The Undersea World of Toby Joseph

A Cero-sum game where the diner always wins

It's such a pleasure to eat on this terrace: You've got the brilliant ocean view (although the noise from the street can get intense); the murmuring, friendly, professional service; and the kind of attention to detail that could spoil you for other restaurants. Order raspberry iced tea ($5) with lunch and out comes a graceful blown-glass pitcher, a tall glass filled with ice, mint leaves, and a spear of sugarcane, and a little vessel of sugar syrup.

The interplay of textures and interesting visuals distinguishes Joseph's dishes (true of pastry chef Jordi Panisello's marvelous concoctions too). A long, wavy ribbon of salted plantain crisp tops the bronzini ($26), adding crunch and sparkle, echoing notes from a starchier oval of fried green plantain beneath the fish, which is sweet, soft, and mellow. Florally acid chunks of grilled pineapple add a new layer of mouth pleasure. But the real surprise of this and other dishes is how simply composed they seem; even with the culinary intelligence behind them, they feel fresh and artless.

When I spoke to Joseph by phone last week, he told me they developed the menu at Cero through a long process of dining at other local restaurants, vision and revision. "We thought about what we could do here that would be different, that would keep people's interest piqued, but that would be cutting-edge," he said. "Then through a process of elimination, seeing what's selling and what's not, we've refined the menu." Arctic char and Hawaiian kampachi have been temporarily suspended; haut bourgeois salads (a Cobb loaded with marinated crab, bacon, avocado, and yellow and red cherry tomatoes is $19), and upscale sandwiches (lobster roll, prime burger) have replaced more elaborate dishes on the lunch menu. But the sheen of luxe remains: Now that Russian caviar is legal again, Joseph serves it with the traditional crème fraîche and toast points or, even better he says, crepes. And he brags about the new liquid nitrogen canister they'll use to create tableside sorbets. Lord knows come mid-August, we Lauderdalians ought to be happy to pay a premium for a blast of fruit-flavored frozen air.

Joe Rocco

Location Info

Map

Cero Restaurant

1 N. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd.
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33304

Category: Restaurant > Seafood

Region: Fort Lauderdale

Details

Cero Restaurant, at the St. Regis Resort, 1 N. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Open for breakfast 7 a.m. till noon; lunch noon till 3 p.m.; dinner 6 till 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday till 11 p.m. Call 954-302-6460.

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Dinner or lunch at these prices should be an adventure. Joseph is finding a way to impress and occasionally confound diners, gently nudging expectations without doing violence to preferences. A lump crab risotto appetizer ($18) veined with organic spinach is pure comfort food, almost too rich to finish, but not quite. The rice retains its bite; the flavor of crab is so intense that it becomes almost earthy. Deeply flavorful pan-seared divers scallops ($36) are classic French bistro fare paired with an ultrachic escort: white truffle-oil-laced polenta.

Butter-poached lobster ($48) is one of Joseph's signature dishes: a two-pound Maine lobster is lightly poached, removed from its shell (including the claws), and buried in a semisolid bath of beurre blanc kept at 70 degrees. This unctuous meat is then served over grilled stone fruit, topped with the palest, lightest green tarragon-flavored foam and a couple of long chives, scattered with candied walnuts. I don't think I've ever seen a more graceful and appropriate use of foam, so strongly reminiscent of the ocean; the plate looks like a gorgeous marine still life, and the texture of the dense, slightly sour peaches against butter-infused meat, sweet crunch of nuts, and then that whisper of tarragon-scented air comes together to create one of the most unexpected and satisfying lobster dishes I've ever eaten.

Just as we're ready to mount an activist campaign against crème brûlées and molten chocolate cakes for dessert, along comes pastry chef Panisello to shake up the status quo (he does make a crème brûlée, but it's flavored with hibiscus and served with grapefruit granita). I'm a freak for fruit lately, so we ordered an apple confit (all desserts cost $12) and a frozen melon sabayon. Apple rings preserved with spices (whole sugar-coated vanilla bean pods and fennel, among others) had been layered with mascarpone goat cheese and topped with fleur de sel caramel ice cream. Then it was wrapped like the jolliest present in clear sugar "cellophane." The thing is so beautiful that you can barely stand to crack it open. By the time I did, the heat from the apples had melted the ice cream and the flavors were running together; it was still delicious. A very delicate and unexpected dessert, frozen melon sabayon, begins with a rectangle of cool port wine gelée over a brittle, crackling layer of sugar meringue, and that over frozen sabayon (like an ultralight melon ice cream). Multicolored moist melon pearls and a sauce of mint-papaya pull these ethereal, summer-infused flavors together. A trio of tastes made with bitter, complex guanaja chocolate included tiny ice cream sandwiches, a cup of cappuccino, and beignets filled with nutella and served in a bittersweet sauce made from chocolate nougat.

If you really care about cuisine, pinch your pennies and go for a splurge at Cero. With a couple of glasses of wine, a three-course dinner for two is going to run you more than $200, but I can't think of another restaurant in which I'd rather celebrate some grand occasion (and hey, as it happens, I have a birthday coming up). Or go for lunch once a week and work your way at a leisurely pace through the whole menu. You'll learn how real food, carefully sourced and painstakingly prepared and presented, should taste. That's a sentimental education worth the price of tuition.

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