The best dish at the newly opened One Door East might not be the signature tuna tacos but the crispy duck salad — a moist, tempura-battered breast offset by an omnibus of flavors that includes pine nuts, citrus, charred scallions, and a punchy lime hoisin. There's also the white gazpacho, scented with garlic and cucumber and rendered creamy by puréed almonds. The crackling shrimp are just plain fun — plump prawns delivered on skewers like seafood lollipops, ideal for dunking in the accompanying sweet chili dipping sauce.
It's difficult to choose a favorite among the more than a half-dozen small plates offered, because nearly every one approaches perfection.
"I like being able to go out and try a bunch of different things at once," a patron at One Door East explains to his dining companions on a recent evening.
That's exactly what you'll get at this 1-month-old restaurant, the long-awaited followup to locally acclaimed chef/owner Giovanni Rocchio's expensive upmarket Italian eatery, Valentino.
In Spain, tapas can be anything from a small plate of meats and cheese to tiny two-bite sandwiches and casseroles. Stateside, many restaurateurs use the concept as a marketing ploy to decrease their food costs, billing their dishes as small plates without lowering price points.
At One Door East, Rocchio aims to re-create the authentic Spanish tapas experience without the restrictions of sticking to one particular style of cuisine. The chef wants guests to explore the globe alongside friends and strangers, one tiny plate at a time, just he as did while visiting San Sebastian. "It was a nice change from the standard eight-ounce portion of meat or fish composed around a single side. It gave my mouth a chance to get excited about a lot of different flavors."
And after one bite of that aforementioned crispy duck salad, you'll agree. While many local places attempt to hit the small-plate trend, Rocchio is giving the tapas concept the quality it deserves — but prepare to pay.
The portions are larger than you'd expect from a restaurant billed as a tapas spot; however, tasting your way around the world isn't as affordable as you'd like to imagine. The average dish costs $15, and a number of them go for $18, or more, apiece.
The place is called "One Door East" because it is, quite literally, one door east of Valentino, a space previously used as Rocchio's pasta kitchen. Today, the dueling concepts share an entrance, separated by three hallways.
At the nexus, you'll feel a bit like Luke Skywalker, battling the pull from the light side to the dark.
To the right is the soft glimmer of Valentino's white-washed elegance. Darth Vader is on the left. One Door East's cavernous space has the industrial feel of an old garage — it once was — with an artsy, cool ambiance thanks to dim lighting and the cacophonous roar of conversation. The only pop of color comes from a giant blood-red light fixture at the center of the bar.
There's a heavy Asian influence in the opening menu, highlighting Rocchio's current obsession, with dishes spanning from China and Japan to Korea and Thailand.
Start with one of the multicultural crudo selections ranging from sliced hamachi rolled into tiny creme-filled cones, to diced ahi tuna crammed into fried wonton shells.
Tuna poke, which has appeared in various incarnations on Valentino's menu for the past two years, is a spectacularly simple version of the traditional Hawaiian dish at One Door East. A ruby pyramid of fish is flavored with a tosazu sauce of rice wine vinegar, sugar, and bonito stock, topped with a tangled mass of soy- and sugar-soaked hijiki seaweed.
The octopus a la plancha is one of the largest selections. A massive curling tentacle is well seasoned and tender, presented on a round wooden block beside a few disks of boiled potato and a pasty smoked pepper romesco.
Rocchio originally planned to write the entire menu himself after testing dishes as Valentino specials. Instead, he chose to bring in experts to help with styles of cooking with which he's less familiar. "My specialty is still Italian, so if you impress me with your dish, it's going to make it on my menu," he says.
The burnt ends are an example of Rocchio's meat-smoking lessons from a barbecue circuit competitor.
Under Rocchio's direction, executive chef Jeremy Bearman runs the One Door East kitchen, giving the menu his own touch via creative plating and a few of his own signature dishes. Bearman reformed several of Rocchio's original dishes, such as replacing the chef's tomato bisque with an elegant white bean gazpacho dotted with chilled globe grapes.
The lobster toast is the latest version of a trend Bearman sparked during his time at New York's Michelin-starred Rouge Tomate. Portioned for two, chilled Maine lobster meat, diced celery, and fresh herbs are piled high on Rocchio's own thick-cut bread, which is toasted and slathered with a saffron butter sabayon.
For patrons who opt not to share, there are several mains — from slow-roasted short rib, wood-grilled chicken, and red snapper to roasted cauliflower seasoned and cooked to resemble a steak.
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Pastry-chef-prepared desserts are available, but beverage director Jared Boller's cocktails are a lighter end to a filling meal. Drinks travel the globe from Japan to Jamaica, marrying the flavors in the kitchen with those in your glass. You could have them as an aperitif, with your meal, or as dessert — they'll help ease the shock of the tab.
"I believe this is the direction food is headed," Rocchio says. "I hate being bound by the parameters of French and Italian cooking the way I am at Valentino, but here, there are no boundaries. I can do whatever I want, and at 50 years old, I'm realizing just how much I don't know. And that's what One Door East is all about: exploring the possibilities."
One Door East
620 S. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale; 954-368-6902; onedooreast.com. Open Monday through Thursday 5 p.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Tuna poke $16
White gazpacho $11
Lobster toast $19
Burnt ends $18
Crackling shrimp $15
Crispy duck salad $15