Rogue restaurants. They've been delved into by Bon Apetit, Food and Wine, and Tony Bourdain. But how many of these secret establishments are really operating in South Florida? Located in apartments, down hidden alley ways, and in rental kitchens, these places sell their unlicensed seats to guests looking for something different than a typical restaurant experience.
Proponents of the trend will tell you these hidden eat-ups -- which usually require you know someone who knows someone -- offer an alternate take on dining out, one where challenging commonly held notions is as important as the meal itself. But its opponents, mostly governmental agencies, claim that the illegal nature of these establishments skirts standards that are in place to protect the public good.
Whatever side of the debate you end up on, Fort Lauderdale does have at least one underground restaurant, and I was invited to dine there last week. Curious? Here's how it all went down:
I was first introduced to this hidden restaurant (which we'll call the SnG to protect the proprietors) by Reed Fischer, New Times'
music editor. He in turn had found the place through another group of
friends who frequent some bars in the Himmarshee area of Fort
Lauderdale. Reed told me the meals he had at the rogue restaurant were
outstanding. The week prior, he'd enjoyed Cajun-style Jambalaya and a
special gluten-free meal of risotto and salmon made specially for him
by the SnG's founder. ("Probably going to be thinking about that
risotto till I perish," he says.) Eager to return, Reed asked me to
accompany him last Wednesday to what was supposed to be the
restaurant's farewell dinner.
Farewell dinner? That's right.
The chef -- who goes by the moniker JLo -- had started SnG in November
as a way to do what she loves (cook). Pretty soon, though, she was
inviting guests over for dinner four nights per week. Coupled with her
day job as a psychologist for a busy local hospital, that pace was
unrelenting. She backed down to two days a week until she decided,
finally, that she would put the rogue restaurant to rest for good.
Following our dinner on Wednesday night, however, I think her enthusiasm was
renewed. We arrived around 7:30 and were greeted by a handful of
regular diners who were already pouring wine and enjoying themselves.
Among them was Ilesa, JLo's partner in SnG. "I basically put up the grocery money!" she said with a laugh. In the nearby open kitchen, SnG's chef JLo introduced herself with a warm smile. Then, she told us what was on the
menu: Tonight was slow-braised coq au vin (chicken in red wine) with
garlic mashed potatoes, a salad of mixed greens, and, for dessert, chocolate
croissant bread pudding. The cost? Just $8 per person.
After sharing some introductions and pouring a few glasses of wine, we sat
down at JLo's dining table in the middle of her cozy, one bedroom
apartment. Though we were sitting at the table with a handful of
strangers (at least I was; Reed knew some of them from prior meals), we
felt welcome right away. "Go ahead and start the salad, guys," JLo
called from the kitchen as she finished plating our main course. A few
of the regulars began passing around a wooden salad bowl filled with
mixed greens and a very light vinaigrette. "This dill really goes great
in this dressing," said Reed, slyly tossing out a little flavor
knowledge on the rest of us. "That's quite a palate you've got there,
Reed!" I said with a wink.
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Dinner at SnG is much more informal than a typical restaurant. For one, JLo sat and ate with us -- it's really a pleasure to have your host at the table with you (especially when the food is good!). As we dug into our coq au vin, I was able to ask her more about her inspiration for starting the restaurant.
"It all began when I read an article about underground restaurants in Bon Appetit," she said. "I love to cook, so I thought, 'I can do that.'"
One of the dinner guests, a DJ and part-time Census Bureau worker named Miguel, interjected. "This chicken is so soft!" he said, swiping up a big bite of coq au vin with wine sauce. Everybody laughed hysterically at his choice of adjective, but he was right -- the coq au vin was definitely tender and delicious.
Tomorrow, Part 2: Dessert, plus more on operating a rogue restaurant!