By David Minsky
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You never really know a man until you divorce him," Zsa Zsa Gabor once said. She should have added: "You never really know yourself either." Any girl who's ever been dumped remembers that pit-of-the-stomach fear that she'll never be the same again. The funny thing is, we can recover quite nicely. It may take a while, but we're pre-programmed to get over it; we've got bounce.
When South Floridians heard last year that Erika Di Battista and Tony Sindaco had split up and that Tony had left Sunfish Grill, where he'd been the much-acclaimed, multi-award-winning chef for nearly a decade, we all experienced that same sickening feeling: What's going to happen now? Would the restaurant just go drown itself in the nearest pond, like some forsaken Ophelia? Would it run through a string of new chefs as if they were one night stands, each more excruciatingly inappropriate than the next? Or perhaps the Sunfish would soldier bravely on, wearing a stiff, if slightly pained, smile, even as we whispered among ourselves about how the place was really showing its age.
None of the above, it turns out.
2775 E. Oakland Park Blvd.
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33306
Region: Wilton Manors
Absent the chef who first gave Sunfish its unique personality, its very heart and soul, not to mention its recipes, the Grill has bounced quite well. Owner and pastry chef Erika Di Battista has retained most of the dishes that kept foodists returning year after year — many of them composed around the glisteningly fresh seafood that Sunfish Grill has always been known for. That adorable little jewel-toned tower of pleasure, the crab Charlotte, with its pretty layers of avocado jam and cucumber, is still on the menu; so are the braised littleneck clams with garlic and capers. Waitresses still set down the mysterious, silky-smoky eggplant mousse for you to dip your bread into. The colossal Gulf shrimp over rigatoni are as colossal as ever.
If you didn't know that Sindaco wasn't back there slaving over the hot sauté pans, you'd probably never guess.
Except, well, it's hard to put your finger on it exactly, but Sunfish feels different. In the way a woman might send the last of the golf equipment and baseball cards off to charity, arrange lavender soaps in a bowl in the bathroom, and perhaps hang a big Modigliani print over the couch, the restaurant, in the absence of that commanding male energy, has been feminized. For one thing, there are a lot of cute single women hanging out in big groups at Sunfish now, sipping cocktails at the newly opened back bar. They flirt with the hunky bartender, who certainly knows how to mix a drink to take the edge off. Di Battista has been rolling out special weekly deals; for a while last summer, she was offering a Wednesday-night three-course $30 prix fixe; now it's a free dinner for ladies on Tuesday nights with a two-drink minimum between 7:30 and 9:30.
The deals, along with the occasional karaoke or singles meet-up, are designed to get many shapely asses in seats on slow weeknights, and there are quite a few seats to fill now. Sunfish relocated to an expansive suite of rooms in 2006. For eight years, Sindaco and Di Battista had operated out of what was essentially a closet in Pompano Beach, where packed-in diners ate course after exquisite course, tables banked under a minuscule open kitchen. When they moved at last, it seemed as though the pair was overreacting to years of being forced to live and work in a shoebox: The new restaurant on Oakland Park Boulevard has a large foyer, a cocktail lounge, two bars, and a grand dining room showing off lots of dark wood and soft lighting. The place is so big, in fact, that the second bar room remained closed and dark until just recently. I went to their opening party in 2006, and I remember feeling a tremor of foreboding. Those were high times, in retrospect, but even then, it looked like this team would have to sell a lot of conch chowder to meet the overhead.
And there's another difference now. Sunfish had always been one of the most expensive restaurants in town, as if the prices were keeping pace with Sindaco's growing reputation as a Lauderdale celeb chef. Today, serving essentially the same dishes in fancier digs, with a full cocktail bar, Di Battista has brought the cost of dinner down to the point that a meal is decidedly moderate. Appetizers like julienned roasted red and yellow baby beet salad with goat cheese over arugula, tossed in orange dressing; or grilled calamari in a light, buttery broth with chopped tomatoes, garlic, and homemade croutons, are both just $10, two dollars less than we paid three years ago. Entrées top out at $29, such as a plate of sautéed sea scallops over unctuous little commas of spaetzle confettied with bits of bacon, arranged alongside a couple of spoonfuls of puréed cauliflower. A fillet of grilled swordfish that you might have paid $34 for in 2006 now sells for a reasonable $26; it comes crosshatched with char, served with a fragrant, comforting square of potato and onion cake that wears a crisp, carmelized crust. Even a macho plate such as the beautifully seared rare tuna steak served over a bed of roast beef and potato hash set us back just $28; the juxtaposition of the beef with the meaty fish was a delicious variation on the dish Sunfish had long since turned into a classic: tuna over oxtail ragout with mashed spuds.
Di Battista is still a whiz with desserts, but she's nudged them closer to comfort foods than her occasionally overwrought confections used to be. Today's "Symphony of Chocolate" ($9) has little in common with the sweet by the same name we had years ago at that tiny Pompano bistro — now it comes layered in a parfait cup: chocolate mousse with homemade chocolate ice cream under a lightly sweetened cloud of whipped cream. A tropical cobbler with pineapple and mango under a buttery crumble ($12) makes for a light, savory-sweet finale.
I've heard it said many times, and the feminist in me loathes such generalizations, that male and female chefs have fundamentally different personalities. Male chefs are all about the wow factor: the dish that takes your breath away with its creative chutzpah. Female chefs, goes the old saw, tend toward a cuisine that comforts and succors rather than one that argues or infuriates — the simple, local, composed salads of Alice Waters versus the sci-fi Frankenfoods of Ferran Adria. Maybe, maybe not. But certainly Di Battista, since the breakup, is making her own way. After a decade of serving similar dishes night after night, she doesn't seem to be trying to bowl over customers with elaborate preparations so much as to offer relaxed, affordable, neighborhood hospitality — and in this economy, the plan sounds like a wise one. As they say, a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle. With or without, Di Battista appears to have no problem steering.