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.
As for Belleme, he's joined up with another empire-in-the-making, run by potential king Karl Alterman. Known for crowd-inducing Boca eateries that range from GiGi's to Max's Grille to the Red Bowl Rice & Noodle Company, Alterman is working hard on two new eateries. In early spring 2004 he'll launch Mo-Quila, a downtown Boca Raton tequila lounge whose kitchen will be staffed by a family of chefs from the Los Altos Mountains (north of Guadalajara, Mexico). Meanwhile he's just revamped the Lake Avenue Grille, the Gulfstream Hotel property in Lake Worth that hasn't lived up to expectations. "When we came here last February, we thought we could make subtle changes on the fly, but we just weren't hitting the mark," he says. "As we established roots in the Lake Worth community, we updated our thinking. So we decided to close our doors and start fresh."
Hence Digs, a globally influenced, contemporary restaurant that replaces the Grille, which closed in September. Open for three meals a day, Digs offers items ranging from "shrimp song lettuce packages featuring crispy Gulf shrimp with chili-citrus vinaigrette and petite Asian salad" to "house-made five cheese ravioli with fresh tomato pan sauce and basil," along with more comfort-based dishes such as St. Louis barbecued ribs, burgers with farmhouse cheddar, and center-cut filet mignon with sautéed spinach. "We didn't want to be just a special-occasion restaurant; we wanted to be an everyday restaurant," Alterman claims. And with the versatile Belleme, whose regional work I've admired for years, at the stove, he has every reason to think that Digs will hit its mark.
Likewise the crew, a.k.a. Straub Management Inc., soon to be launching Sol Kitchen -- "all that's fresh and flavorful under the sun" -- in late December on Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach, is thinking positively. The restaurant development company includes widely acclaimed chef Nick Morfogen of 32 East, formerly of Nick & Max's in Boca Raton, owned by former über-restaurateur Dennis Max. If Sol Kitchen follows the established pattern, we can expect an ultra-high yum factor.
In fact the flavors, doctored by chef de cuisine Ryan Brown (another Max connection, having worked at both Prezzo and the Addison), should be on the fervent side of passionate. A conglomeration of Floridian, Latino, and Tex/Mex cuisines, the menu promises such dishes as Haitian-style conch cakes with housemade hot sauce; cerveza-steamed clams with Texas toast and chipotle mayo; and palomilla with mojo-smothered onions and Cubano rice and beans. It's enough to start my engine -- which reminds me, in turn, to get my car tuned up so it can match my appetite in performance.