Inspiration, Activity at Every Turn

Exciting new restaurants are transforming the taste trip north of Miami-Dade.

I can't quite decide whether Broward and Palm Beach counties really have launched more exciting, dining-destination places over the last couple of years, or if the chefs and restaurateurs in the great white north of South Florida have finally become as publicity-wise as their more worldly Miami-Dade counterparts. After reviewing the region for five years for New Times Broward-Palm Beach, I'd like to believe it's the former, though my e-mail inbox, stuffed with documents avowing to the potential of this restaurant or that, points to the latter.

Whatever. Either way, sometimes it is enough for me just to have an answer for when my colleagues in Miami ask me the inevitable: "Where should I take my grandmother in Sunrise out to dinner?" In fact I'm delighted to have an entire arsenal this season for Miamians who will be traveling north (say it with me: Fort Lauderdale) to meet visiting relatives and friends who insist that since they flew a thousand miles to get to South Florida, the least you can do is drive an hour to see them. (Obviously these folks have never braved I-95 construction zones, which are currently shutting down the exits to Delray Beach.)

Fortunately there are a bunch of spots hip enough to make the commute viable. This is not to say that I've reviewed every single venue, or even dined in them all; some haven't yet opened. But each restaurant in this group -- which includes already popular, globally well-rounded newbies such as Red Coral in Fort Lauderdale, Moroccan Nights in Boca Raton, Gotham City in Delray Beach, and Café Boulud in Palm Beach -- has that all-important quality that can inspire at least two clichés: They're worth the drive, especially if someone else is picking up the tab.

Even better, a couple of them are being handled by Miami alumnae such as Johnny Vinczencz. He left the employ of De La Tierra at the Sundy House in Delray Beach, where he earned himself and his parenting resort company much respect, a couple of months ago without rancor on either side. "It was a great run, but it was time to open my own place," he says. "I had to think about what I was going to be doing for the rest of my life. You can't be a chef for somebody else forever." He also departed without his long-time sous-chef and right hand, Dwayne Adams, who is now executive chef at De La Tierra. "I couldn't afford him now," Vinczencz jokes. "But really, it's time for him to be in charge of his own kitchen."

As for the big V, he's now the big cheese at his very own eponymous joint, which takes over at Louie's Mexican Cantina in Fort Lauderdale. Part of a group of successful Las Olas Boulevard restaurants that offer both Italian fare and raw bar items, Louie's south-of-the-border saloon fell as flat as stale tortillas. In came Johnny V. as a new partner, and he's promising a complete revamp of both menu and space. To wit: his signature dishes such as wild mushroom pancake "short stack" and stone and king crab "shepherd's pie" with key lime mustard sauce. Those who remember Vinczencz from his early SoBe days have every reason to set their cruise controls and head north. And don't worry -- unlike the invisible barrier that halts the shopping carts in the parking lot at Publix, the Miami-Dade-Broward border is a lot more forgiving.

As is the Palm Beach County line, which you'll have to cross in order to seek out Michael Schwartz. After selling his partnership in Nemo, Big Pink, and Shoji Sushi, Schwartz did some consulting work, scouted locations (including 5051, which is now OLA) for a potential new business, and even took a job as executive chef for SushiSambaRio in Chicago. A few weeks of that in-air commute apparently convinced him that Palm Beach isn't such a bad drive from Miami after all. He's now installed at Zemi in Boca Raton, where he has taken over for former chef/partner John Belleme. "The place is beautiful and I've established a really good relationship with [managing partner] Allison Barber," Schwartz reports, as well as owner Dennis Kozlowski and his wife Karen Mayo.

Kozlowski, some might recall, was forced to resign from his position as CEO of Tyco International -- worth $38 billion -- and is currently on trial, along with Tyco CFO Mark Swartz, for stealing $600 million from the company. Some of this scandal may have initially rubbed off on Zemi, but Schwartz says of the tycoon, who loaned $1.5 million to Mayo to launch Zemi: "[He is] actually quite nice, and [they] want to open more restaurants after the trial is over."

If anybody can polish Zemi's good name, it's Schwartz. So far, he says the menu retains 40 percent of the dishes that came out of the open kitchen and wood-burning oven before he got there. But the ratio's good enough for me, considering that the 60 percent includes such Schwartz-isms as house-cured salmon rolls with sesame-citrus aioli, tobiko caviar, and field greens or rare tuna tempura with pickled ginger-vegetable salad.

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