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On the mark: now entering its eighth year of business, Mark's Las Olas is the blueprint for fine dining in Fort Lauderdale - Executive Dining Mark's Las Olas

Not too long ago, a food critic at the New Times hit the nail on the head when describing South Florida's so-called "fine dining" scene: It's a tale of the emperor's new clothes, except we aren't talking about outfits, we're talking about confits. The article made a good point, which is that South Florida is teeming with restaurants that charge five-star prices for a three-star performance and slap the "fine dining" distinction onto the place without it being deserved, nor earned.

Thankfully, there are diners out there who can tell the difference between the truly fine restaurants and those eateries which just have good public relations campaigns. After all, not everyone is going to be satisfied time and again with too-vinegary ceviche or overcooked shellfish, no matter what the restaurant's hip address is or which designer did the too-flawless interior decorating. In the end, just like everything else, you get what you pay for, and the (paying) public always has the final say.

Which is why, on a recent Saturday night, Mark's Las Olas was packed as usual. Just entering its eighth year in business, the popular eatery on the east end of Las Olas Boulevard -- named for proprietor Mark Militello -- brings diners back time and again for truly good service and truly awesome food. No misplaced plantain chips, no fumbling waitstaff, just delicious, deftly-prepared dishes brought promptly to the table (we never waited more than 10 minutes between courses and the food was always hot and right out of the oven or off the grill).

Case in point: a starter of wood-roasted mozzarella with sliced tomatoes (beefsteak and Roma, as well as a sprinkling of the tiny teardrop kind), basil and a balsamic reduction. The milky, mild cheese, warmed through and just slightly melted from its time in Mark's wood-burning oven, came wrapped in a slice or two of prosciutto. Crunchy grains of sea salt and cracked black pepper were the tomatoes only dressing, the vibrant balsamic reduction drizzled sparsely -- though adequately -- around the plate's edge.

More complicated (yet equally delicious) was the pan-seared Ingid scallops in a rich mushroom sauce with boniato mash. So many flavors in this dish: sweet and tender scallops, earthy mushrooms, creamy boniato. We also tried the goat cheese and potato tart, which was another eye-popper. Crispy potato slices encircled a heavenly goat cheese filling, accented by sun-dried tomatoes and fresh herbs. The disk arrived at our table atop a mound of shredded greens and tiny tomato dice, slicked with a tangy vinaigrette. There were so many other starters to choose from: lobster brulee, potato pancakes with caviar and creme fraiche, a host of salads. But it's all in preparation for the big show, the main course.

Nothing could possibly have tasted better than veal tenderloin wrapped in prosciutto. The subtle meat -- nearly fork-tender despite it's pan-seared preparation -- was only enhanced by it's prosciutto covering. It was heavily sauced (foie gras veal jus), but somehow it all came together. A mound of creamy polenta and a smattering of little roasted onions proved a just-right counterpoint to the veal's texture and flavor.

The same sauce accented a peppercorn-crusted, rare-seared tuna steak, which on paper sounds like it wouldn't work. But it did, the rich sauce managing not to overwhelm the delicate ruby-red seared tuna. Mashed potatoes and vibrant French green beans were the simplest of accompaniments, exactly what the tuna needed. And a giant NY strip steak with asparagus, a thin (yet rich) mushroom sauce and roasted-garlic mashed potatoes was steakhouse fare at it's finest. Again, the menu at Mark's (which changes daily, so there are no "specials") is just massive, and diners can choose from a host of pasta dishes and pizzas for lighter fare as well. Crab-encrusted black grouper sounded great, as did the rack of lamb and the pork tenderloin.

If there's room, don't miss out on dessert. We tried the brown-butter spice cake with fall fruit compote and "baby brulee" -- fantastic. Another goodie was the homemade coffee ice cream flecked with coffee grounds. But perhaps you'd be satisfied to sip a tall cappuccino and munch on the homemade biscotti dotted with chocolate chunks and nuts -- the simplest of endings to a truly fine meal.

Mark's Las Olas. 1032 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 33301. (954) 463-1000, Lunch Mon-Fri., from 11:30 am; Dinner Mon-Thurs. until 10:30 pm; Fri. until 11:30 pm; Sal. 6-11:30 pm. Sat. 6-11;30 pm; Sun. 6-10:30 pm.

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