"I would cover myself in foie gras if I could," proclaims a heavyset, 30-something woman who's wearing a flowing, sleeveless white top.
She pops a cube of pungent Cabrales, a Spanish variety of blue cheese, into her mouth along with a sweet and spicy pecan from Johnny V's famed $28 tapas sharing platter. Then the people in her group, which is gathered around the restaurant's long, L-shaped stainless-steel bar, move quickly to discussing the disdain they felt for South Florida when they first moved down from "New Yawk."
There are plenty of people strolling along Las Olas Boulevard who have rejected New York's cost and frost as well as Miami's party-till-you-drop lifestyle. Yet when they want the sophisticated, fancy-sounding fare found in those cities but don't desire to travel or pay the prices, Johnny Vinczencz's namesake restaurant, Johnny V Restaurant|Lounge, is the choice.
Dinner begins with an amuse-bouche of smoked tomato soup. A velvety, tangy purée is served in a squat espresso cup paired with a crust of bread smeared with goat cheese. The combination of richness, slight acidity, and bold smoke is a fantastic start to a meal but leaves you wanting more. It was once available in the evenings but is now available only at lunch.
Vinczencz's "Short Stack" ($12) layers buttermilk pancakes, slices of roasted portobello mushrooms, and fresh basil. It's topped with sun-dried tomato butter and a thick balsamic vinaigrette. Some bites are delightful. The meatiness of the mushrooms plays smartly against the richness of the pancakes and sweetness of the balsamic. Occasionally a bite of the balsamic-inundated pancakes, however, is too sweet.
After a decade in business, Johnny V remains the anchor of Las Olas Boulevard. Customers return year after year for signature dishes that combine Florida's tropical ingredients with New American techniques. The prices are some of the highest on the downtown drag, but the portions are large and served by an attentive staff.
Vinczencz says Las Olas has improved dramatically in recent years. He doesn't call out restaurants that aren't up to snuff, though, and even speaks admiringly of the popular "gastropubbish" trend as well as the Royal Pig Pub and American Social. He calls the Rainmaker Restaurant Group's Grille 401 "beautiful."
"I think we have a good mix. There are some cool places, and I love the art galleries," he says. "You can do more walking down the boulevard these days... I think it's going in the right direction."
In his youth, Vinczencz didn't seem destined to become the king of Las Olas. At 15, he was a dishwasher at a Columbus, Ohio, restaurant called Sadie's Emporium. One day, a cook walked off the line midshift and the chef, in a pinch, threw Vinczencz on the grill. "I haven't had another job doing anything, ever," he says in a deep voice. As with his menu, there's a just a hint of an Italian accent.
He never went to culinary school or college, but while living with his grandmother in Ohio, he was steps from Ohio State University. "I had a lot of friends who went to college, and I came down for spring break one year with the idea that I would stay," he says. "One of my friends was managing a restaurant, and I started working for the Marriott" on 17th Street.
At 26 years old, he took a job as an executive chef of Ferguson's Gator Bar & Grill, then opening in the Cypress Creek Embassy Suites. The restaurant was owned by Joseph A. Meloy's company, Restaurant Concepts Inc., which developed food and beverage outfits for the hotel chain across the country.
Despite the tacky name, "what was cool was the guy was out of California, and he brought things I had never seen before," Vinczencz says. "This was 1986, and we were doing rotisserie chicken of the day, salads with jalapeño vinaigrette."
Eventually he became interested in fine dining and looked up to Norman Van Aken, known as the founding father of New World Cuisine, and Dennis Max, whom he calls "the man." He moonlighted at Van Aken's Amano on South Beach and one day walked into Maxaluna in Boca Raton, more or less to demand a job from owner Max. "He said. 'We're not just going to hire you off the street,' " Vinczencz recalled. " 'You're going to have to work your way up to a sous chef.' "
A year later, Max fulfilled his promise and tapped Vinczencz to run a soon-to-open North Miami Beach restaurant. At the same time, the chic Astor Place Restaurant on South Beach was opening and looking for someone to lead the kitchen. Vinczencz took the gig and earned himself the nickname the "Caribbean Cowboy" for his combination of tropical ingredients and New American cooking.
In 2002, he opened De La Tierra in Delray Beach's Sundy House and the next year threw off the yolk of running other people's restaurants and opened Johnny V. He's happy. "I don't want to be the supervisor of numerous chefs," he says. "I want to have my hands in the food."
He's constantly experimenting. At lunch, "we never know what we're going to do," he says. A $29 center-cut pork chop served with sweet potato hash, baby green beans, and chunky apple sauce is a letdown because "it sells mediocrely," he says.
One-third of his menu is made up of the classics, while the rest is subject to change with the seasons and trends. His "Bacon, Eggs, and Toast" ($13) pairs the ingredient du jour, pork belly, with fried quail eggs and fig marmalade on toasted points.
What does sell are the $39 New York strip steaks. On the patio looking onto Las Olas, two men lean into each other as they discuss the fate and fortune of nearby restaurants. They both order the hulking steak — medium rare — but complain to an affable server that their chosen glass of Malbec is "far too sweet." The server apologizes and rushes off to grab several glasses filled with small pours for the pair to taste before they select a bottle.
Vinczencz relies on that kind of service. Servers are eager to place a napkin on your lap shortly after you sit. Specials are flawlessly committed to memory. And he relies on kitchen staff more than ever to ensure dishes go out as though he cooked them.
When he first opened ten years ago Vinczencz did the bulk of the work himself in a kitchen half the size of the one he runs today. He arrived at the restaurant at 9 a.m. or earlier to begin the day's prep work. He cooked throughout lunch and dinner "with light help," often calling it a day at 11 p.m.
These days, he comes in around noon to tinker with new menu options and decide on the day's specials. Then it's off to scheduling, ordering produce and protein, and sometimes preparing the family meal that staff eats before dinner begins. In the evening, he expedites dishes to the 200-seat dining room.
Although the success of Johnny V is tied to Las Olas Boulevard's and the demands of its diners, Vinczencz seems to walk his own path, with little interest in his neighbors. "We do what we do," he says. "I quit long ago worrying about what everybody else is doing."