Johnny on the Spot
Johnny Vinczencz glides among venues like a cat burglar, stealing the hearts of diners from Miami-Dade to Palm Beach counties, leaving behind only discarded aliases and wistful memories of his bold kitchen antics. Vinczencz, a.k.a. "Johnny V," was first noticed in the early '90s as sous chef at Max's South Beach, then gained notoriety as head chef at the chic Astor Place Restaurant, where his robust, tropical-inspired New American cuisine placed him onto the public's list of most-wanted chefs. After some years of critical and popular acclaim, Johnny V, a.k.a. "The Caribbean Cowboy," vanished, then came back with the casual SoBe eatery/takeout Johnny V's Kitchen, which accented foods of the American Southwest. This caper didn't last long, so the chef returned to the Astor Place, followed by a celebrated stint at Delray Beach's De la Tierra, where the so-called "Guava Gaucho" used indigenous foods in a full-flavored take on New Florida Cuisine. Now Johnny's on the spot -- Fort Lauderdale's glittery Las Olas Boulevard -- with the Johnny V Restaurant/Lounge.
Just as chefs come and go, so do restaurants. Johnny V is located in the space most recently occupied by the regrettable Louie's Mexican Cantina. South-of-the-border murals have been painted over, Cuervo promotional pennants taken down, and the room has been urbanized and minimalized along clean, contemporary lines. It's a big, long, 145-seat establishment with an equally lengthy bar running nearly end to end along one wall; red-cushioned banquettes with backlit mirrors flank the opposite side of the room. In front are more tables and chairs that face open glass doors leading to a small, intimate patio.
The rear portion of the restaurant contains an open kitchen, more seating, and a lounge area where diners enjoy predinner and late-night grazing on tantalizing tapas like smoked pheasant nachos and soft tacos stuffed with yellowtail snapper. A tapas platter is available as a dinner appetizer as well, with marinated olives, Serrano ham, grilled chorizo, and four Spanish cheeses: manchego, mahon, cabrales, and idiazabel. Other starters include blue corn-crusted calamari served with a Spanish sherry aioli and roasted garlic clams sautéed with Serrano ham and Rioja croutons. There are a couple of paellas on the menu as well, so I suppose it's just a matter of time before some simplistic restaurant reviewer slips in the moniker "Johnny Spanish." (Oops.)
Fact is, no matter what global nickname foolhardy foodies may foist upon him at any given time, Johnny V and his cuisine never suffer from an identity crisis: He is first and foremost an American chef (from St. Louis). His food is always recognizable by familiar flavors rooted in our country's regional cuisines -- just disguised a bit with worldwise additions and daring dashes of gastronomic ingenuity. Take the smoked tomato bisque with mini brie-filled grilled cheese croutons, which is served as a starter at Astor Place. Here it arrives as an amuse-bouche with chèvre-smeared crostini, but the concept is the same: America's beloved combo of tomato soup with grilled cheese sandwich reinterpreted with new seasonings and fromage. Just as emblematic of Vinczencz's cooking is that the little dollop of bisque provided a wallop of stimulating taste.
There are so many signature dishes here, the bisque among them, that the menu is something of a "greatest hits" compilation culled from the chef's hearty repertoire. There is no surer evidence that Johnny's come marching home again than his "short stack" starter: thin slices of grilled portobello mushrooms layered between small, fluffy, buttermilk pancakes, with sun-dried tomato butter melted in and a mildly sweet balsamic syrup drizzled on top. A more literal clue of his presence comes via the v shape of a martini glass that serves as the trademark vessel for a pair of golden-oldie appetizers: In one, the glass contains a potato salad plumped with corn, peppers, and smoked rock shrimp that accompanies three jumbo barbecue-marinated shrimp; in the other, a glass holds mango cole slaw paired with cornmeal-crusted confit-of-duck cakes -- a gamey twist on New England crab cakes.
A whole lobster claw and decorative shell emerged from the lightly browned mashed-potato crust of our lobster shepherd's pie. Served in a small soufflé cup, it included tender, meaty nuggets of tail meat subtly juiced with a light lobster sauce. Though it was tasty, fresh, and generous of crustacean, the dish could have used an additional element to lend textural contrast and a more distinctive flavor. That's a lot to ask for, but so is $16 for an appetizer.
I shouldn't have been surprised by the simplicity of the shepherd's pie, as this chef is no Johnny Come Lately to today's popular notion of allowing natural flavors to shine. Johnny V's compositions are rarely complicated and never overpowered by frivolous ingredients -- or, for that matter, by too much salt. Witness his scrumptious sage- and rosemary-marinated half chicken cooked in its own fat, confit-style, with white truffle Yukon mashed potatoes and a ragout of roasted vegetables. The components cavort together in a bowl wet with chicken jus. But they never step on one another's flavors.
Vinczencz doesn't shy away from featuring American ranch-raised bison steak, or, for that matter, Tibetan yak, as one of his nightly specials. We chose a venison chop from the regular menu, the thick cut impeccably cooked to a ruby red, sauced with a rich, red chile-infused demi-glace, and matched with homemade, blackberry-flecked venison sausage, wilted spinach, and a trio of teeny baked tubers, which were filled with truffled sour cream, melted manchego cheese, and chutney piquant with sun-ripened chilaca red chiles. This deliriously delicious plate of food does more to restore the good name of a meat-and-potatoes dinner than all the beef industry's frantic public relations efforts to date.
If you've ever wondered what it would be like to have a local seafood version of the traditional Thanksgiving dinner in Fort Lauderdale during February, try the splendid sage-scented Florida dolphin. It's moistly grilled and served with rock shrimp-flecked plantain stuffing, sherry-tinted lobster pan gravy, and a zesty clump of cranberry-mango chutney. Non-meat-eaters might consider this dolphin dish come holiday time, while I suppose hard-core vegetarians will have to go with the usual tofu-shaped turkey. Vegetarians have it tough year 'round, as even finer restaurants tend to treat their fare with less-than-full respect. It was therefore encouraging to see "vegetable paella" alluringly described as containing "tomato saffron rice and roasted corn broth." Unfortunately, the grains of rice were so few as to be countable, so it was impossible to detect any saffron or roast corn flavors. With its baby carrots and patty pan squash, portobello mushrooms, pearl onions, peas, spinach, and haricot vert, all prepared with aplomb, this makes a fine and filling medley of vegetables. But it's not spectacular enough to warrant the $19 cost. Overall, prices are competitive for Las Olas, starters running from $9 to $14 and main courses from $19 to $32.
Johnny V will soon feature a selection of up to 30 exotic domestic and international cheeses, but for the moment, this is still in the development stage -- understandable for a restaurant less than two months old. In the meanwhile, a sturdy dessert option would be a tall wedge of dark, dense chocolate cake layered with bananas, caramel, and peanut butter mousse and including a scoop of malted milk ball ice cream on the side. Pretty good, as was a single-serving round of walnut- and graham-crusted dulce de leche cheesecake that was not too heavy, not too sweet, and whimsically topped with dulce de leche candied popcorn -- Latin Cracker Jack.
Overseeing the restaurant's extensive wine list is General Manager Steffen Rau, a certified sommelier who previously provided advice and consent at Jean-George's Vong restaurants; both his service and selection of bottles are first-class. The entire front-of-house staff is commendable, working the room in effective tag-team fashion, picking up for one another, and paying close attention to the diners in caring and polite fashion. The attitude here is just right.
With weekend crowds already cramming the place, I hope and expect Johnny V will remain on Las Olas for a long time to come. Still, my suggestion is that while the elusive Mr. V is in the vicinity, you'd better catch him when you can.
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