Wild Sea Oyster Bar & Grille Is the Best Restaurant on Las Olas

A tuxedoed waiter places a dish upon a spotless white tablecloth. A plump filet of black bass perches atop an emerald bed. An earthy scent wafts up, overwhelming the senses. The first bite is perfect: There's the skin's light crunch, followed by the sweet, meaty bass flesh. The pea ragout — just-shucked English peas, honey, fresh thyme, green garlic, and cream in a broth made from the fish's bones — adds a richness that turns every bite into a guilty pleasure.

See also: Slideshow of Wild Sea Oyster Bar & Grille

Oysters are the stars at Wild Sea.
Oysters are the stars at Wild Sea.


Wild Sea Oyster Bar & Grille, 620 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale; 954-467-2555. Open Tuesday to Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 11 p.m.

Assorted oysters $3

Beef tartare $13

Golden tilefish $29

Black bass $32

Beef cheek $30

The meal quickly disappears. A touch of the sauce remains but is soon mopped up with a crust of hot, house-made foccacia bread.

You might be able to enjoy this $32 delight if you're lucky enough to stop by on an evening when Jon Sanchez deems it worthy of your plate.

The 28-year-old chef de cuisine of Wild Sea Oyster Bar & Grille inside Fort Lauderdale's historic Riverside Hotel describes himself as "crazy" about fresh fish. Sanchez, who looks like a clean-shaven Liev Schreiber, even has a fish tattooed on his right forearm. He hand-butchers up to 200 pounds of fish a day — a Herculean undertaking that most restaurants leave to purveyors.

Sometimes a supplier will send him cut fillets, "and I send them right back," he says. "It surprises a few fish people who don't know me."

But he is particular. "I want to be able to see how red the gills are, whether the eyes are clear," Sanchez says. "The head of a fish can tell you a lot."

Buying fish whole and butchering them comes with an added bonus for a chef who knows what to do with them: the bones, heads, and all sorts of trimmings can be saved and used to embolden the flavor of stocks and soups. Some orders, Sanchez says, need to be left in the refrigerator for a day or two so that rigor mortis subsides and the fish becomes palatable.

Sanchez came to Fort Lauderdale by way of Las Vegas, where he worked at David Myers' Comme Ca and Thomas Keller's Bouchon. Before that, the Kansas City native did stints in his hometown as well as Maine and New York. His nose-to-tail focus — using the whole animal in multiple elements of a dish — came from his time spent at Restaurant Bradley Ogden, a now-closed Michelin-starred restaurant in Caesar's Palace.

Culinary schools "don't train that way anymore," Sanchez says. "I was put in an environment where I was able to see it firsthand. I made sure I was the first one in, last one out so I would have the time to learn how to butcher."

The pale, sea-foam-green Riverside Hotel was built in 1936 and is still owned by the Wells family that helped develop Las Olas Boulevard into Fort Lauderdale's main drag. Executive chef Toby Joseph and general manager Jason Kotter had been lobbying the owners for two years to open a sustainable seafood restaurant. A mutual colleague referred Sanchez to Kotter, and he was soon South Florida-bound. In March, the 130-seat Wild Sea replaced the Grill Room, which had stood for almost two decades.

It's a good move. The stodgy, uptight Victorian theme has been traded for simplicity and clean lines that help make the food the focus. An airy, stained-wood patio opens onto the sidewalk, the perfect place to sit on a cool, breezy evening. The inside is split into a main dining room and a bar area. White marble-topped tables are surrounded by black leather chairs atop a gray hardwood floor.

Now, a new menu rolls off the printer every day. Line-caught pumpkin swordfish, striped bass, and monkfish rotate on the bill of fare. Proteins such as clams and grouper come from Florida, and only one farmed fish, sunburst trout from North Carolina, makes its way onto the menu. Sometimes octopus makes an appearance, and sometimes there is lobster. On any given day, the list of half a dozen appetizers might include a beef tartare ($13) topped with a quail egg yolk, bok choy, lime oil, and curry. There may also be an asparagus salad ($12) that mixes ham, bacon, and mustard.

The highlight is the tantalizing list (available every day) of eight oysters (four West Coast and four East). There might be sweet, briny Otter Cove oysters from the Puget Sound in Washington state or delicately flavored kusshis from Vancouver. From the East Coast, there are sometimes meaty, ocean-flavored Blue Points (the iconic oyster for many) and long, narrow-shelled beavertails from Narragansett Bay off of Rhode Island.

The raw bar situated off of the hotel's main lobby feels like a secret hideaway for those in the know. Tall orange chairs rest before a white marble countertop speckled with gray. The day's oyster selection is written on a chalkboard, and diners can inspect them on their glass-encased bed of ice.

The only negative might be sticker shock. Oysters cost $3 apiece (Sanchez says he just breaks even on them), and one meal — a half dozen oysters, a pair of entrées, and a dessert — came to whopping $120, without alcohol.

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A real restaurant critic wouldn't be fooled by a hotel restaurant that hires some nobody sous chef and proclaims themselves the best restaurant in town. You're doing a disservice to the community by enabling these bad restaurants by hiring McDonald's bloggers and parading them as restaurant critics.


What an incompetent slug