When Sebastian Fernandez opens 33 in Coconut Grove, it will be a team effort even though he's the sole owner. The chef explains, "I've worked in kitchens for over 26 years, and in most places the chef is the superstar. I said to myself that if I have the opportunity to own my own place, I would be a mentor and that it would be a team effort. I treat everyone as my family."
Fernandez, along with his wife, Leslie Aimes, who will work the front of the house, is set to open his restaurant in the next week or so at 3195 Commodore Plaza, the former Bombay Darbar space. The much-loved Indian restaurant recently moved to a larger spot at 2901 Florida Ave. in the Grove. The chef, who served as food and beverage director at the Coral Reef Yacht Club for the past 14 years, dropped everything for the opportunity to open his own place. "When this came to me, I quit my job and went with it. I built everything from scratch."
The chef painted the walls, fixed the floor, and turned the space into a more open and inviting place. "The floors are dark wood, and the tables are light, with metal shingles on the wall. We have orange vintage metal chairs for a pop of color." Fernandez even made the bar using reclaimed wood from pallets and copper. "The design of the restaurant is simple, but it looks terrific, and I love it." The focus, says Fernandez, is on the food and service.
The restaurant's name has several inspirations. First and foremost, it's a reference to Coconut Grove's 33133 zip code, but 33 is also the chef's lucky number. "The number, on the Newton scale, is the temperature that water boils and has a lot to do with astronomy, including time cycles of eclipses. It's also the age that we are in Heaven for eternity."
The Peruvian menu will concentrate on small plates in the $9 to $20 range, with a menu that changes frequently. "I want the menu to constantly be evolving day by day, week by week. I'm writing and printing the menus, so if something becomes available, I can change the menu on any given day. We have to be able to offer the best of the best every time. For example, I have corvina ceviche on the menu, and that's what the fish is — corvina. Not frozen swai. I don't mind adjusting my kitchen to serve what we all should be eating. My descriptions are as honest as I can make them. I like to eat, so when I go out, I don't want to have compromised food.
"The more you cook and the more experience you gain as a chef, the more confidence you have. To me, that translates into focusing on natural flavors of foods. If my dish is a tuna, yuzu, and apple dish, that's what you're tasting, not a multitude of sauces to mask the flavors. I was getting tired of overwhelming plates. Peruvian food is fantastic. We came up with a concept to be inspired by this food and to elevate it."
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Menu items will include favorites like tuna tiradito, corvina ceviche, lamb chops, and lomo saltado. Fernandez says the sharable plates will allow diners to have more of an experience at dinner. "I'm not a fan of meals of one big portion. I'll always go for the appetizers. You can get a tiradito and an octopus dish and then jump into the next course."
The restaurant will also offer a good selection of local beers from Biscayne Bay Brewing, Concrete Beach, J. Wakefield Brewing, Copperhead from Tampa, and Florida Brewing Company, as well as a large selection of classic beers like Heineken and Peruvian imports in bottles.
33 joins recent Coconut Grove openings such as Harry's Pizzeria and Panther Coffee. Fernandez, who has lived in the Grove for the past 14 years, sees his neighborhood on a culinary upswing. "All these restaurants coming back to the Grove makes me so excited. As locals, we like to go out and walk to neighborhood places. It's such a lovely neighborhood. I've been here for over a dozen years, and I'm not planning to leave. The Grove, to me, is the best."
The scheduled opening date is December 6 but may move up as early as next week if Fernandez can finalize his beer-and-wine permit. The restaurant will be open for dinner Wednesday through Monday from 6 to 11 p.m. In the meantime, the restaurant is offering a first-bite preview dinner this Friday and Saturday, November 20 and 21, at 8 p.m. An eight-course dinner will be offered to a limited number of diners for $55 per person and will include three wine selections. For information and reservations, email DinnerThirtyThree@yahoo.com.