A tuxedoed waiter places a dish upon a spotless white tablecloth. A plump filet of black bass perches atop an emerald bed. An earthy scent wafts up, overwhelming the senses. The first bite is perfect: There's the skin's light crunch, followed by the sweet, meaty bass flesh. The pea ragout -- just-shucked English peas, honey, fresh thyme, green garlic, and cream in a broth made from the fish's bones -- adds a richness that turns every bite into a guilty pleasure.
The meal quickly disappears. A touch of the sauce remains but is soon mopped up with a crust of hot, house-made foccacia bread.
You might be able to enjoy this $32 delight if you're lucky enough to stop by on an evening when Jon Sanchez deems it worthy of your plate.
The 28-year-old chef de cuisine of Wild Sea Oyster Bar & Grille inside Fort Lauderdale's historic Riverside Hotel describes himself as "crazy" about fresh fish. Sanchez, who looks like a clean-shaven Liev Schreiber, even has a fish tattooed on his right forearm. He hand-butchers up to 200 pounds of fish a day -- a Herculean undertaking that most restaurants leave to purveyors.
Sometimes a supplier will send him cut fillets, "and I send them right back," he says. "It surprises a few fish people who don't know me."
But he is particular. "I want to be able to see how red the gills are, whether the eyes are clear," Sanchez says. "The head of a fish can tell you a lot."
Buying fish whole and butchering them comes with an added bonus for a chef who knows what to do with them: the bones, heads, and all sorts of trimmings can be saved and used to embolden the flavor of stocks and soups. Some orders, Sanchez says, need to be left in the refrigerator for a day or two so that rigor mortis subsides and the fish becomes palatable.
Sanchez came to Fort Lauderdale by way of Las Vegas, where he worked at David Myers' Comme Ca and Thomas Keller's Bouchon. Before that, the Kansas City native did stints in his hometown as well as Maine and New York. His nose-to-tail focus -- using the whole animal in multiple elements of a dish -- came from his time spent at Restaurant Bradley Ogden, a now-closed Michelin-starred restaurant in Caesar's Palace.
Culinary schools "don't train that way anymore," Sanchez says. "I was put in an environment where I was able to see it firsthand. I made sure I was the first one in, last one out so I would have the time to learn how to butcher."
The pale, sea-foam-green Riverside Hotel was built in 1936 and is still owned by the Wells family that helped develop Las Olas Boulevard into Fort Lauderdale's main drag. Executive chef Toby Joseph and general manager Jason Kotter had been lobbying the owners for two years to open a sustainable seafood restaurant. A mutual colleague referred Sanchez to Kotter, and he was soon South Florida-bound. In March, the 130-seat Wild Sea replaced the Grill Room, which had stood for almost two decades.
It's a good move. The stodgy, uptight Victorian theme has been traded for simplicity and clean lines that help make the food the focus. An airy, stained-wood patio opens onto the sidewalk, the perfect place to sit on a cool, breezy evening. The inside is split into a main dining room and a bar area. White marble-topped tables are surrounded by black leather chairs atop a gray hardwood floor.
Now, a new menu rolls off the printer every day. Line-caught pumpkin swordfish, striped bass, and monkfish rotate on the bill of fare. Proteins such as clams and grouper come from Florida, and only one farmed fish, sunburst trout from North Carolina, makes its way onto the menu. Sometimes octopus makes an appearance, and sometimes there is lobster. On any given day, the list of half a dozen appetizers might include a beef tartare ($13) topped with a quail egg yolk, bok choy, lime oil, and curry. There may also be an asparagus salad ($12) that mixes ham, bacon, and mustard.
The highlight is the tantalizing list (available every day) of eight oysters (four West Coast and four East). There might be sweet, briny Otter Cove oysters from the Puget Sound in Washington state or delicately flavored kusshis from Vancouver. From the East Coast, there are sometimes meaty, ocean-flavored Blue Points (the iconic oyster for many) and long, narrow-shelled beavertails from Narragansett Bay off of Rhode Island.
The raw bar situated off of the hotel's main lobby feels like a secret hideaway for those in the know. Tall orange chairs rest before a white marble countertop speckled with gray. The day's oyster selection is written on a chalkboard, and diners can inspect them on their glass-encased bed of ice.
The only negative might be sticker shock. Oysters cost $3 apiece (Sanchez says he just breaks even on them), and one meal -- a half dozen oysters, a pair of entrées, and a dessert -- came to whopping $120, without alcohol.
Yet the pricey jewels at Wild Sea are worth every penny. This is the best restaurant on tourist-trap-riddled Las Olas, and not just because Sanchez makes the fashionable pledge to source locally and sustainably. It's because of the clever way he coaxes simple ingredients into complex dishes.
His philosophy is best shown with a golden tilefish, served with a pair of poached clams. The shellfish give themselves to a briny, fragrant broth poured tableside over earthy hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and julienned kohlrabi, a kind of turnip. Under it all sits a light cream sauce made with a tilefish bone stock.
In addition to the seafood offerings, Sanchez always presents a meat option or two. A massive beef cheek is slow-braised in a honey-brown ale from Alabama craft brewery Back 40 Beer Co. The meat, marbled with melting fat, is so soft that it quivers when touched with a fork. It makes you wonder what kind of tricks Sanchez might pull with a meat-centric concept.
"It might be easier and a little more fun to do this with meat," he says. "I've done it before -- I just put out the calling card to local farmers and, for example, I can go out and see baby lambs before I get them."
The beef is plated only with sous vide baby Florida beets that have been vacuum-sealed and slow-cooked in water at a precise temperature to create the perfect texture and intensify their sweetness. Just before the plate leaves the kitchen, those same beets' leafy greens are wilted, sautéed with garlic and shallots, and added to the dish.
Though Sanchez says his goal is to use Florida produce, he estimates that only about 50 percent of his vegetables are grown here, sourced mostly through national distributor Fresh Point. It's been a challenge getting produce straight from farmers.
"I've reached out to a couple but haven't received anything back," he says. "At previous restaurants, I've had farmers coming in my back door, but it seems a bit harder down here."
As one strolls down Las Olas, Wild Sea doesn't look much different from some of its neighbors, who hawk high-priced, mediocre menus long ago mastered by chain outfits.
However, the ideas driving the kitchen are years ahead of nearby competitors. If you're a local who long ago swore off the boulevard, there is a reason to return. We know it's been a while, so don't forget that parking at a nearby lot costs $7, and it takes only cash.
For more follow Zach on Twitter @ZachIsWeird.
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