At the bar, behind a glass plate, kusshi oysters live on a bed of fresh-shaved ice, announcing their pedigree on a hand-penned placard next to $40 Maine lobster and New England littleneck clams. Like most of the clientele in 3030 Ocean, a restaurant tucked inside the oceanfront Harbor Beach Marriott Resort & Spa, the shellfish aren't from around here.
Hailing from the Pacific Northwest, these farmed oysters are tiny and briny and sweet, each mollusk in a sea of delicious liquor. They're among the finest you can slurp. At $30 a dozen, they should be.
A spiffed-up line cook wears chef whites and a tall toque into the dining room to deliver a dozen of the kusshi to a couple at the bar.
"Why you wearing that hat?" the man asks.
"It's tradition," the cook says sheepishly.
The guy at the bar shakes his head. The question is awkward but apt. In an era when fine dining is on the wane, few chefs wear tall hats and formal garb. It seems out of place, even in this white-tablecloth dining room.
Tradition denotes quality at 3030 Ocean, and quality is what drives chef Dean Max, who has shaped the menu here since he was hired in 2002. His celebrity status lures customers from Bayonne to the Bahia Mar, and his reputation comes with the promise of beautiful seafood, locally sourced produce and meats, skillful technique, and stunning execution.
A Stuart native who grew up on Virginia's Eastern Shore, Max developed a fondness for seafood and an eye for sourcing from his father, who had been a produce broker. Max served as executive chef at fine restaurants from San Francisco to Atlanta before taking the helm at 3030 Ocean. Over the years, New Times has awarded the restaurant and Max three Best of Broward/Palm Beach awards, and Max, who lends his name to four restaurants from the Cayman Islands to Cleveland, was nominated for a James Beard Award last year.
Tradition may have helped Max earn acclaim in his cooking, but it makes the dining room feel stodgy. Past the host stand, ones and twos sit at caramel-colored bar tables that rest atop sand-colored marble floors. A businessman from Tampa plays with his phone, resting his elbow against glass that's frosted in a pattern of waves. Another guy sits at the bar corner alone, wearing flip-flops, a Hawaiian shirt, and shorts.
Behind him, the room opens to the dining area: not quite dark but as dim as the blue hour. White-layered tables are filled with groups of threes and fours — a trio here in après-beach attire, a four-top in the corner in conservative suits.
Walking into the bar area is akin to walking through an airport causeway. Diners might feel lost in this sea of staid, a room awash in monochrome. Except that back in the kitchen, Max's skill puts Technicolor on the plates.
His first step to compelling cuisine is buying fresh ingredients from local suppliers. He's been doing this for years — since long before farm-to-table became a culinary practice among highbrow chefs. "Farm-to-table is the way sourcing used to be," notes Max. For the past decade, he has supported small farmers such as Swank Farms in Loxahatchee. With his support, this small farm started on a half-acre growing few crops and has since expanded to four acres, accommodating dozens of produce requests of South Florida restaurants.
Speaking by phone later, Max says part of what makes farm-to-table so difficult here is that it contrasts with the norm: Most of the agricultural land in South Florida is run by big agribusiness and is used to grow crops for major supermarkets from around the country. And when it comes to the rise of local farmers' markets, he notes that many of them are selling remarketed produce from big corporate farms rather than goods farmers have grown themselves — ultimately benefiting big business instead of the little guy.
Max's attention to sourcing is evident in a $13 duck confit, presented between leaves of a pinwheel: homemade pasta sheets, cut and folded as triangles on a plate. The dish is made by curing duck overnight in salt, sugar, and water, with thyme, garlic, and spices such as clove and star anise. It is rinsed, then slow-cooked in duck fat at 225 degrees for several hours. The duck is finally pulled from the bone and presented between pinwheel leaves, with a purée of local carrots and a side of sautéed spinach, then garnished with a celery foam and a duck jus drizzle. It's a decadent starter that expertly balances the rich confit, sweet vegetables, and the silky egg in the homemade pasta.
As much as he supports local farmers, Max dips outside of our boundaries for superior products. He tops a $13 frisée salad with Benton's bacon, the gourmand's go-to from Allan Benton, who is based in rural Tennessee. "I love that guy," Max says of the celebrity farmer.
Still, the salad isn't as beautiful as the confit, because the ingredients lack interplay. Apples are sharp; the frisée head of hair is unwieldy; the lavender isn't a match for the ingredients. Yet the beautiful orange yolk and the bacon pairing sing.
Perhaps Max's most acclaimed dish is local salt-block-seared wahoo, an entrée well worth the $32 price for its succulence, texture, and fresh, rare interior. The dish is flanked by seasonal accompaniments — on this night, sour apple, celery root, citrus foam, and a hipster nod to pork-belly-fried rice.
Back at the bar, the man who queried the chef talks about stone crabs, priced on this day at $18 per claw. "Do you even like those?" the man asks the diner next to him. "I know they're a delicacy, but I don't understand why I'd pay so much for something that I'm underwhelmed by," he says. "Besides, I'd rather stick to things I know."
Max must often cater to a conservative clientele in the confinement of straightforward environs. Max says that "great, simple food" does well in this market, and he has defined the menu accordingly, even as it changes daily according to what's in season and available.
Simple foods, such as $16 bacon-basted diver scallops and $15 grilled octopus with Dutch potatoes and an olive-fennel salad, grace the first courses. They are items that may be familiar in name but likely not in quality, hence the price that's well above similar dishes at less-formal restaurants.
Max credits a loyal clientele for his success. Yet he emphasizes change ahead. As more people start paying attention to chef-focused menus and become educated about the farm-to-table ethos, "the dining market in this area is wide open," he says.