By David Minsky
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By Sara Ventiera
By Candace West
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By Doug Fairall
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By Laine Doss
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.
Two hours from the time we sat down, server number three presented the bill ($117 was a fair value for three courses plus a bottle of wine) and droned on: "The Joe Schmos will think this is frou-frou; the foodies appreciate food like this." Underwhelmed, we wished the chef had spent less time making art projects of his dishes and paid a little more attention to actually feeding us.
I wasn't thrilled to return, but I wanted to try the novel dining-in-the dark experience. Co-owner Kirsta had tried it at a restaurant in Europe and excitedly made it a part of the restaurant, going so far as to build a special dark room for it at Market 17. With the exception of one or two restaurants offering blindfolded tastings, there isn't anything in South Florida that compares.
I called on a Tuesday afternoon with foolish hopes of snaring reservations that evening. Only a 9:30 p.m. several days later was available. The afternoon of our dinner, a polite employee called to say the party dining before us had doubled, thus shifting our reservation even later. Grrr.
When my boyfriend Justin and I arrived, only to be seated at the bar to wait for the room to clear, I was in a foul mood. I felt guilty about dragging my paramour to a 10 p.m. dinner when he wakes for work every morning at 4. I had visions of him passing out facedown in a plateful of farm-fresh foods.
About 30 minutes later, a server, Shane, trotted up to us, night-vision goggles resting against his forehead. "My party of 12 is just leaving, but they are a little drunk." He asked us if we had any food allergies and how many courses we wanted. We chose four ($55 per person), but you can get up to 17. To add a wine paired with each course costs just an additional $15 per person.
We were led to the dark room, a small space with two tables, enclosed by glass walls. It is painted black and glistens under the faint light of two crystal chandeliers. Shane drew the curtains and dimmed the lights as our eyes adjusted to the pitch black. My inner child squealed with anticipation.
"I just put the silverware there for show," Shane said, letting us know it was OK to eat with our hands. We giggled and pushed our cutlery aside as my mood melted. We couldn't hear the clatter of the dining room. There was only muted jazz and our playful whispers.
Shane announced his presence each time he entered the room. "I've seen some interesting things in here," he quipped. He told us to put our hands on the table and placed a cold, stemless glass into them. I sniffed and was greeted with a bouquet of peaches. Ah, a crisp white wine.
Once Shane placed the first plates before us, I hesitantly touched the food and felt cold, firm rectangular shapes that I immediately assumed to be sashimi. I was perplexed by the flavor. My brain was prepared to taste fish.
"It's some kind of cheese!" Justin excitedly proclaimed. He was right. Our first course, as Shane told us when we finished, was heirloom tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and mixed greens paired with a California Sauvignon Blanc.
Guessing the foods quickly became a game, and we found ourselves giddy for Shane to return so we could yell out our answers.
On the second plate, I felt soft textures of meat that bounced back each time I pressed them, and what seemed to be large bits of rice. I licked a cream sauce as it dripped down my palm. Cutting off Justin as though we were contestants on Jeopardy, I yelled out to Shane: "Red snapper, risotto, and cauliflower purée!" Despite not being able to see, I am 99 percent sure that Justin rolled his eyes at this moment. Turned out, it was pan-seared Florida tripletail served with creamy pearl barley risotto, vegetables, and a broccoli cream sauce. The exciting flavors of the dish were washed down with a well-balanced New Zealand pinot noir.
The third course felt like a pile of canned dog food. I wiped warm pieces of juicy meat in a sweet sauce. I figured it was rib-eye steak with Cabernet reduction sauce. But guess what? It was the same entrée from my first visit — the Ocala rib eye. This time, the steak was much improved — with just a mild smoky flavor.
The last course seemed to include 20 different pieces of bite-sized desserts. A crunchy caramel corn. A Key lime mousse. A chocolate-pistachio truffle. Justin's hands were covered in chocolate as he leaned over and blindly groped my face. "I love this chocolate bread thing," he gushed. The monkey bread.
My hands were covered with sticky passion fruit-rosemary-mint purée by the time I grabbed a glass of bubbly that we thought was Prosecco but were surprised to learn was an Australian sparkling Shiraz. From the power of suggestion, I suddenly noticed the frothy flavors of black currant and berry fruits that I previously missed. How novel it is to play with your food in a fine restaurant! By the time we left, my mood had done a 180.
My take: Market 17 is trying — sometimes just too damned hard. With the pretentious presentations and three servers per table, the ambitious efforts of the owners and Chef Ramos can feel forced. If Market 17 wants to survive the restaurant graveyard curse, its owners need to look beyond highfalutin Harbor Beach retirees and bring some filling food to the hungry masses. But all in all, I do raise my in-house-filtered-water glass to the new eatery. I hope it lands a spot in the Fort Lauderdale dining scene that's as sustainable as its farm-fresh food.