Most people seek restaurants that feature a city's unique cuisine. New Orleans has restaurants known for their gumbo and po'boys, Rome has cafés where you can get a fresh bowl of pasta, Texas has barbecue joints, and Maine has seafood shacks shilling lobster right off the boat. But how many restaurants feature Florida cuisine? And what exactly is Florida cuisine?
Read also: "Kris Wessel: Florida Cookery Is Personal"
Kris Wessel wants to answer that question at his new restaurant, Florida Cookery, at the James Royal Palm Hotel in South Beach. The restaurant is true to its name, featuring local produce and fruits, fresh seafood caught from Florida waters, and many recipes adapted from vintage cookbooks. Don't call this cuisine Floribbean, though. "Of course there are Caribbean influences to the menu, but there's more to it than that. True South Florida cuisine marries the South, the Caribbean, Latin America, and the Northeast," Wessel says.
The menu says "handcrafted by Kris Wessel" in small print at the bottom, but it looks as if his grandmother's spirit also guides the chef's hand. The dining room screams Mad Men-era Miami, and several dishes are served on vintage glassware and in colorful Pyrex bowls. Guests are given a recipe card for Wessel's grandmother's ambrosia salad as a keepsake. And every dish tells the story of generations of one Miami family -- and every Miami family.
For instance, the chicken and lemon soup ($9) is inspired by the fact
that his grandmother always had a pot of chicken soup on the stove --
even in Miami summers. "My grandmother had nine children to feed, and
someone was always getting sick, even in summer. She always had a pot
of soup on the stove." Breadfruit chips are a welcome substitution for croutons.
The conch chowder ($14), accompanied by a meaty fritter for dipping, comes directly from his grandmother's 1948 women's club cookbook, Florida Cookery,
which is also the source of the restaurant's name, with one modern
twist: "I've floated a fresh corn foam on top to give the chowder some balance," Wessel says. The spiciness surprises. "That's from the original recipe. Sure, there are bland Jell-O molds in these old cookbooks, but there's also a surprising amount of depth and flavor."
Grilled wild boar chops with sapodilla jam ($36) are an homage to game-hunting trips around Lake Okeechobee.
Frogs' legs ($17) are caught in the Everglades, seared in a cast-iron skillet, then bathed in Florida oranges and lime before being placed on a bed of jícama stir-fry. "I remember my uncles catching frogs and fresh seafood almost every day right here in Miami," Wessel says.
For those of you missing Red Light Little River, Wessel has brought back Kris's Biscayne Blvd. Shrimp ($10/19), made from Florida pink shrimp.
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A meal wouldn't be complete without a slice of key lime pie, and Florida Cookery delivers.
In addition to the indoor dining room, which is now open, the restaurant plans to have an outdoor space and a casual rum bar. A lobby coffee bar, decorated with vintage green bric-a-brac, is open, giving South Beach a more elegant (and local) alternative to Starbucks.