Nearly two decades ago, American English Kitchen + Bar chef/owner Russ Simon wasn't cooking in any fancy kitchen. Instead, he was studying business management at the University of Central Florida. At the time, no one — not even the future chef himself, who would go on to cook alongside a Michelin-starred staff — could have predicted a 15-year career with celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck.
An unforeseen turn of events redirected Simon's footsteps once again and bestowed upon Broward County — specifically downtown Hollywood — a new culinary destination.
Simon, born and raised in South Florida, spent several years working in the humdrum professional world in Orlando. One day, frustrated and bored, he decided to go a different route and began taking culinary classes at nearby Valencia College.
Simon fused his culinary training with his business background when he started cooking at Wolfgang Puck Express in Downtown Disney. The fast-casual setting — quick meals such as pizza and roast chicken — proved to be the perfect training ground for his future career. It was also a short prelude to what would become a prosperous partnership with Puck, and many of his most prestigious establishments.
In 2004, Puck approached Simon with a single question: Where would he like to work next? His answer was Spago Beverly Hills, a restaurant that would later earn two Michelin stars during his tenure as a member of the kitchen team.
The chef went on to cook for numerous Wolfgang Puck establishments following Spago. Now, just one year after leaving Puck and armed with the experience he's gained in kitchens across the world, the Broward native has returned to his old stomping grounds to open his first restaurant.
You could assume Simon is just another new kid on the block, but don't make that mistake. Instead, American English offers something altogether new to the downtown Hollywood district — an eclectic mix of regional American and globally influenced dishes that give a hint of upscale refinement among the area's more casual concepts.
Simon says he scoured South Florida looking for the perfect space, and the 80-seater he finally settled on is one that brings back memories. It's located just blocks from where Simon's grandparents once lived.
"I decided if I was going to leave, to strike out on my own and do this, I wanted to be close to home — to friends and family," he says.
On the menu, playful textures abound from appetizer to dessert: fresh cabbage mixed with sweetened vinegar presents a zingy crunch to the smooth texture of braised octopus; potato beignets are two-bite flavor bombs that ooze creamy mashed-potato purée beneath a lightly fried shell; and a rich flourless chocolate cake is unexpectedly light and fluffy.
Simon's opening offerings range from the ubiquitous seasonal fish and produce sides to more creative comfort-food concoctions, catering to customers who crave simpler fare. One day, you might sample Singapore-style prawns; another, you can try fluffy sourdough biscuits stuffed with maple-glazed pork belly and apple butter jam.
Those starter potato beignets, however, have been the most popular thus far, Simon says. He wanted a dish that was representative of a favorite childhood experience, one part loaded baked potato skins and one part tater tot. Together, they create a two-bite ball that offers the best of both, fried as delicately as the treat of the same name you remember from your hometown fair.
It starts with potatoes cooked until they're creamy-soft; blended into a thick mash; tossed with aged white cheddar, scallions, and cooked bacon; and seasoned delicately with salt and pepper. From there, the mixture is rolled, battered, and fried, creating a light, crisp coating that gives way to a creamy potato ball inside. When paired with the burnt onion aioli, the beignets take on a French fry-like quality too.
You'll find octopus on nearly every menu these days, but Simon says adding one to his own was a guilty pleasure. While other chefs play it safe with a Mediterranean or Spanish flair, he took inspiration from two nearby establishments, each different restaurants he'd visited in recent months — including the charcoal-grilled octopus at Gabose in Lauderhill — for his own twist.
Rather than one large tentacle sprawled across the plate, the braised and charred octopus is chopped into thick medallions placed in cups of bib lettuce atop a tangy slaw of pickled daikon radishes, carrots, and fresh cabbage. The chef admits it's an ode to Korea, where lettuce is often used as a conveyor for meats and seafood and then finished with a dash of Japanese Kewpie mayo and toasted sesame seeds.
Like those opening acts, some main plates are also year-round staples. They won't disappear from the menu during Simon's next seasonal flux, but seasonality still plays a role.
Take, for instance, his signature Singapore chili prawns — what read as Singapore chili soft-shell crabs several weeks ago are now the plump, head-on shrimp because of product availability.
Simon explains the dish was inspired by his travels, and though it's not the most traditional version of the Singaporean seafood selection popular across Malaysia, it offers the same basic flavor profile.
It starts with fermented chilies — a mixture of sweet and hot varieties blended with garlic, shallots, ginger, salt, and sugar that sits for several days until it transforms into a thick, pasty sauce akin to homemade sriracha. From there, it's blended with fish sauce, rice wine vinegar, and a touch of ketchup before it's used as a finishing sauce. It marries well with the prawns (or, when in season, soft-shell crab) dipped into a light batter of eggs, rice vinegar, and shallots before the crustaceans are given a tempura-like dusting of cornstarch and rice flower, a mixture that makes for a light, crisp bite after a turn in the sauté pan with scallions, Chinese garlic, and ginger.
"I try to walk that line between tradition and my way, paying homage while also being fun," Simon says.
In Singapore, chefs will swirl beaten eggs into the chili sauce before serving, which gives an egg-drop-soup consistency to the final dish. Instead, Simon's ode to the egg is a salt-and-pepper-cured yolk that's shaved over the dish just before serving; the heat from the pan-friend shrimp melts the yellow tendrils, lending the same rich flavor without the gelatinous goop.
While entrées like fresh fish selections and USDA prime meats represent a balance between seasonal and small-scale farm product sourcing, Simon's personal favorite main plate offers more "fun" instead.
It's what he calls his best accomplishment, a dish that was months in the making: the lamb shank al pastor. Not a fancy steak, terrine, or popular comfort-food dish like meat loaf, this handsome cut of meat — with its crossover thatching of muscles — is manipulated to resemble the spit of seasoned meats used to make Mexico's Lebanese-inspired tacos al pastor.
After marinating the shank in a rich paste of semitraditional al pastor spices such as dried chilies, annatto seeds, and garlic, the meat is packed into a conical shape and cooked sous-vide at a low temperature for 24 hours. Incredibly tender, it's placed under the broiler just before serving for a crisp sheen.
But the real magic is when you slice into it. Push aside the pico de gallo, made with tomatillos, scallions, radishes, and pineapple, to reveal a dense kaleidoscope of interlocking muscle fibers, layered in such a way that it mimics the layers of meat found on the traditional al pastor spit.
"I've been inspired by cuisines of many different cultures," Simon says. "I'm just thrilled to be back in South Florida, where I can offer a little something for everyone's palate."
American English Kitchen + Bar
1900 Harrison St., Hollywood; 954-589-0200; americanenglishkitchenandbar.com. Dinner Tuesday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Saturday 6 to 11 p.m.
Potato beignets $9
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Pork belly on sourdough biscuits $10
Singapore chili prawns $34
Cousin Rosalie's chocolate cake $8