Bubbles and Pearls sits near the southern end of Wilton Drive, in one of the low-slung buildings not far from the mangrove-covered banks of Wilton Manors’ river border with Fort Lauderdale. It’s an undeniably Floridian location – and when you walk inside, the place looks like it belongs.
Bright yellow chairs pull up to a bar that runs most of the length of the long, narrow restaurant. Bright local art dots the walls – the place curates a rotating selection of works from local artists. A bright yellow exposed air conditioning duct runs overhead; painted chairs and stools pull up to tables. At the end of the bar nearest the front, you’ll find the raw bar.
Chef and restaurateur Josie Smith Malave worked in New York for a number of years and has had a varied career. But this is home.
“You never forget where you’re from,” Smith Malave says. “I’m from here in South Florida. This is the town that shaped me, that gave me wings so I could fly.”
The restaurant’s name gives a clue as to two of its specialties – champagne and oysters. But if that sounds a bit fancy, the place’s local-art-and-beach-bar vibe and décor should put people at ease. With its long bar of seats and close, cozy tables, the place offers what seems like a Florida version of the Asian concept of communal dining. Community’s a big part of what Smith Malave’s trying to do.
“At the end of the day, we all sit down at this table and we eat,” she says. "It’s a place where everybody can sit elbow-to-elbow.”
Up on a wall near the front, there’s one clue, a Top Chef poster, as to where you may have heard of Smith Malave before. She appeared on season two and again on season 10, and she was never dull. “Josie was a train wreck from the start,” wrote an LA Times recapper after one episode, while in an interview with Entertainment Weekly after she was eliminated in season 10, she was asked about the “big reaction” she elicited from the fans: “Were you conscious at all of, ‘Maybe my behavior is going to elicit this reaction?' Or were you surprised, once the episodes started airing?” (Smith Malave responded that “(a)t first I was a little hurt by the things people were saying. And I had a few conversations with friends and family and they said, ‘Josie, really, give me a break. You’re this, you’re that. Don’t let what they say — unless they know you and unless they’ve eaten your food, they should just shut up.’”)
With a few years between Smith Malave and the experience, she doesn’t mind if that’s what brings people in the door. But now’s a different time, and she knows that now, she’ll be graded on the plates she puts in front of customers.
“Whatever you know of me from Top Chef, we’re past that now,” she says. “Now you get to sit here and be the judge.”
You’ll be judging something that Smith Malave gave lots of thought. When she looked around for a concept for a Wilton Manors restaurant, she first noted what the area didn’t need. It’s well served for burgers and sushi. You can find wings. She could have done an Italian place, but there are plenty of them as well. So she stripped it back even farther.
“For me, this is the kind of food I like. I like champagne and oysters – let’s start there.”
She found a location, the former site of craft beer place 13 Even. It had atmosphere, but it needed work. And the kitchen wasn’t big. Smith Malave needed time to figure things out – but this made her partners a little nervous.
"They’re like, ‘When are you going to have the menu, when are you going to have the menu?’ I’m like, ‘The space hasn’t told me what the menu’s going to be yet.’”
Eventually, the space started talking. More specifically, Smith Malave began coming up with a full menu of items that she could do to a high standard without needing a bigger kitchen or different sort of setup.
Today, not yet a year after opening, things are going well. There’s the raw bar, ceviche, increasingly popular Hawaiian poke and dishes such as the miso cauliflower steak or the Off the Chain Ribeye with kale, pesto, cipolini onions and cauliflower puree. People can come in for a full meal or sit at the bar and sample oysters, or just something off the quality beer or wine list. It’s becoming the social, communal place Smith Malave wanted. And yeah, sometimes people ask her about television.
So, would she ever go on TV again?
“You know, it’s interesting,” she says. “Obviously, the success of Top Chef is my success too.” She won’t be critical of the show or her time there. But she realized some things.
“Something about the TV world for me didn’t align with who I was as a person,” she says. “There’s politics in TV and back in the day I was not into politics.”
Now she’s older and more comfortable with what she does. “Life is not the party,” she says, “it’s the party I create.
“When I do step back into that arena, it’s going to be on my terms. It’s going to be fun and it’s going to be positive.”
Until then, there’s plenty of fun and positivity to be had on Wilton Drive.
Meixcan Ceviche with Avocado Puree and Mango Tomato Marinade with Mariquitas (plantain chips)
• 8 raw shrimp size 16/20 large diced
• 3 jicama
• 2c red onion, finely sliced
• 2c cilantro, chopped finely
• 1c poblano chili, brunoise for the avocado puree for garnish with tomato
• 2 avocado, pureed
• 1c EVOO
• ½ c lime juice
• Salt to taste
For the Mango Tomato Marinade:
• 1 qt mango
• 2 qt tomato juice
• 2c orange juice
• 2c lime juice
• 2 jalepeno, seeded
• 4 garlic cloves
• 2c cilantro
• 1 tsp. cayenne
• 1 tsp. chili powder
• 1 tsp. crushed red pepper
• 1 tsp. black pepper
• ½c honey for the mariquitas
• Plantains (depends entirely on how many chips you want)
• Salt to taste
Start by blending garlic, cilantro, honey, chili powder, cayenne, black pepper and 1 cup of lime juice into a smooth paste. Add more lime juice if needed. Place the rest of the ingredients into a blender and mix until completely blended. Reserve.
For the mariquitas, slice the plantains thin, preferably in a Japanese turning vegetable slicer, and fry at 375 until golden brown. Season with salt. Allow to cool before covering and store in cool dry area.