Cindy Hutson's Zest opens today, inside the Southeast Financial Center (200 S. Biscayne Blvd.), bringing a warm aura to downtown's concrete jungle with ethnically diverse and seasonally driven food and drinks.
Hutson, best known for her Coral Gables mainstay, Ortanique on the Mile, says, "Moving into a new urban neighborhood excites us. It's allowing us to expand on what we do best — creating a warm vibe of flavors and excitement."
The 4,500-square-foot space features an open kitchen with sit-down dining for lunch and dinner. Its counterpart, Zest MRKT, which is in pop-up form in the building's lobby until it officially opens in mid-March, offers healthy gourmet dishes that can easily be taken on the go. Mike Fischetti is Zest's chef de cuisine, while Barbara Scott will helm Zest MRKT. Both are veterans of Hutson's Ortanique family.
The contemporary eatery and its grab-and-go counterpart were conceived by Hutson and Delius Shirley, her partner in and out of the kitchen. Zest marks the pair's first South Florida expansion since opening Ortanique on the Mile in the Gables more than 17 years ago.
"Between opening Ortanique and Zest, there have been seven restaurants, each with a different challenge," Hutson says. "We say to each other, 'We got this!' But just when we think we've faced every opening challenge, a new one pops up."
"Delius and I had gone to Istanbul a few years back, and I fell in love with the idea of doing world-flavored meats and creative toppings on flatbreads," she says. "Zest MRKT is the perfect opportunity to incorporate that idea, along with featuring fresh, health-conscious sandwiches, salads, and juice options."
Though Zest MRKT is purely on-the-go, Zest fuses both, designed to let diners choose what kind of experience they want — quick eats or something more relaxed.
"We are aware of the time limits some of our lunchtime patrons may have," she says. "So I designed most dishes to be executed quickly at lunch. And for those who can take their time, the atmosphere and menu will create an experience worth hanging around awhile."
Hutson says the most unique menu items include curried octopus with a dried fruit and nut pilau; the “big ass” meatball, which is 50 percent Niman ground lamb and 50 percent Angus chuck beef; and the Cheshire pork tomahawk chop in fresh passionfruit and pomelo chimichurri. Prices range from $4 to $55.
"My ideas for food are constantly being conjured up in my head, so now it’s time to put it down on a menu," she says. "I have also been doing a lot of research on foods that are health-driven. I want to eat healthier without losing flavor, and I am pretty sure the general public does too."
To Huston, opening Zest was a natural progression, continuing her and Shirley's "Cuisine of the Sun" concept.
"Ortanique is a variety of an orange," she says. "Zest is the flavor and pizzazz — the aroma that tingles your senses. Opening a second concept has been a vision, but it wasn't until this downtown location was presented to us that it became a goal and now a reality."
Follow Clarissa Buch on Twitter.