It's 10 o'clock on opening night at the Sunfish Grill, and the bar is hip-deep in ladies of a certain age. They're gussied up in turquoise taffeta sheath dresses with matching purses, in sequined bodices and strappy sandals; they are corseted and perfumed. They've had their hair done; it matches their toenails. And the air smells coolly of lilies, maybe from the floral arrangements sent by regular customers for this special occasion, maybe from the discreet perspiration between the breasts of the ladies, but it's a pleasant smell, at any rate, if marginally less mouthwatering than the smells wafting from the kitchen those are full of warmth and salt and smoke. Chef Tony Sindaco is taking a break, lounging at the bar in chef's whites with highball in hand, chatting up his fans.
Everybody's having a good time. Everybody, that is, except the two hunky bartenders, still totally in the weeds, foreheads glistening as they shake up what must be their 200th girly cocktail of the evening (these ladies can really put them away) something requiring fussy infusions and fancy fruit.
"You're closing the bar at 10:30?" one woman crows in disbelief.
"This is a restaurant, not a nightclub," one of the hunks responds wearily, his veneer of politesse beginning to peel, and you can see he'd as soon bean her with the cocktail shaker as mix her another cosmo. Maybe the girls are just killing time anyway until things start to get real across the street at LaBare, the Ultimate Ladies' Club "Home of the Hottest Male Dancers on the Planet!"
The good vibrations at the new Sunfish Grill on Oakland Park Boulevard, which opened August 4 after a three-week hiatus, are in an entirely different register than at its 8-year-old predecessor. The original restaurant in Pompano Beach was a minuscule space with the grill in full view; diners sat happily hip to elbow with their neighbors, making incredulous noises of pleasure over Sindaco's specialty dishes, like the jewel-toned crab Charlotte; or a hearty conch chowder studded with littleneck clams; or an ethereally moist little swordfish fillet set in a pool of mushroom reduction. The new place seats up to 200, offers a full liquor bar, and has chic touches, like a cozy lounge with overstuffed furniture where you can nurse a cocktail while you wait for your table.
Sunfish has grown up. The new space is less funky and more cosmopolitan, like the kid has reached drinking age and can finally have a martini. Sindaco's wife, Erika, who owns the place, says they're going to keep the same menu "contemporary American seafood" with a few tweaks and the usual page of additions. Those additions change nightly, weekly, or seasonally. I've eaten three times at Sunfish in the past couple of months and have come to the conclusion that it's one of the best restaurants in Florida. Given the choice, I'd rather eat at Sunfish than even at my favorite Miami haunts. I'm praying that the move, along with more mouths to feed, more rent to pay, and more staff to juggle, won't change that.
Tony Sindaco's culinary style is so personal and has so much flair that it's hard to categorize. And here's where running a small restaurant for eight years has served him well his creations have none of the cookie-cutter sameness, none of the "restaurant food" taste, of many highly regarded bigger places. Sindaco's dishes are full of character, of small details lovingly rendered, of sauces and infusions that seem to have been evaporated down to an intense purity of flavor. These are foods that taste as if the chef's hands have been all over them, and I mean that in a good way. They taste like his mind and heart have been all over them too. The menu, which is small just five main courses, plus four specials, eight appetizers, and a few salads has changed little over the years, and you get the feeling that, for Sindaco, creativity comes in the refinement of his standard dishes rather than in the invention of new ones.
Take the giant gulf shrimp scampi ($25). This deceptively simple dish shrimp, butterflied, grilled, and set on a bed of rigatoni appears to be one of Sindaco's less brilliant moves shrimp and pasta, so what? He sauces the rigatoni in prosciutto de parma, sundried tomatoes, arugula, shaved garlic, fresh peas, and white wine. Nothing particularly special about that list of ingredients either. Somehow, though, as you eat down into the dish, as my dinner partner did, slowly savoring each bite as it's meant to be savored, thinking about your food (and Sunfish Grill is an excellent place to do some kitchen philosophizing), the dish develops, gains complexity, layering flavor against flavor. The balance, which must have been achieved over years of experiment, is pitch-perfect pungency of garlic and tomatoes, peppery tang of arugula, satisfying greeniness of peas, the lemony bite of white wine, the rich and foreign flavors of good prosciutto. It makes you understand why pasta is the national dish of Italy, and it's a stirring tribute to Sindaco's grandmother's kitchen, where he learned to cook. You can take the boy out of Italy, but you can't take Italy out of the boy.
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We had similar moments of enlightenment over every plate during our first two visits. A beautiful appetizer special ($14), fillet of the most tender and flavorful swordfish I've ever tasted, served in a gracious mushroom reduction and topped by a bite of cold tomato, went immediately to the head of my private list of favorite restaurant experiences. A conch chowder ($12), in which pieces of white fish and little steamed clams were submerged in a tomato-onion base, was state-of-the-art; it inspired a heated argument about the "honest virtues" of proletariat food (the soup) against studied culinary beauty (the crab Charlotte, $12). What a gorgeous dish, a study in shades of green: layers of briny crab topped with silky avocado "jam," ringed by transparent slices of cucumber and lines of emerald-colored herb emulsion the effect is of overlapping fish scales, subtle and ocean-scented, fresh and stimulating.
And these weren't even the highlights. Everything on this menu is just so damned delicious: the roasted escolar ($29) that falls apart at the touch of a fork, served with tiny, velvety pearls of cool mushroom barley salad and grilled zucchini in a tomato vinaigrette. Or a whole yellowtail snapper (market price, $30) served with mashed pesto potatoes and toasted garlic rapini, a mellow, melting creature sauced in lemon and chive beurre blanc. Or another grilled swordfish fillet (market, $32), an entrée this time, impossibly light in texture, crosshatched with grill marks and laid alongside a dense bed of mushroom and wine risotto, extra large, crunchy grilled asparagus spears, browned cipolini onions, and chopped tomato.
On opening night at the new location, cozied up to the bar as the last customers of a crazy evening, we revisited a grilled baby conch appetizer ($14) we'd had the month before so satisfyingly chewy and complexly flavored with bits of broccoli rabe, cannelini beans, garlic sausage, and herbs on our first visit and found it had lost both its bite (it had progressed from tender-chewy to inedibly rubbery) and its finesse. Seared rare tuna served over oxtail ragout and mashed potatoes ($29) also seemed to lack the Sindaco magic. Tucked away in the now-invisible kitchen, you could taste that the chefs had had a hell of a long night. They were worn out. Still, those puffy golden onion rings stacked high on the tuna were enough to make our trip an adventure.
These are growing pains, and Sindaco is a professional. I've no doubt he'll have things rocking along soon enough, pushing his menu back into shape, patching up the weaknesses and guarding its strengths. In the meantime, the hunks behind the bar will be getting a brisk workout with the cocktail shaker, learning everything they'll ever need to know about mixing the perfect Mojitotini.