Johnny V.'s New Kitchen
"Jaboticaba." Johnny Vinczencz says the word as if he's chewing it, standing in what can only be described as Delray Beach's singular tropical Eden. "Jaboticaba." Or, perhaps he says it as if he's getting used to uttering it.
The latter's probably the more apropos metaphor, since he's now picking that particular fruit from the one-acre "Taru" kitchen gardens of his new restaurant, De la Tierra at the Sundy House, to use on his menu. Also here are mangoes, longans, lychees, papayas, and just about any other tropical fruit you can name -- and even those you can't without a little thought: carambola, for example.
I first became acquainted with Johnny V. when he was the creative and often sarcastic character who cooked up "Caribbean Cowboy" fare, inspired by dishes from the islands and the Southwest, with a certain wise-ass savoir-faire. He appeared permanently on South Florida radar when owner Karim Masri at Astor Place in Miami Beach installed him as executive chef in 1995. After about five years, Johnny V. finally left, returned, and left again; now, the seven-year-old Astor is closed for dramatic renovations.
I've had supportive feelings about Vinczencz's career for many years, but that's not the reason I'm precluded from writing a blind review of De la Tierra, which opened softly last month. Simply put, after doing numerous stories on him and having a beer with him here and there, I'm compromised: Not only does he know what I look like, he recognizes me despite the multiple times I've dyed and restyled my hair and changed my color contacts. That's a miracle in itself.
As it turns out, though, Johnny V.'s the perfect chef to be ineligible for a blind review. That's because he's doesn't change his modus operandi for anybody. He's simply too busy to bow and scrape, even if it were in his nature to do so. Yes, I did receive a tour of the inner workings of De la Tierra, even to the point of being shown his secret escape route through the pastry kitchen, but New Times paid for my meal. And true, Vinczencz himself delivered a bowl of longans to my table, if only to testify to his and kitchen companion Dwayne Adams's new credo: "It is our goal to present 'New Florida Cuisine' using as many indigenous products as possible. This, combined with respect for the traditions of nourishment brought to us by the many different ethnic cultures here in South Florida, is the foundation of our cuisine."
Indeed, forget the Caribbean Cowboy moniker, which Vinczencz always insisted got way out of hand. He's now such a freak for local and native fruits that we could call him the Guava Gaucho. Just about every dish on his evolving menu, which is being tested right now, contains some item that has been freshly picked from either the extensively landscaped, specially farmed plot of land where Sundy House sits or from the five-acre "Macho Grande" organic garden that Dharma Properties, proprietors of the restaurant, owns a few miles away. To wit: Entrées like zesty, red curry-seared tuna with rock shrimp, sticky rice cake, fresh pea sprouts, lemon-guava ponzu, wakame, and wasabi caviar. Or his tongue-lashing version of zarzuela, containing Key West shrimp, diver scallops, Florida lobster, and fish stewed in a mango-tomato and Scotch bonnet pepper broth along with callaloo stew and crisp yuca. Who said South Florida cuisine is dead?
In keeping with the ecologically conscious theme, Vinczencz is also working with products that result from experiments in organic, sustainable agriculture. One of these is yak, which is naturally lean and native to Tibet; it's being touted as the answer to cattle-farming. According to the literature, you can raise three yak on the same amount of land as one cow. Another is microgreens -- lettuce and other green vegetable sprouts, ranging from broccoli to mustard, that are harvested with scissors when they are less than ten days old and one inch tall. This item caters to a faction of society that believes the younger you eat a vegetable, the better it is for you. Vinczencz combines the two and ends up with an appetizer of pepper-seared yak scaloppini that has a delicately gamy taste and filet mignon-like texture counterpointed by the crunchy, snappy greens and a Yukon potato skin with truffled Gouda cheese side dish. Somehow, I wouldn't be surprised to see that Gouda replaced with ultra-rich yak cheese.
Credit Johnny V. for not only renewing the region's interest in New World fare but also for taking it to the level it was meant to go. Of course, he hasn't left his signature dishes behind; he's merely updated items like the ancho-cinnamon pork tenderloin and sweet potato hash with mamey-onion chutney. I was delighted to be served an amuse-bouche of an espresso cup filled with his smoky tomato soup, accompanied by buttery grilled Brie bites that live up to the name "finger sandwiches." Many chefs are now being praised for miniature comfort cuisine, but Johnny V. was among the first, to my knowledge, to shrink such irresistible goodies.
And he's still irreverent. Take his "Duck, Duck, Goose" dish. It's no baby game -- we're talking leg of duck confit, little-duck meatloaf, and farm-raised goose breast, accompanied by wild mushroom-corn bread pudding and lychee-duck demi-glace. This is a generous main course, make no mistake. The meltingly tender duck confit alone is enough to satisfy a conservative appetite. Add the hearty meatloaf and mild goose, all underscored with hints of strawberry and veal stock, and you receive a rich education in poultry along with subtropical crops.
Not only locals are likely to become as learned in the tropical fruit arena. In fact, the Sundy House's De la Tierra (which means "from the earth" in Spanish) seems destined to break national ground, along with a passel of other intriguing eateries. Delray Beach has long been on the South Beach path of redevelopment. The main drag, Atlantic Avenue, started to undergo a renaissance about five or six years ago with the advent of tony joints like Dakotah 624 and 32 East. They set the beat for trendier dining options, which now include Sopra, a $3 million venue, and recently launched Aura. Just off Atlantic, historic frame houses with wooden shutters and wraparound porches have been rescued from neglect or demolition by forward-thinking, small-business owners; now they're places like DaDa and Falcon House, funky lounges and supper clubs.
Like Falcon House, which incidentally is owned by the bartending-management team that launched the then-innovative 32 East back in 1995, Sundy House is a revamped property. Built in 1902 for the city's first mayor, John S. Sundy, the house is the oldest of its kind and also the most beautiful for both its setting and décor.
You can eat indoors beneath original Andy Warhol caricatures, but the prime seats are scattered throughout the grounds. I find it quite appealing to bite into something as kooky as baked stuffed baby conch dressed with a tartar sauce comprised of habanero chilies and 7-Up while sitting in a tropical arbor and hoping those scaly, monstrous jackfruit don't fall on me. Let's not kid here: A fully grown jackfruit weighs about 30 pounds and (warning to parents) could kill a newborn or smash the Villeroy & Boch china and Cristofle utensils.
Even more significantly, perhaps, is that Sundy House gives downtown Delray something it requires for nationwide consideration: a uniquely designed, cool resort and spa. Dharma Properties runs a simply stunning resort in Taos, New Mexico, and has already taken major steps toward making Sundy House an upscale traveler's destination. It includes natural water swimming pools, cleaned and maintained by fish, along with individually decorated rooms and suites with so much attention to detail, I'm willing to move in or at least hire the decorator to help me with my shack. And Johnny V. conforms to Dharma Properties' vision by serving as much from the land as he possibly can.
You couldn't ask for a more organic experience. Unless, of course, you want to pick your own jaboticaba to munch -- and practice pronouncing -- at the table.
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