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Sunfish Grill in Fort Lauderdale: Terrific Cuisine in a Fading Icon

"Not the Usual" Key Lime pie with burnt meringue.

Past 8 p.m. on a weekday, the staff at Sunfish Grill polishes glasses and runs credit cards as customers trickle in. "You just coming off work?" says a server. The patrons nod. Curtains like sails are folded for a luff, despite that the restaurant is housed in a strip mall. Wine-label posters from the '90s serve as art. The light is warm off the marble bar.

At tables dressed in whites, couples rat-a-tat about the Republican primary. Next to them, a group of five push-pulls about local real estate. Remakes of easy listening serve as background music.

Sunfish Grill was a luminary when it debuted 16 years ago in a former luncheonette. From the charming-though-dated dining room, you'd never know it. At its peak, the restaurant garnered awards from New Times, including Best Place for an Intimate Conversation and Best Contemporary Restaurant. That was while the restaurant was under chef Tony Sindaco and his former wife, pastry chef Erika Di Battista. After a move to bigger digs in 2008, the couple split. Sindaco reemerged this past year with Sea, on Commercial Boulevard. Di Battista remains pastry chef and serves as restaurateur at Sunfish Grill, with William Bruening the executive chef.

Since she has taken the helm solo, Di Battista says she's had to work harder than ever just to maintain the quality and service. "Women definitely have to give extra to prove they are strong both mentally and physically to earn respect in this industry," she says.

Despite the antiquated association of women in the kitchen, they're markedly absent on most restaurant lines or in ownership roles. The reasons they're missing is partly due to the sexist nature of professional kitchens and the unstable culture of restaurant life. In some places, the sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll kitchen lifestyle reinforces those stereotypes.

Having previously worked in many restaurants — most recently in 2011 at the highly regarded Restaurant Eve in the Washington, D.C., area, where Barack and Michelle Obama spent their anniversary this past fall — I am not surprised. The hot line is still a boy's club. Ten hours is a short day. Cooking is not only backbreaking work; it's isolating. Forget talking to the outside world or checking email during a shift. And you'd better get comfortable with shit talk and sex jokes, since that's the chatter during prep and downtime. During dinner hour, you're a soldier.

In the past, many women stuck with pastry, since the hours are often more humane and the position is out of the fray of the line. Michelle Bernstein — of Michy's Miami and SRA Martinez in Miami — is one of the few women at the helm in South Florida dining.

There are plenty of women, such as athletes, who endure grueling schedules and climb their way to success. Why not chefs? It's absurd that in 2012, gender disparity to this degree still exists, because it robs us of creativity and style. Women in the kitchen are typically not the engineers of foams and reincarnations via molecular gastronomy. They often feature soulful, accessible cuisine. "Food from the heart," said New York chef Sara Jenkins in a New York Magazine article about women's cooking.

The culture of the kitchen is changing as the profession of chef gains stature and young women make their way up. Thirty-year-old Paula DaSilva is an example of this, having served her entire career under Dean Max of 3030 Ocean until she took the helm at 1500 Degrees at Eden Roc. Here, she nailed Miami's only Best New Restaurant nod from Esquire this year — a delightful choice.

Her recognition outed Dean Max as a line cook's Dante, leading women to the helm in restaurants around South Florida. He also helped Lauren DeShields, his former chef de cuisine at 3800 Ocean, who recently became executive chef at Market 17. As is the case in any profession, a mentor needs to shepherd underlings to the top. Since so many chefs are men, it often takes a man to help women coming up the line.

And more are on the way. "Twenty years ago, 10 percent of culinary schools had women as students, and 3 percent went on to become chefs," Michelle Bernstein tells me. "Now, I'm seeing that it's more like 40 percent of culinary-school classes are made up of women. As they move up the ranks, I think you'll start seeing the numbers of women executive chefs increase."

At Sunfish Grill, Di Battista inherited her role as restaurateur by default after the divorce. Eloquent service and stunning dishes suggest she's doing fine. "We'll be back tomorrow," says the table of five on their way out. The women in the group hold roses given to them by the staff as a parting gift, a feminine touch of old-fashioned grace from one of the area's culinary grand dames.

It's easy to see why the group promised to return. A roasted corn chowder is restrained and beautiful; whole kernels mingle with potatoes and are layered with bacon. White wine and flat-leaf parsley offer acid and herbs. Tomato focaccia serves for dipping, paired with a savory eggplant purée. Sindaco at Sea does similar soup variations paired with flavored focaccia, each of which is lovely but doesn't quite work together, like a black-and-blue outfit. That the strengths of Sindaco are signatures here is no surprise, as the pair shaped each other's palates as they grew into the business.

"Perhaps you'd like to come back during happy hour," says a server to the women at the table. Women are often lured to the happy hour thanks to discounts on wine and a $5 menu of salmon sliders, conch fritters, and shrimp Charlotte.

An emphasis on date night helps attract women as well. Every night, Di Battista offers a selection of pasta and wine for two for $50. A tuna bolognese, for example, seems an unusual dish, yet it's divine. Tubes of homemade spaghetti nest in a bowl, the sheen of tomato coating noodles. Fresh tuna melds with tomatoes laced with garlic. It's a simple dish that's a harmonious balance.

These few dishes from her past are lovely, but like the dining room, they're dated. If only Di Battista were to position herself rather than hide behind dishes of her former husband and the formidable skill of the chef she has hired to replace him. Perhaps the new guard of dynamic women chefs will inspire her. A shift that reflects growth would draw in crowds she deserves, making diners feel more at home.

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Sunfish Grill

2775 E. Oakland Park Blvd.
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33306

954-561-2004

www.sunfishgrill.com


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