On a recent Sunday, two guests stand in front of a muted TV set near the entry of 15 Steps inside the Eden Roc hotel. They're laughing at America's Funniest Home Videos.
Rich amber lighting and plush leather seating fill the center of this first-floor restaurant. An out-of-place communal picnic table sits near an open kitchen. And a row of small tables off to the side is paired with one conventional chair and one enormously high-backed white leather throne.
In this mecca of mismatches, the strong Lapidus old-fashioned, named for the hotel's famed architect, Morris Lapidus, is served with bourbon, amarena cherry syrup, and chocolate mole bitters. It costs exactly as much -- $16 -- as a Squeeze Me, made with Stoli Blueberry, mint, and "handcrafted lemonade." The evening I was there, Tropicana lemonade was poured from a carton.
When entering, you might even be unclear about where you are dining. The collage mural in the entry reads "1500 Degrees."
Last summer, the Eden Roc, owned by Eden Roc LLLP, changed management from Marriott International to Destination Hotels & Resorts, a hospitality management company specializing in independent luxury hotels. In the shuffle, chef Paula DaSilva, who made a name for herself at the Eden Roc's signature restaurant, 1500 Degrees, returned to her old home, 3030 Ocean in Fort Lauderdale. Her replacement was 3030 Ocean's chef de cuisine, Jeremy Ford. The name of the restaurant was also changed from 1500 Degrees to 15 Steps, which was chosen to reflect the number of steps it takes to get a fish from boat to table.
Despite the upheaval, the farm focus and dining room décor remain intact. As a restaurant in an iconic hotel with a revolving door of guests, it has served meals during the entire process.
On one of my visits, the seafood preparation was particularly good. The ultra-fresh Atlantic wahoo was poached for exactly 15 seconds, placed in ice water, and cut thicker than sashimi. A Meyer lemon and shishito vinaigrette, along with a fun citrus foam bubble, topped it. One taste revealed the clean freshness of flavors, but I was left wanting something more. I found the answer on the plate. Dipping the fish into dollops of Florida avocado mousse with lime juice and cumin brought it to life.
The chef had to nail that dish -- a wahoo is tattooed on his arm.
An Italian-style roasted tomato soup served during one of my visits was later replaced with a roasted Florida corn soup. The latter was a bit more complex -- based on a stock made from cobs without kernels rather than chicken bones -- with fennel and leeks as aromatics. Crab, tomatillos, peppers, and the charred kernels graced the soup as a vivid salsa. The result was another winning bowl.
Because of the season, the produce is at the peak of freshness, but sometimes even Mother Nature can be bland. One night, a roasted carrot salad with greens, avocado, walnut pesto, and spicy sunflower seeds included the vibrant, fresh taste of every ingredient except the scant purple carrots. Another night, a roasted beet salad was made from those same carrots, smoked ricotta, pine nuts, and pomegranate vinaigrette and then topped with candied mandarinquats, a hybrid of a mandarin and a kumquat. And those purple carrots were divine.
Every day, a new menu is printed. Changes depend upon what's provided by two farms -- Swank and Paradise -- as well as which fish are available. "People go nuts if we remove a staple, like the gnocchi," Chef Ford says.
Indeed, the gnocchi and black truffle ragout is a pleaser. The hefty potato pasta is topped with black truffles before a fried quail egg, slow-braised pork shank, and mushrooms are thrown into the mix. It is so rich it should be a main dish.
The entrée that exceeded all expectations was the pan-roasted halibut. The perfectly cooked fish was glazed and coated with toasted coriander seeds for a wonderful pop-in-the-mouth sensation. It was served in a soy and ginger broth with spicy greens, baby turnips, fresh asparagus cut into disks, and beet chips. It was priced at $29 but was also featured in the daily three-course prix fixe dinner menu, with a starter and dessert, for $39.
The Bell & Evans chicken breast with red quinoa, baby turnips, greens, and roasted pistachios was also well cooked, though it was a bit on the salty side and not nearly as exciting as the halibut.
For dessert, the grapefruit soup brought a pucker like no other. Florida grapefruit juice was infused with yuzu and a touch of sugar. An orange blossom ice cube was placed in the bowl along with a tarragon sorbet that melted with each stir until there were remnants of granita bits. The most difficult aspect to grasp about this dessert was the cubed coconut jelly, which resembled tofu floating in miso soup. It was a creative, liquefied spin on a fruity treat.
A more approachable sweet is the manchego panna cotta. It is simultaneously creamy and gelatinous, like cheesecake with some bounce or a deconstructed dessert cheese plate. It comes topped with kumquat compote and a thyme cookie.
15 Steps has a very talented young chef and a playful waitstaff -- I overheard one waiter joke to a patron that the restaurant is trying out a concept without a bathroom. That's all fine. But in this locale with these prices, boxed lemonade, slapstick television, and recycled décor detract from the overall impression.
The space will change again soon. Nobu Hospitality plans to open a Nobu Hotel inside the Eden Roc, similar to the concept at Caesars Palace Las Vegas, and a Nobu restaurant will open in the 15 Steps space. In summer 2015, Ford and company are slated to take over the spot in the hotel now occupied by the Cabana Beach Club.
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Right now, Ford is taking the appropriate steps: focusing on food, building a staff, and using the current space as a "testing ground." When the transition begins, he will split his time between helping the Nobu team and planning this new oceanfront restaurant, where it's hoped he can make a home in a space that goes well with his cuisine.
The Eden Roc has a storied past that stretches from Frank Sinatra to the Kardashians. Let's hope this newest incarnation is closer to its distant past than more recent times.
Follow Carina on Twitter @CarinaOst