Florida Cookery's manager, an unflappable and poker-faced woman dressed in an austere black-and-white uniform, set a heavy spiny lobster dish on our table. Around her, the dining room lit up with that unique razzle-dazzle that South Beach restaurants often possess Saturday nights.
It had been 25 minutes since we inquired about the lobster entrée, 45 minutes since our appetizer course, and more than two hours since we had sauntered into the restaurant at the ritzy James Royal Palm Hotel.
The dish was late, late, late.
Maybe the kitchen was slammed. Perhaps the place was overbooked. Or was the waitstaff overwhelmed? We'll never know. We never heard any excuses. Instead, the manager took a step back from our table, clasped her hands, and apologized for the dish's delay. She asked us to visit Florida Cookery again soon. She wanted to ensure our return, so she comped our lavish dinner of crafted cocktails, numerous courses, and pan-braised spiny lobster. The check for two would have amounted to more than $150.
In four visits to the restaurant over two months, I consistently experienced lax service at Florida Cookery. Sharing plates rarely arrived. Improper eating utensils were delivered. Dishes were cleared too soon or too late. The same night my meal was comped, I experienced a rude hostess, an awkward busboy, and a ditzy waitress who bounced up and down while explaining the menu. There were many instances of utter neglect — long periods when our table, which was set in the corner of the 75-seat dining room, was forgotten.
Sticklers for efficient service would consider this polished South Beach setting quite unpleasant, but others might return for more of Kris Wessel's delectable food.
Patrons who visited Wessel's previous restaurant on Biscayne Boulevard near NE 79th Street, Red Light Little River, are familiar with this duality. Wessel, a gawky, starry-eyed cook and Louisiana native, is a James Beard Award nominee. At Red Light, his cooking expressed a cool, Big Easy sensibility. It also garnered a loyal following. Dishes were centered on local ingredients, unfussy presentation, and down-home allure. But those riverfront dinners were leisurely and slow. Few patrons knew that Wessel often ran the kitchen by himself, aided by only a dishwasher and a single server.
But Red Light died an untimely death. After four years, struggles erupted between Wessel and his landlord. The motel where the restaurant leased a space changed hands, and the new owners did not renew his past rent option.
By the time the place closed in November 2012, the chef had already inked a deal with the posh, SoHo-based James Royal Palm Hotel at 15th Street and Collins Avenue. Florida Cookery, which opened just a month after Red Light closed, catapulted Wessel beyond the causeway and into an elegant establishment — the kind where you're likely to find Leonardo DiCaprio hobnobbing with Real Housewives of Miami.
The cuisine took a different direction from that of Red Light. The name Florida Cookery was inspired by a late-'40s pamphlet about Sunshine State cooking that belonged to the chef's grandmother. Wessel's interpretations involve cast-iron-seared frogs' legs, alligator empanadas, and Puerto Rican pineapple rum cake. Flavors bounce between diverse ethnic and cultural influences: Latin America, the Caribbean, and the U.S. Northeast.
To Wessel, this cuisine represents a love letter to Florida. "If food moves you in some sort of emotional or personal way — to the point that you have to make a statement with it — then you have what it takes to make a restaurant," he says. "I'm paying homage to the cultures that live in Florida together."
Beyond the menu's historical component, his cooking summons flavors synonymous with South Florida's natural environs. In a state where afternoons are marked by sunlight even on the chilliest days of winter, his fare radiates a cool, sweet vibrancy. This is evident in his many salads, which are often dressed in refreshing, acidic vinaigrettes — such as the Royal Palm, which is bathed in house-made orange vinegar. Sticky, rich, and tender ribs, glazed with a marinade of fresh guanabana, cumin, and guava jelly, are balanced with a tart papaya slaw. Pan-braised spiny lobster mixed with dry sherry bisque arrives next to a cast-iron pot holding thick, savory corn spoon bread. In that dish, the accompanying julienned squash was excessively salty. Otherwise, a measured balance between rich and acidic, savory and sweet, defines Wessel's foray into Florida cuisine.
Wessel does not shy away from uncommon animal proteins. Apart from frogs' legs and alligator, there's also grilled wild boar, squab, and sorrel-lychee-glazed quail. Most proteins are sourced from within the state. "If we increase our demand for species like venison or wild boar, we are helping local farms just like we help by serving heirloom tomatoes and baby lettuce. I want to increase the use of local everything," he says.
But sometimes it's difficult to appreciate the flavors in the guanabana ribs or the Lee Schrager burger — a towering sandwich with caramelized Vidalia onions and tangy house-made ketchup, which was named for the founder of the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. On a recent visit, main courses were served too quickly. Grapefruit and guajillo chili corvina ceviche topped with chips and green pumpkinseed-corn salsa was delightful. So was the arugula salad — spicy greenery paired with broiled Homestead goat cheese, hot cherry tomato, and cucumber-basil salsa. But there was no time to enjoy them; the awkward pacing of service made the quantity of food overwhelming. Great food could always benefit from a bit of structure.
Though only two other tables were occupied, Wessel and a staffer spent the entire course of our lunch in the dining room while conveying orders via cell phone set on speakerphone. He discussed an upcoming party — coincidentally being thrown by Schrager. Garbage cans had to be set up, paper menus must be cleaned, and copious beer glasses would be required. Wessel's voice was hurried and tense. The conversation continued for about a half-hour. Everyone in the room could hear it.
Wessel hung up and disappeared. A few minutes later, he resurfaced. He directed an employee who was lugging a six-foot-tall potted kumquat tree across the dining room and onto the restaurant's patio. They soon accommodated the plant outside in a corner. Once it was in place, the lines on Wessel's face softened. He took a step back. With his arms crossed, he peered at the greenery and smiled.
Miami's beloved Little River chef will eventually find enough kumquat shrubs for his new beach locale. Till then, expect more of the frazzled service. And while Florida Cookery grows into its big, swanky SoBe setting, you can always just hope for some delicious, free lobster.