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Dinner Theater and Burgers Dominated 2011, So What's Coming for 2012?

I think I have a problem," said chef Roy Villacrusis of Kapow! Noodle Bar, the subject of last week's Dish review. "I don't care what people think."

He's not just talking about the menu at the Mizner Park noodle house where he's the chef. It's his attitude about cooking these days. "People here like what they like," he said. "My menu and what people like don't always match."

Villacrusis' observation speaks to the tension in the dining landscape in South Florida. Here's the conflict: A great swath of retirees and tourists appreciate dining the way it has been, while younger diners are enthralled by dining as it's developing in major metropolitan areas. In South Florida, this translates to the decline of mom-and-pop restaurants and sit-down chains that have spewed out crab cakes and lasagnas and mozzarella sticks in mass quantities. What dominated the past year, and likely will in 2012 as well, are the boutique concepts, the restaurants that make eating there a dining adventure.

One example of dinner as theater can be found at Longboards in West Palm Beach, where wall-sized screens display surfers in action, paired with servers decked in beach attire. The performance element is strong enough that lifeguards and beach bums hang out there as extras. On one visit, I ended up getting drunk with a crew of them. Turns out, they're not only in bathing-suit shape but damn, they can drink.

A few towns away, at Philippe Chow in Boca Raton, a chef stages a nightly hand-pulled noodle show in the dining room, with applause and anticipation for a second act. Nearby, Dapur's dining room evokes a model shoot, complete with wind machines, spotlights, sexy servers, and a requisite soundtrack (though for dinner, that's not always ideal if you're hoping to actually talk to your dining companions).

Some of these theatrical endeavors are tinny. Market 17's "dining in the dark" followed a trendy concept of putting customers in a pitch-black room and serving them food that generally ended up in their laps. It's tough already finding time to get together with friends, so it's best while sharing dinner with them that you can actually see one another.

One restaurant that shuttered without protest is chef Glen Manfra's the Pop-Up, a kitschy-themed comfort-food restaurant that lost its luster. A disco ball isn't a draw if it's served with wood-fired pizza.

Single-concept restaurants also led diners on a journey of sorts this year. By going deep with one dish, we learned about ingredients, toppings, condiments, and regional variations. Chefs such as Jo-Jo Parsons of Jo-Jo's Tacos showed us how to get really high-end when it comes to hot sauce.

"Smell that perfume," says Parsons from behind the line, taking a whiff of dried bhut jolokias he uses to make his hottest condiment. A couple of dozen "ghost chilies," each about the size of a thumb, offer a seductive earthiness — yet hit more than a million on the Scoville heat scale.

We learned the difference between Angus and Waygu beef at the dozens of burger restaurants that opened this year. If meat mausoleums continue at this pace, by this time in 2012, we'll expect McDonald's to grind its own beef in-house. What's missing? Inexpensive, quality burgers or burger deals at $10 or below.

Except when it comes to Charm City. The single concept has been mastered by Mike Saperstein and Evan David, who have opened two restaurants within a year that undercut their competitors' prices while sourcing high-quality and often local ingredients. Even after a recent redesign to the original location, Charm City still lacks in ambiance, feeling like a cross between a fast-food restaurant and lunch counter. With beer.

Which brings us to the most controversial trend: local sourcing. Restaurants such as DIG, Max's Harvest, Old Fort Lauderdale Breakfast House, and 3030 Ocean have embraced the farm-to-table mantra and don't let diners forget it. "I spend hours on the phone with each of my purveyors — individual farmers — every day," said Joey Giannuzzi when he was affiliated with DIG, the Delray Beach restaurant that opened this past spring.

Sourcing is a pain in the ass, so we're told, especially in a region like South Florida, where the movement is still a fledgling, which leads most savvy diners to question the ubiquity of it. Why is it that the big dogs who pioneered the movement, such as Dean Max of 3030 Ocean, still cite how difficult it is? And why is it that most of our farmers' markets don't supply produce from local farms? Let's hope 2012 is the year of weeding out the bluffs. Many restaurants still half-ass it or have little incentive to make sure everything they put on a plate actually comes from local producers. These restaurants are like vegetarians who eat bacon and sneak burgers.

Despite these changes in the suburban dining scene, some familiar themes remain, especially when it comes to comfort food. In the year's reviews, we celebrated Betty's Soul Food that's been a Fort Lauderdale mainstay for decades. We ushered in Sea and Spoonfed, new restaurants with food that evokes an idealized past, with homemade soups, mac and cheese, and gourmet meatballs. However, with a little extra padding at the end of 2012, here's hoping meals are little less comfortable and a bit more daring. I need to cut back on cheese.

We've also been protective of neighborhood joints, whether it's stalwarts like Calypso, the busy enclave at Flavors of Peru, or the Manor in Wilton Manors, which was met with scores of defiant comments when this paper wrote an ambivalent review. Sometimes, we want to dine where everybody knows our name, regardless of what's on the plate.

There are also a few things on the wish list for 2012. I wish fruits and vegetables would steal the show from meatcentric menus. I long for a craft cocktail speakeasy. Last, I hope for better training for the front of the house, especially when it comes to lunch service or when bartenders seem oblivious to the field of empties cradled by frustrated, would-be drunks resigned to absentee service.

A few things we can surely expect. More single concepts are on the docket: small, inexpensive sandwiches from 100 Montaditos, an oyster emporium next door to Coconuts at B&G Oyster Bar, and a Bourbon mecca at the Rebel House. More restaurant gardens too: A few in Boca have plots at the town's new community garden. Sublime built one on the roof.

This past year, a little tension has served us well. From Miami to Palm Beach, it has become an interesting time to dine in South Florida. Here's hoping that chefs like Villacrusis are encouraged to indulge their culinary passion and that 2012 will nurture a dynamic dining scene.

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Food Critic
Contact: Melissa McCart

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