Spike Mendelsohn on Sunny's and President Obama's Burger Visit

In the midst of the crazy rush to start the season, Spike Mendelsohn's casual, surfer-inspired restaurant, Sunny's, opened last month inside the Hall South Beach Hotel (1500 Collins Ave., Miami Beach). The property itself is a beautiful renovation of the art deco Haddon Hall Hotel, originally designed by L. Murray Dixon, with Mendelsohn's restaurant sitting right in the center of the lobby.

Instead of the usual fanfare that accompanies the arrival of a celebrity restaurant, Sunny's tiptoed in on cat paws. That's a little surprising for the Top Chef alum who is by no means considered a wallflower.

On the contrary, Mendelsohn annually turns up at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival with some event up his sleeve. In the past, he's thrown celebrity volleyball tournaments on the beach and dressed as the Hamburgular in an attempt to get votes at Burger Bash. Mendelsohn says the reason why he didn't want tons of advance press is because he wanted to make sure everything was in place. "For me, the food is delicious, but I want the total ambiance to be right. I want to make it super comfortable."

Although Mendelsohn originally had dreams of operating white-linen, Michelin-starred dining rooms, the chef had a change of heart after his stint on Top Chef. "In 2008, after I did the show, I had a revelation of sorts. You look at the market and you look to see what works. I saw a shift and found that people really don't want to spend $60 on a dish. Now, chefs all over are opening fast-casual concepts. Frankly, the mouths you're feeding are generally more fun."

Of course, there are also some high-profile mouths chomping into his burgers and pizzas. The president of the United States and the entire First Family frequent his Good Stuff Eatery. According to Eater, President Obama celebrated the debt ceiling deal with his economic team there in 2011.

How exactly does the mechanics of hosting the president and First Lady work at a restaurant?

"What usually happens is that my sister or I will get a phone call from the White House. We each have our own connections, so we always tease each other, like, 'Hey, I got the phone call this time.' Secret Service comes about an hour and a half before and they check on the exits and they post people. Then, the family comes, whether it's the First Lady and the two girls or the president. For Capitol Hill staffers, it's always a big event. People are outside cheering. It's always a big deal."

Although born in Montreal, Evangelos Spiros  "Spike" Mendelsohn has a deep-rooted love for all things beachy. For his Miami Beach spot, the chef set out to open a restaurant inspired by his travels to seaside towns around the world. "I've always wanted to do this concept. I call it 'beach bites by beach bums.' I always end up around beaches and I always eat the street food wherever I go.

"This restaurant is sort of like if you rolled ten food trucks into here. I mean, we're serving on plates and all, and you'll see some food that's not traditionally beach fare, like my steak, so I've taken some liberties. But the steak is still relatable. It's rubbed with Panther Coffee, pre-sliced, and served with yuca fries and shishito peppers ($28)."

The chef said that the entire menu started with one dish. "The concept actually started with the Myrtos Beach Lifeguard Bread ($9). It's a peasant dish that people eat on the beaches in Greece. The lifeguards bring loaves of stale bread, leftover from the day before and some tomatoes, feta, and oregano which is all super cheap in Greece. You crack open the dry bread and moisten it with sea water so it softens up and you crush the tomatoes over the bread and add the feta and oregano. Here, it's done in much the same way. You get this little ramekin of "sea water" with tomatoes (Mendelsohn uses salted water, not actual sea water), that you can dip your bread into. 

Mendelsohn says the dishes are all fresh and light, as you would imagine a beachy restaurant would be. All items also feature colorful components. The Islamorada ceviche ($12) is a good example. Florida snapper, red onion, cilantro, and passion fruit are served on a bed of  aji amarillo pepper purée.

There are also surprises, like in the Caprese salad, which incorporates melon into the traditional tomato and burrata dish ($12).

Nothing says beach more than a luau. Mendelsohn incorporates the main components of the traditional Hawaiian feast onto his Oahu Pork Luau plate ($23). Tamarind char-siu pork belly, purple sweet potato, and grilled pineapple slaw. 

Sunny's also features a juice bar, a feature Mendelsohn insisted on. "I love the juice trend we're on. We do all sorts of great juices. When I worked in Vietnam, I always loved those hand cranked sugarcane machines. We have one — OK, it's electric. But we're having fun with it. The other day, we tried pressing a little lemongrass with the sugarcane. It's amazing." This being South Beach, Sunny's offers the option of spiking the juices with the spirit of your choice. "It's like the ultimate cocktail, fresh juice and a spirit." 

Sunny's is open for breakfast from 7 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday and 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner from noon to 11 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 1 p.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. 
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Laine Doss is the food and spirits editor for Miami New Times. She has been featured on Cooking Channel's Eat Street and Food Network's Great Food Truck Race. She won an Alternative Weekly award for her feature about what it's like to wait tables.
Contact: Laine Doss