It was a Monday at 8:30, and the parking lot at Sea was fairly empty. (It is the offseason.) I contemplated turning around, but no: I had been dreaming about the soup since Saturday. I could get it to go.
I walked inside. A server, Joe, recognized me and greeted me warmly. "I told you I was coming back for the conch chowder!' I said.
Then I glanced around the dining room. Staff was busy prepping, labeling food, and polishing glassware. There was not a single other diner in the house. Awkward!
"I'm not eating here by myself," I said, feeling apologetic and turning to go. "You guys are closed."
"Sit the hell down to eat. That's what we're here for," said Joe (maybe not verbatim, but that was the gist). As he spoke, another server hustled out a water glass and a place setting, then twisted behind him to grab a loaf of focaccia to slice for my serving.
I scooted up to the white, L-shaped bar, the centerpiece of the room. Chiclet tiles in turquoise, white, and brown syncopated the base. Six mid-century modern tables were tucked against the wall of the bistro, which had been a coffee shop in its former life. A quirky mural — an underwater montage with tarpons and sea turtles — was a nod to Old Florida. The U.S. Open played silently on the TV overhead while Miles Davis murmured melancholy from the speakers.
"I'll be fast," I said.
"You sure you want that soup again? The menu is totally different," said Joe.
Oh, I was sure.
On my first visit Saturday night, my friend — visiting from New York the weekend Hurricane Irene was aimed for the city — had ordered the conch chowder while I caved and ordered crudo. My tuna was lovely, dressed in citrus and paired with Castelvetrano and niçoise olives, but the conch really made the impression.
The soup is just this: mirepoix (a carrot, onion, and celery base), San Marzano tomatoes, white wine, sherry, and conch in a broth infused with poblano, cubanelle peppers, tumeric, and cumin. I coveted my friend's bowl. (I also wished for savory bread to mop the bowl. Although the focaccia — made in-house — is crusty and rustic, it's baked with cherries. Delicious, but cherries and fish don't pair particularly well.)
The place seats 25 tops, and it had been full Saturday night, with a line at the door. The crowd included a group of six that overstayed past a birthday dessert and a slew of couples, including an urbane set of parents with tweens in tow. To skip the wait, we'd planted ourselves at the bar. The vibe was easy. I figured it was manned by an owner who wasn't trying too hard, who wasn't aiming to please drunken frat boys or an early-bird crowd.
Which brings us to Tony Sindaco. I had read about him, the former owner of Sunfish Grill, a boutiquey neighborhood eatery with a loyal clientele. After a divorce in 2008, his wife ended up with the restaurant and Tony fell off the radar. He resurfaced here at Sea, the restaurant he opened mid-July.
So when a ponytailed guy in plaid shorts and kitchen clogs sailed into the dining room — "See how the big table is doing, and get settings ready for the next one," I overheard him directing — I knew who it was. When he made the rounds to each table to ask how dinner was going, I saw more proof of how he's earned a solid reputation.
My server, Joe, said he has followed Sindaco for ten years, as have others on the kitchen staff and in the dining room. "When you believe in someone, you stick with him," he said. (I later heard that the divorce made it hard on staff who had to choose between following Tony or staying on with his ex-wife.)
Sindaco's chalkboard menu is leaner and less expensive than his Sunfish Grill days. It lists about a dozen entrées — predominantly fish — at three-course prices between $25 and $35, which includes a selection of first courses and desserts. My first night at Sea, we chose from among whisker fish, snapper, scallops, tuna Bolognese, and swordfish. The menu changes every Monday and Thursday. (As a server explained, ordering à la carte is fine too, with first courses ranging from $9 to $12 and mains in the $20s). By keeping a focused menu that changes twice a week, he's able to keep the plates moving and the fish fresh.
I settled on diver scallops from Maine. I couldn't shake my "I should have ordered local" guilt, though local seafood is notoriously hard to come by here, I'm told. The scallops were done the Thomas Keller way, in the pan, caramelized on both sides, with a finished appearance not unlike a toasted marshmallow. They were dense, firm, and sweet.
I'm never as enamored of main courses as I am by apps — maybe because I'm not as hungry by then or maybe because portions are usually big. Sides — couscous and a grilled zucchini half — were tasty but forgettable, though appropriate so as not to upstage simply prepared fish. My friend did go local with the Florida snapper. The presentation was a beautiful, flaky whitefish that was mild and nutty, spiked with lime.
Halfway through this course, a burly redheaded man bustled in and planted himself behind me on a barstool. "Got those whiskey cakes?" he asked the waiter.
"This is John," the waiter said. "He's here every Saturday, usually at exactly the wrong time." He handed John some cake boxes to fold while he waited.
John explained that he sells Sindaco's cakes — a riff on the "Tennessee Sippin' Whisky Cakes" traditionally made with George Dickel whiskey — topped in homemade whipped cream at the Yellow Green market in Hollywood on Sundays.
I had to try one. The vanilla pound cake was both modern in its simplicity and as old-fashioned as a bundt cake. It beat the hell out of another dessert: the Palace Hotel mousse, served in a dainty glass, layered with brandy-soaked cherries at the bottom. I wanted to love the mousse since it's the recipe from when Sindaco staged at the five-star resort in Gstaad, Switzerland, in the '80s, but, alas. Chocolate and cherries are a classic pairing, but this dessert was ho-hum.
"What did you like best?" Joe asked as we left. The soup. I told him I'd be back.
So there I was on Monday, when Joe sat me down and, like an old friend who knows what's best for me, said, "If you're not getting the pan-seared calamari to go with the soup, then you're getting the frisée salad."
And how glad I was. This one was served on a rectangle that framed a toasted slice of sourdough on which sat frisée greens in a warm bacon dressing, garnished with pan-roasted, mandolined garlic; bacon; flat-leaf parsley; and a stunning poached egg. The smell of breakfast as I forked open the yolk was divine.
"Would you take visitors here?" my friend had asked as we left Saturday. For him, a discerning New Yorker, that was the ultimate test of a restaurant. We agreed that we would.
I remembered his observation as I polished off my salad alone. Soon, a waiter sat down to give me company, and shortly after, Sindaco joined, taking his apron off and relaxing at the bar a couple of seats down.
He'd grown up, he said, in a close-knit Italian family in the Poconos. His father died when he was 5, and he was raised by his mother and two grandmothers. "They're how I learned to cook. That's so much of what we did when I was growing up." Sunday sauce was simple cooking, from scratch.
So when he opened his new restaurant, his aim was simple: "A real nice place with a good vibe" would be enough. I was content to be enveloped by it. I had come in by myself but ended up feeling far from alone.