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It was a Monday at 8:30, and the parking lot at Sea was fairly empty. (It is the offseason.) I contemplated turning around, but no: I had been dreaming about the soup since Saturday. I could get it to go.
I walked inside. A server, Joe, recognized me and greeted me warmly. "I told you I was coming back for the conch chowder!' I said.
Then I glanced around the dining room. Staff was busy prepping, labeling food, and polishing glassware. There was not a single other diner in the house. Awkward!
235 Commercial Blvd.
Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, FL 33308
"I'm not eating here by myself," I said, feeling apologetic and turning to go. "You guys are closed."
"Sit the hell down to eat. That's what we're here for," said Joe (maybe not verbatim, but that was the gist). As he spoke, another server hustled out a water glass and a place setting, then twisted behind him to grab a loaf of focaccia to slice for my serving.
I scooted up to the white, L-shaped bar, the centerpiece of the room. Chiclet tiles in turquoise, white, and brown syncopated the base. Six mid-century modern tables were tucked against the wall of the bistro, which had been a coffee shop in its former life. A quirky mural — an underwater montage with tarpons and sea turtles — was a nod to Old Florida. The U.S. Open played silently on the TV overhead while Miles Davis murmured melancholy from the speakers.
"I'll be fast," I said.
"You sure you want that soup again? The menu is totally different," said Joe.
Oh, I was sure.
On my first visit Saturday night, my friend — visiting from New York the weekend Hurricane Irene was aimed for the city — had ordered the conch chowder while I caved and ordered crudo. My tuna was lovely, dressed in citrus and paired with Castelvetrano and niçoise olives, but the conch really made the impression.
The soup is just this: mirepoix (a carrot, onion, and celery base), San Marzano tomatoes, white wine, sherry, and conch in a broth infused with poblano, cubanelle peppers, tumeric, and cumin. I coveted my friend's bowl. (I also wished for savory bread to mop the bowl. Although the focaccia — made in-house — is crusty and rustic, it's baked with cherries. Delicious, but cherries and fish don't pair particularly well.)
The place seats 25 tops, and it had been full Saturday night, with a line at the door. The crowd included a group of six that overstayed past a birthday dessert and a slew of couples, including an urbane set of parents with tweens in tow. To skip the wait, we'd planted ourselves at the bar. The vibe was easy. I figured it was manned by an owner who wasn't trying too hard, who wasn't aiming to please drunken frat boys or an early-bird crowd.
Which brings us to Tony Sindaco. I had read about him, the former owner of Sunfish Grill, a boutiquey neighborhood eatery with a loyal clientele. After a divorce in 2008, his wife ended up with the restaurant and Tony fell off the radar. He resurfaced here at Sea, the restaurant he opened mid-July.
So when a ponytailed guy in plaid shorts and kitchen clogs sailed into the dining room — "See how the big table is doing, and get settings ready for the next one," I overheard him directing — I knew who it was. When he made the rounds to each table to ask how dinner was going, I saw more proof of how he's earned a solid reputation.
My server, Joe, said he has followed Sindaco for ten years, as have others on the kitchen staff and in the dining room. "When you believe in someone, you stick with him," he said. (I later heard that the divorce made it hard on staff who had to choose between following Tony or staying on with his ex-wife.)
Sindaco's chalkboard menu is leaner and less expensive than his Sunfish Grill days. It lists about a dozen entrées — predominantly fish — at three-course prices between $25 and $35, which includes a selection of first courses and desserts. My first night at Sea, we chose from among whisker fish, snapper, scallops, tuna Bolognese, and swordfish. The menu changes every Monday and Thursday. (As a server explained, ordering à la carte is fine too, with first courses ranging from $9 to $12 and mains in the $20s). By keeping a focused menu that changes twice a week, he's able to keep the plates moving and the fish fresh.
I settled on diver scallops from Maine. I couldn't shake my "I should have ordered local" guilt, though local seafood is notoriously hard to come by here, I'm told. The scallops were done the Thomas Keller way, in the pan, caramelized on both sides, with a finished appearance not unlike a toasted marshmallow. They were dense, firm, and sweet.
I'm never as enamored of main courses as I am by apps — maybe because I'm not as hungry by then or maybe because portions are usually big. Sides — couscous and a grilled zucchini half — were tasty but forgettable, though appropriate so as not to upstage simply prepared fish. My friend did go local with the Florida snapper. The presentation was a beautiful, flaky whitefish that was mild and nutty, spiked with lime.
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Hi, Joey. I did go in an empty restaurant for the review. I eat alone in half-empty restaurants all the time. I'm really comfortable dining solo; I used to have a column in Washingtonian about it. But when I'm the only one, it's more about staff: I'm cognizant about tying up the staff for one diner. I feel like an ass making them stay open for just me. You may recall I was asked to leave Dig the column before. Not every restaurant is cool with it, nor will some restaurants ensure it's a warm experience.
Dig is run by idiots so it's really not relevant. They deserve to lose their money. If you get turned away at 8:30 then that's the story. Journalism is about accountability. A restaurant is obligated to be open during their published hours. You're a critic, not a wimp.
hi dirk. i'm thinking dirk and joey are the same person, since they're both condescending rather than critical. generally speaking, if i don't agree with a policy of a restaurant, i don't call them idiots. and frankly i think 830 is earlyish for dinner- i did not say nor imply restaurants closed at 830 in dc. what i did say is i find it rude to stay as a solo diner keeping an entire staff hostage when no one else is in the house, no matter what the time. so no, i wasn't being a wimp; i was taking their time into consideration.
Hi Melissa, Welcome to S. Florida. I hope you don't get discouraged by people just looking to be critical ( although you seem to be doing fine ). So far, I really like your down to earth attitude, and from what I've experienced, your take is pretty accurate.
I get it. However, having worked in casual and most recently fine dining -one of the best in DC- the FOH staff isn't overjoyed to stay open for a lone diner that translates to a $20 tip.
Well if you think that you're holding a staff "hostage" an hour and a half before closing then you don't get it at all