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As I crossed the 17th Street bridge for an excursion to Fort Lauderdale beach, I noticed a new sign outside the Portside Yachting Center, a three-story business complex near the cruise ship terminal. "Market 17 Farm Fresh Restaurant and Bar," the sign read. Funny, I thought this was where restaurants go to die.
Fallen eateries that have inhabited this space include Fish and Jackson's Bar and Grille. So I had to give credit to any entrepreneur with the guts to set up shop here. Shiny new eateries begin with big dreams.
Market 17's brother-and-sister owners, Aaron and Kirsta Grauberger, certainly have laudable ambition — and I assume significant financial backing — to open a high-end restaurant in a semi-industrial area, home to hotels, the port, and the convention center, its inhabitants mostly yachties, conventiongoers, and tourists.
The restaurant is designed around the trendy farm-to-table movement: clean, organic food from sustainable sources. Imagine the commitment level it takes for a restaurant with about 200 seats to stay true to this lofty (and expensive) concept. I have to ask: Are the Grauberger siblings insane? Or passionate geniuses?
Forget about finding a cheeseburger or a caesar salad on the menu. Instead, there's shark, ostrich, and homemade bacon. Executive chef Daniel Ramos changes the offerings daily. In an interview with New Times shortly after the restaurant opened in October, Ramos described how much work goes into sourcing alone: "[With our pig farmer,] I need to talk to him Sunday to find out what he is going to slaughter on Monday, and then I need to talk to him Monday to see what he has available." (Read the full interview on the New Times food blog, CleanPlateCharlie.com.) Multiply that effort for most main ingredients on the menu. Additionally, pastas, condiments, and cured meats are freshly made in-house. The place even has its own water filtering system.
With stakes this high, the Market 17 team is setting up its diners to be sorely disappointed or totally blown away.
On my first visit, my friend Ashley and I passed the sparkly bar area (bustling with middle-aged and seemingly affluent patrons, laughing loudly) and outdoor patio (where lush tropical plants separate diners from the parking lot) to be seated. Dark wood floors, clean tablescapes, and earth-toned walls brightened up the half-full space. The ambiance is posh and romantic, if a tad uptight.
Within 15 minutes, we realized we were being served by three — yes, three! — waiters. They filled our wineglasses every two minutes while repeating spiels about the farm-fresh menu. "If one more waiter comes over here, I'm gonna tell them to get lost!" Ashley hissed, only half-jokingly.
Server number one presented us with elaborate wine and cocktail menus. Both owners are sommeliers, so there are more than 350 labels to choose from. Kirsta, who popped over to introduce herself, hopes to eventually double the selection. Wines are stored in the "chateau" — a large walk-in cooler that keeps each bottle at its proper temperature. Fancy cocktails are invented by "mixologist" Kimi McCurry, who will whip up, say, a Pineapple Hot Pepper Margarita with serano-infused tequila, muddled fresh pineapple, agave nectar, and fresh lime juice. We chose a $30 bottle of pinot noir.
To start, we ordered the tableside ceviche ($15) and housemade charcuterie ($17). A ceviche chef wheeled over a cumbersome cart and set up behind Ashley, forcing her to turn awkwardly in her seat. The chef marinated fresh ingredients (grouper, scallops, and shrimp; carrots, onion, apple, jalapeño) with lemon, lime, and orange juice, then topped it with popcorn. Adding popcorn to ceviche is a foodie trend (they do it at Canyon too) that supposedly adds texture. It's a nod to traditional Peruvian-style ceviche, which tops the dish with a Spanish corn called choclo. Yet conventional American popcorn doesn't work — it immediately soaked up the marinade and became soggy and tasteless. The charcuterie platter, however, included artfully presented homemade beef and garlic sausage, duck and sage sausage, rich duck pâté on toast, and a creamy garlic and an herb goat cheese spread. Ashley and I fought for the last bite.
Entrées that evening included Florida hog snapper, Atlantic pompano, Florida Hereford pork loin, and Ocala grass-fed rib eye. Diners can choose full-sized or half-sized portions. (Waiter number two informed us that petite servings were designed for mix-and-match tastings.) We discovered there is nothing small about the petite portions after selecting the pork loin ($18) and rib eye ($21).
Those arrived beautifully plated, but the pork loin was dry and gritty, reminding me of a hot dog. A side of sautéed collard greens was promised, but none arrived. The rib eye was served with roasted fingerling potatoes, brocolini, and a sweet Cabernet reduction sauce. It was cooked perfectly — juices flowed after I sliced into it — but the flavor was excessively smoky. I imagined chefs gathering around a campfire in the parking lot behind the restaurant, throwing expensive butane-marinated steaks onto a blazing bonfire.
For dessert, we chose the triple-layer Key lime mousse that all three servers had recommended. What arrived was a rectangle of light green mousse dipped in hardened white chocolate, with carefully carved little holes filled with lime coulis, atop a pistachio shortbread cookie. Pretty designs of lime crème fraîche danced across the plate. It reminded me of a cruise ship, where foods are manipulated into whimsical shapes and hand towels are twisted into animals waiting on the bed inside the stateroom. I half-expected a tinfoil swan to arrive with my leftovers.