The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea
"I'll never review one of his restaurants again."
When I first made that statement last fall, I was referring to renowned chef Robbin Haas, whom I'd tracked from the Colony Bistro on South Beach to BANG on South Beach to Bex up in Boca Raton, only to see him leave the last post after just six months. I said the same about chef Anthony Sindaco, having followed his career from Langosta Beach in Miami to four other restaurants in Miami-Dade and Broward before he finally settled at Floribbean Bistro in Boca. Or so I thought.
It's not that I think these award-winning chefs aren't ultratalented; both have the ability to blow me away. But I'm sick of rewriting their resumes, which get longer with each review. And I'm tired of the yo-yo trek from SoBe to Boca and back again. (Thankfully neither chef seems to have discovered the lively dining scene in Naples. The east-west marathon along Alligator Alley is appetite-numbing.) So I said, "I'll never critique either one of their eateries again. Hear me? No more."
Some vows, of course, are made to be broken.
After about a month, I gave in and checked out the reinterpreted Russian cuisine at Red Square, Haas' newest digs on South Beach. I had only a little bit more success boycotting Anthony Sindaco's Sunfish Grill in Pompano Beach, and that's because I went on maternity leave not long after it opened in April.
In neither case do I regret going back on my word.
Haas tends toward high-profile restaurants; his latest venture is owned by China Grill, which also runs the Blue Door restaurant and Tuscan Steak, all on South Beach. Sindaco, however, has spent his early forties searching for an intimate dining room he can call his own. He finally found one, just west of the drawbridge on East Atlantic Avenue in Pompano Beach. It's easy to miss the 40-seat restaurant, because it's located in a rundown shopping center. Sindaco's timing was also a little off.
"It wasn't a great time of year to open, given the season," he admitted recently. "But we got the place for a good price, and we're paying our bills -- which is all that we can ask for."
Sindaco, along with his partner and fiancee Erika DiBattista, acquired the restaurant -- formerly a Tex-Mex place called El Alma -- with furnishings and fixtures intact. As a result the green-paneled walls, black ceiling, and Euro-tile floor (which resembles terra cotta inscribed with stenciled designs) has an attractive Southwestern feel. The decor sounds like something that wouldn't work in a seafood restaurant, but the colors are appropriate, and Sindaco plans to add fish-related artwork to the walls in the future. Prior to El Alma, the restaurant was a luncheonette. The counter and fry-cook stations remain, allowing patrons to watch Sindaco and his sous chef, Paul Gilzene, work the line.
Like the restaurant the menu is small, and it changes weekly. Sindaco leaves several options open -- offering soup-, salad-, pasta-, and seafood-of-the-night items -- so that he can cook specials based on what he gets fresh from his purveyors. His emphasis, as the restaurant's name suggests, is on fish, and patrons familiar with Sindaco know he has a special talent for preparing fish and shellfish. So while particular dishes may not always be available, first-time and returning clientele can rest assured that delicious maritime morsels will be available.
On the night we visited, bite-size pieces of sushi-quality grilled tuna garnished the soup of the night, a room-temperature gazpacho. Everybody prepares gazpacho differently; I've enjoyed the cold, tomato-based, vegetable soup in many forms: chunky, thin, spicy, and mild. But I've never sampled one quite like Sindaco's. The vegetables had been pureed to such an extent that the soup had a fluffy texture, the tuna floating like rafts on top.
If tuna in gazpacho sounds unusual, be prepared for even more bizarre presentations. The pasta of the night, a main course, was an intriguing tuna Bolognese, linguine tossed with nuggets of sauteed fish and tangy tomatoes. The torta appetizer, comprised of barbecued mahi-mahi and wild mushrooms, was outrageously good. A quesadillalike creation, it offered tender fish, jack cheese, and succulent mushrooms stuffed inside a crepe, which was enlivened by fruity mango salsa and zesty jalapeno sour cream.
Sindaco draws on his long South Florida apprenticeship for a delicate pan-seared snapper entree. The crisp yellowtail fillet was stacked atop wilted leaf spinach and a shredded potato-onion cake. Thanks to a citrus-vanilla butter, the elements blended seamlessly. The sea bass, a special that evening, was even better. Sea bass feeds on crustaceans and should, therefore, taste like its shellfish diet. Many chefs seem to think sea bass should also have a shrimp- or lobster-like texture. Not Sindaco. He grilled the thick fillet so expertly that the flakes melted like snow on our tongues. Sindaco's sea bass is a dish I'd advise my husband's grandmother -- whose dentures cracked the other day and have yet to be replaced -- to order, because you don't need teeth to chew it.
Not everything at Sunfish Grill is unusual. A familiar starter of white-water clams was braised in an aromatic broth studded with capers, tomatoes, and shaved garlic. The buttery sauce emphasized rather than obscured the toothsome clams. And simple, frilly salads were outstanding. I loved an arrangement of pale green frisee and thinly sliced smoked salmon tossed with a citrus vinaigrette. The slightly bitter greens and the pungent fish made a perfect match.
Sindaco doesn't ignore carnivores. Filet mignon is a staple main course, and chicken breast appears nightly, often prepared the same way as the beef. But diners should listen to the waiter recite the specials before deciding on one of those two. From that list we ordered a perfectly grilled veal chop served with garlicky potatoes, sauteed spinach, and juicy marinated tomatoes.
Sindaco's cooking and his prices leave just enough room for his homemade desserts. Chocoholics especially will delight in a flourless fudgelike concoction garnished with all sorts of chocolate syrups, chips, and flakes.
The praise Sindaco has been receiving from patrons and critics should be enough to convince the former hired gun finally to settle down. If all goes well, Sunfish Grill will be in operation for a long time to come. And, if that's the case, the chef didn't make a complete liar out of me after all. Now when I say I'll never review one of Sindaco's restaurants again, I'll be telling the truth.
Sunfish Grill. 2771 E. Atlantic Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-788-2434. Dinner Tuesday through Thursday from 6 to 9:30 p.m; Friday and Saturday until 10:30 p.m.
Soup of the night
Barbecued mahi-mahi torta
Braised white-water clams
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