with the success of customers waiting to get in on many evenings and reservations that are hard to come by. This restaurant clearly fills a need for a certain kind of old-world culinary nostalgia.
Please phone in advance to confirm information on hours, prices, menu items and facilities. For review consideration, please fax a current menu that includes name and address of restaurant to 954-356-4386 or send to Sun-Sentinel, 200 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301-2293.If you would like to contact dining correspondent Judith Stocks, e-mail her at judithstocksreviews@yahoo .com or write to her in care of the Sun-Sentinel.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times