The Undersea World of Toby Joseph
I'm not the kind of customer — being half-blind and chronically underdressed — that the St. Regis Resort would cultivate if it had a choice. The new Starwood Hotels enterprise has been open for business a couple of months now on Fort Lauderdale Beach Boulevard, a monument of swank that from the outside, even with those undulant white canopies over the dining terrace, manages to camouflage itself so completely, smack dab on the busiest beach road in South Florida, that you'll likely find yourself driving in circles and peering up through late-afternoon beach glare in search of a perversely tiny signature. It's like those stories you hear about elephants that can hide eight tons of bulk behind a scrawny shrub — in their perfect stillness, you don't notice anything amiss until you realize foliage shouldn't have dust-colored eyelashes. But if you do manage to find the subtle St. Regis without running over a clueless tourist or two, you're going to conclude after a meal at the resort's restaurant, Cero, that your trouble was probably worth a few crumpled Minnesotans.
Don some decent duds for the occasion. We almost couldn't get seated, even with a reservation, when one of us showed up wearing jeans (and dark-blue, well-pressed jeans they were too.) But my face must have said it all — the rolling-eyed, frothing panic of a food critic with her new boss in tow. Clearly, we weren't the sort of people who'd ever pay $1,759 a night for a suite on Fort Lauderdale Beach. But I've found that when somebody tells you "no," if you just stand there, speechless and quivering, the lady in charge may relent. She did and found us a table on the terrace overlooking the beach. We hid our Levis under a linen napkin, and nobody was the worse for it.
I don't blame the St. Regis for straining to uphold standards in our flabby, it's-all-good age; the please-dress-for-dinner rule is a fine old practice. Why bother to offer the most pristine service, refulgent flatware, the tallest desserts, the most delectable whiskeys, if the beneficiaries of all this pomp are slouching around in "I'm With Stupid" T-shirts? Still, they could have told us when we called.
Finding Cero and getting in were the first, second, and only hitches in what was otherwise a blissful evening. And I use the term evening loosely, because we showed up around 8 p.m. and sat until midnight. We ordered drinks and appetizers and consumed them at a pace that would have tested the patience of a glacier. Then we sat some more as the wind came up and the rain came down — watching as palms shook their glittering hair and sheets of water turned everything a fogged, oceanic silver. It was beautiful, and the canopies kept us dry. Then we lingered over our entrées, trading plates and stories, for another couple of hours. And never, as the long, slow minutes unfurled, did our impeccable server so much as drum a fingernail — the night was ours to waste.
Toby Joseph is chef here; he comes by way of the St. Regis in Houston toting a long list of accolades, including a James Beard Award as one of the Top Hotel Chefs in America. Joseph has focused Cero's menu on seafood, and he draws on French technique (polished, in part, during a stint at Café L'Europe in Palm Beach). He's obsessed with sourcing quality ingredients, insisting, for example, on real dry-pack scallops from New Bedford and on organically raised farmed salmon. The night's special may be sea bass meunière, but you can bet the bass won't have been hauled in from Chile. "I won't buy Chilean sea bass," Joseph told me. "I wouldn't offer anything to my customers I wouldn't feed my own family. The average person just has no idea the kinds of preservatives used on supposedly 'fresh' fish that's been stored on a boat for a month."
That insistence on quality ingredients yields revelations like Joseph's piquant sashimis (a complimentary swordfish amuse bouche in a bath of citrus; a tuna and yellowtail sashimi with habanero jelly, lime, fleur de sel, and a sunken pool of wasabi rice foam, $16) and silky tartares. A surf and turf ($16) of jewel-toned organic salmon paired with lush, shiny raw prime beef is state-of-the-art, like heaps of fruity, peppery crushed velvet: the salmon laced with ginger and tiny rounds of green onion, the beef with pepper and what tastes like mild Worcestershire (and served with the longest, thinnest flute of grilled garlic toast imaginable). There's enough lump crab meat on the menu to sate a pod of ravenous seals, along with lovely limpid fillets of pan-seared bronzini, divers scallops, giant prawns paired with kumquats, squid, fire-roasted yellowtail with saffron, and bowls of grouper, shrimp, and scallop nage. Having grown up on Cape Cod, the guy knows from seafood.
Joseph pairs his marine creatures with fruit and produce adjusted from day to day. Grilled summer peaches (or plums, apricots, or other stone fruit) provide a platform for butter-poached Maine lobster; tiny pearls of multicolored melon and papaya decorate sashimi; a delicate, fruity pool of mango emulsion moistens the bronzini. He makes liberal use of exotic salts like fleur de sel (which shows up in a dessert caramel ice cream too) and peppers. Japanese Togarashi pepper made from chili flakes, tomato seed, dried orange peel, and seaweed is used to punctuate and sharpen the clean, airy flesh of giant prawns.
It's such a pleasure to eat on this terrace: You've got the brilliant ocean view (although the noise from the street can get intense); the murmuring, friendly, professional service; and the kind of attention to detail that could spoil you for other restaurants. Order raspberry iced tea ($5) with lunch and out comes a graceful blown-glass pitcher, a tall glass filled with ice, mint leaves, and a spear of sugarcane, and a little vessel of sugar syrup.
The interplay of textures and interesting visuals distinguishes Joseph's dishes (true of pastry chef Jordi Panisello's marvelous concoctions too). A long, wavy ribbon of salted plantain crisp tops the bronzini ($26), adding crunch and sparkle, echoing notes from a starchier oval of fried green plantain beneath the fish, which is sweet, soft, and mellow. Florally acid chunks of grilled pineapple add a new layer of mouth pleasure. But the real surprise of this and other dishes is how simply composed they seem; even with the culinary intelligence behind them, they feel fresh and artless.
When I spoke to Joseph by phone last week, he told me they developed the menu at Cero through a long process of dining at other local restaurants, vision and revision. "We thought about what we could do here that would be different, that would keep people's interest piqued, but that would be cutting-edge," he said. "Then through a process of elimination, seeing what's selling and what's not, we've refined the menu." Arctic char and Hawaiian kampachi have been temporarily suspended; haut bourgeois salads (a Cobb loaded with marinated crab, bacon, avocado, and yellow and red cherry tomatoes is $19), and upscale sandwiches (lobster roll, prime burger) have replaced more elaborate dishes on the lunch menu. But the sheen of luxe remains: Now that Russian caviar is legal again, Joseph serves it with the traditional crème fraîche and toast points or, even better he says, crepes. And he brags about the new liquid nitrogen canister they'll use to create tableside sorbets. Lord knows come mid-August, we Lauderdalians ought to be happy to pay a premium for a blast of fruit-flavored frozen air.
Dinner or lunch at these prices should be an adventure. Joseph is finding a way to impress and occasionally confound diners, gently nudging expectations without doing violence to preferences. A lump crab risotto appetizer ($18) veined with organic spinach is pure comfort food, almost too rich to finish, but not quite. The rice retains its bite; the flavor of crab is so intense that it becomes almost earthy. Deeply flavorful pan-seared divers scallops ($36) are classic French bistro fare paired with an ultrachic escort: white truffle-oil-laced polenta.
Butter-poached lobster ($48) is one of Joseph's signature dishes: a two-pound Maine lobster is lightly poached, removed from its shell (including the claws), and buried in a semisolid bath of beurre blanc kept at 70 degrees. This unctuous meat is then served over grilled stone fruit, topped with the palest, lightest green tarragon-flavored foam and a couple of long chives, scattered with candied walnuts. I don't think I've ever seen a more graceful and appropriate use of foam, so strongly reminiscent of the ocean; the plate looks like a gorgeous marine still life, and the texture of the dense, slightly sour peaches against butter-infused meat, sweet crunch of nuts, and then that whisper of tarragon-scented air comes together to create one of the most unexpected and satisfying lobster dishes I've ever eaten.
Just as we're ready to mount an activist campaign against crème brûlées and molten chocolate cakes for dessert, along comes pastry chef Panisello to shake up the status quo (he does make a crème brûlée, but it's flavored with hibiscus and served with grapefruit granita). I'm a freak for fruit lately, so we ordered an apple confit (all desserts cost $12) and a frozen melon sabayon. Apple rings preserved with spices (whole sugar-coated vanilla bean pods and fennel, among others) had been layered with mascarpone goat cheese and topped with fleur de sel caramel ice cream. Then it was wrapped like the jolliest present in clear sugar "cellophane." The thing is so beautiful that you can barely stand to crack it open. By the time I did, the heat from the apples had melted the ice cream and the flavors were running together; it was still delicious. A very delicate and unexpected dessert, frozen melon sabayon, begins with a rectangle of cool port wine gelée over a brittle, crackling layer of sugar meringue, and that over frozen sabayon (like an ultralight melon ice cream). Multicolored moist melon pearls and a sauce of mint-papaya pull these ethereal, summer-infused flavors together. A trio of tastes made with bitter, complex guanaja chocolate included tiny ice cream sandwiches, a cup of cappuccino, and beignets filled with nutella and served in a bittersweet sauce made from chocolate nougat.
If you really care about cuisine, pinch your pennies and go for a splurge at Cero. With a couple of glasses of wine, a three-course dinner for two is going to run you more than $200, but I can't think of another restaurant in which I'd rather celebrate some grand occasion (and hey, as it happens, I have a birthday coming up). Or go for lunch once a week and work your way at a leisurely pace through the whole menu. You'll learn how real food, carefully sourced and painstakingly prepared and presented, should taste. That's a sentimental education worth the price of tuition.
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