By David Minsky
By Nicole Danna
By Sara Ventiera
By Candace West
By Emily Dabau
By Doug Fairall
By Candace West
By Laine Doss
I'm not the kind of customer — being half-blind and chronically underdressed — that the St. Regis Resort would cultivate if it had a choice. The new Starwood Hotels enterprise has been open for business a couple of months now on Fort Lauderdale Beach Boulevard, a monument of swank that from the outside, even with those undulant white canopies over the dining terrace, manages to camouflage itself so completely, smack dab on the busiest beach road in South Florida, that you'll likely find yourself driving in circles and peering up through late-afternoon beach glare in search of a perversely tiny signature. It's like those stories you hear about elephants that can hide eight tons of bulk behind a scrawny shrub — in their perfect stillness, you don't notice anything amiss until you realize foliage shouldn't have dust-colored eyelashes. But if you do manage to find the subtle St. Regis without running over a clueless tourist or two, you're going to conclude after a meal at the resort's restaurant, Cero, that your trouble was probably worth a few crumpled Minnesotans.
Don some decent duds for the occasion. We almost couldn't get seated, even with a reservation, when one of us showed up wearing jeans (and dark-blue, well-pressed jeans they were too.) But my face must have said it all — the rolling-eyed, frothing panic of a food critic with her new boss in tow. Clearly, we weren't the sort of people who'd ever pay $1,759 a night for a suite on Fort Lauderdale Beach. But I've found that when somebody tells you "no," if you just stand there, speechless and quivering, the lady in charge may relent. She did and found us a table on the terrace overlooking the beach. We hid our Levis under a linen napkin, and nobody was the worse for it.
I don't blame the St. Regis for straining to uphold standards in our flabby, it's-all-good age; the please-dress-for-dinner rule is a fine old practice. Why bother to offer the most pristine service, refulgent flatware, the tallest desserts, the most delectable whiskeys, if the beneficiaries of all this pomp are slouching around in "I'm With Stupid" T-shirts? Still, they could have told us when we called.
1 N. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd.
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33304
Region: Fort Lauderdale
Finding Cero and getting in were the first, second, and only hitches in what was otherwise a blissful evening. And I use the term evening loosely, because we showed up around 8 p.m. and sat until midnight. We ordered drinks and appetizers and consumed them at a pace that would have tested the patience of a glacier. Then we sat some more as the wind came up and the rain came down — watching as palms shook their glittering hair and sheets of water turned everything a fogged, oceanic silver. It was beautiful, and the canopies kept us dry. Then we lingered over our entrées, trading plates and stories, for another couple of hours. And never, as the long, slow minutes unfurled, did our impeccable server so much as drum a fingernail — the night was ours to waste.
Toby Joseph is chef here; he comes by way of the St. Regis in Houston toting a long list of accolades, including a James Beard Award as one of the Top Hotel Chefs in America. Joseph has focused Cero's menu on seafood, and he draws on French technique (polished, in part, during a stint at Café L'Europe in Palm Beach). He's obsessed with sourcing quality ingredients, insisting, for example, on real dry-pack scallops from New Bedford and on organically raised farmed salmon. The night's special may be sea bass meunière, but you can bet the bass won't have been hauled in from Chile. "I won't buy Chilean sea bass," Joseph told me. "I wouldn't offer anything to my customers I wouldn't feed my own family. The average person just has no idea the kinds of preservatives used on supposedly 'fresh' fish that's been stored on a boat for a month."
That insistence on quality ingredients yields revelations like Joseph's piquant sashimis (a complimentary swordfish amuse bouche in a bath of citrus; a tuna and yellowtail sashimi with habanero jelly, lime, fleur de sel, and a sunken pool of wasabi rice foam, $16) and silky tartares. A surf and turf ($16) of jewel-toned organic salmon paired with lush, shiny raw prime beef is state-of-the-art, like heaps of fruity, peppery crushed velvet: the salmon laced with ginger and tiny rounds of green onion, the beef with pepper and what tastes like mild Worcestershire (and served with the longest, thinnest flute of grilled garlic toast imaginable). There's enough lump crab meat on the menu to sate a pod of ravenous seals, along with lovely limpid fillets of pan-seared bronzini, divers scallops, giant prawns paired with kumquats, squid, fire-roasted yellowtail with saffron, and bowls of grouper, shrimp, and scallop nage. Having grown up on Cape Cod, the guy knows from seafood.
Joseph pairs his marine creatures with fruit and produce adjusted from day to day. Grilled summer peaches (or plums, apricots, or other stone fruit) provide a platform for butter-poached Maine lobster; tiny pearls of multicolored melon and papaya decorate sashimi; a delicate, fruity pool of mango emulsion moistens the bronzini. He makes liberal use of exotic salts like fleur de sel (which shows up in a dessert caramel ice cream too) and peppers. Japanese Togarashi pepper made from chili flakes, tomato seed, dried orange peel, and seaweed is used to punctuate and sharpen the clean, airy flesh of giant prawns.