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"Jaboticaba." Johnny Vinczencz says the word as if he's chewing it, standing in what can only be described as Delray Beach's topmost tropical Eden. "Jaboticaba." Or, in retrospect, as if he's getting used to uttering it.
The latter's probably the more apropos metaphor, since he's now picking that particular fruit from the one-acre "Taru" kitchen gardens of his new restaurant, De La Tierra at the Sundy House, to utilize on his menu. Along with mangos, longans, lychees, papayas, and just about any other tropical fruit you can name -- and even those you can't without a little thought: carambola, for example.
I first became acquainted with Johnny V when he was the creative and often sarcastic character who cooked up "Caribbean Cowboy" fare, inspired by the Caribbean and the Southwest, with a certain wise-ass savoir-faire. A Dennis Max/Unique Restaurant protégé to some degree, he sliced and diced his way up the ranks. He initially showed up on Miami radar as the sous-chef for exec Kerry Simon at Max's South Beach and then at the Astor to be top toque when Unique and Astor Hotel owner Karim Masri decided to join ranks in wooing -- and winning -- the critics there. After a bit, Unique bowed out; Johnny V finally left (twice); and the seven-year-old Astor, having undergone a consulting stint with Norman Van Aken's team before seeing a return of the V-man, is currently closed for dramatic renovations.
I've had supportive feelings about Vinczencz's career for many years. I believe he is, like Jonathan Eismann, one of our finer chefs, destined for national attention from the very beginning but doomed with a little bad luck when it comes to expansion. I cheered when he opened Johnny V's Kitchen (while he was simultaneously running the Astor) and booed when it closed; ditto Eismann's American-diner effort in the same spot a year or so later. I had mixed feelings when he left the Astor Hotel some time after that to try his luck at finding and funding his own upscale place on South Beach. And I repeated those sentiments when he returned to the Astor helm about a year later: Glad he was back in our gastronomic universe, but undeniably sad that I wasn't experiencing something more personal from him.
Nor did he seem too content. Although I'm sure he doesn't remember, at the opening of the regenerated Planet Hollywood on Ocean Drive last summer, he told me in no uncertain terms and in not very elegant language that he was "blowing this fucking town" and shipping out to L.A. Then, of course, he added the magic phrase that all journalists fear: "But that's off the record."
Fortunately for all of us, the record is no longer mute but moot. Johnny V did depart SoBe for DeBe a few months ago, but unless you're one of those car-less, South Beach-centric folks who never leaves the island, he hasn't really gone that far out of our culinary universe. And what he's accomplishing up in Palm Beach County is not only man-walks-on-moon accessible, it's the peak of his personal space program: Based on what I've tasted so far, Johnny V is doing his most galactic work to date.
Forget the Caribbean Cowboy moniker, which Vinczencz always insisted got way out of hand after the critics started writing it as a sort of designated tag line. He's now such a freak for local and native fruits we could call him the Guava Gaucho. Indeed, just about every dish on his menu, which is being tested right now -- the restaurant opened softly last month and will be formally launched in late summer or early fall -- contains some item that has been freshly picked from either the extensively landscaped, specialty-farmed plot of land on which Sundy House sits, or from the five-acre "Macho Grande" organic garden that Dharma Properties, proprietors of the restaurant, own a few miles away. To wit: red curry-seared tuna with rock-shrimp sticky-rice cake, fresh pea sprouts, lemon-guava ponzu, wakame, and wasabi caviar. Or his version of zarzuela, containing Key West shrimp, diver scallops, Florida lobster, and fish stewed in a mango-tomato and Scotch bonnet pepper broth, along with callaloo stew and crisp yuca. Who was it that said South Florida cuisine is dead?
Naturally Vinczencz, rebel for too long without a proper podium, isn't trying to break into the Mango Gang fraternity. He brought long-time kitchen companion Dwayne Adams from the Astor with him, and the boyz under the stove hood are simply presenting their mission statement on the bottom of the menu for diners to make of it what they will: "It is our goal to present 'New Florida Cuisine' using as many indigenous products as possible. This combined with respect for the traditions of nourishment brought to us by the many different ethnic cultures here in South Florida is the foundation of our cuisine."
Oh, okay, so it's pretty much New World. But credit Johnny V for not only renewing the region's interest in it, but for taking it to the level it was meant to go. Of course he hasn't left his signature dishes behind; he's merely updated items like the ancho-cinnamon pork tenderloin and sweet potato hash with mamey-onion chutney. And he's still irreverent. Take his "Duck, Duck Goose" dish. It's no kiddie game -- we're talking leg of duck confit, little duck meatloaf, and farm-raised goose breast, accompanied by wild mushroom-corn bread pudding and lychee-duck demi-glace.
In fact the Sundy House's De La Tierra, which means "from the earth," is groundbreaking in more than a gastronomic sense. Delray Beach has long been on the South Beach path of redevelopment. The main drag, Atlantic Avenue, started to undergo a renaissance about five or six years ago with the advent of tony joints like Dakotah 624 and 32 East, both of which are still on the upscale Palm Beach diner's permanent dance card. They set the beat for a hipper rhythm, which now includes $3-million venues like Sopra and outposts like Aura, where the staff comes from South Beach. Old-fashioned corset shops have moved out (hear that, Miracle Mile?) and art galleries in. Located on offshoots of Atlantic, distinctive, historic houses -- not candy-hued Art Deco but more like charming Southern-style homes with wooden shutters and wraparound porches -- have been rescued from neglect or demolition by forward-thinking small-business owners. Now they're places like DaDa and Falcon House, funky lounges and supper clubs geared toward a gay clientele.
Like Falcon House, which incidentally is owned by the bartending-management team that launched the then-innovative 32 East, Sundy House is a revamped property that retains the name from its initial christening. Sundy is just about the oldest one on the block, at nearly 100 years, and it's also the most beautiful for both its setting and its décor. Tables are available indoors but are also scattered throughout the grounds, and I find it quite appealing to bite into something as kooky as baked stuffed baby conch dressed with a sauce that comprises habanero chiles and 7-Up soda while sitting in a tropical arbor hoping those scaly, monstrous jackfruit fall on the lee side. And dishing up the goods on Villeroy-Boch china and serving them with Christofle utensils doesn't hurt either.
Even more significant, perhaps, is that Sundy House is giving Delray what it doesn't already have -- a place for tourists to resort. Dharma Properties runs a simply stunning resort in Taos, New Mexico, and already have taken major steps into making Sundy House an upscale traveler's destination. Swimming pools with fish. Individually decorated rooms and suites with so much attention to detail I'm willing to move in. And Johnny V, who conforms to the vision of Dharma Properties by serving as much from the land -- including American ranch-raised bison and Tibetan yak -- as he possibly can.
You couldn't ask for a more organic experience. Unless, of course, you want to pick your own jaboticaba to munch -- and practice saying -- at the table.