In an era of small plates and thinner wallets, a tasting menu is an indulgence. It showcases the skill of a chef, from the amuse bouche teaser down to the whimsy of dessert. It is when the diner willingly accedes to the chef because he wants to be wowed by skill and creativity. It is a dinner journey that maintains cachet and signals commitment.
At Market 17, the journey begins with a grilled oyster mushroom dressed with sautéed seaweed and bonito butter: a deliciously savory amuse bouche that drums up an appetite.
It has been assembled by Lauren DeShields. Hired at Market 17 in early January, she was plucked from a sea of national candidates to replace chef Daniel Ramos, who left last summer. It was a monthslong search conducted by brother and sister owners Aaron and Kirsta Grauberger, who launched Market 17 in late 2010. They believed DeShields' skill and training are weighty enough to helm the expensive, chef-driven concept in Fort Lauderdale, which made a name for itself as the only one in town to offer dining in the dark. That room where they serve food in the pitch black is the dining equivalent of speed dating, a gimmick that cheapens the chef's skill and the farmer's labor. I'll pass.
Dine here with eyes wide open. If you're looking for graceful, refined cooking from a young chef with discipline, this is a destination. Dish after dish displays peak flavor.
I went with the four-course tasting menu for $65. It's $85 with a wine pairing, which I declined. More ambitious diners can opt for the six- or eight-course menu for $85 or $105. Gastronomes can sign up for the 17-course menu for $155. Though some restaurants allow individuals at a table to order the tasting menu, here, the whole table must be onboard.
The grilled mushroom is followed by ceviche, a refreshing combination of snapper and shrimp layered with red pepper, jalapeño, lime, and cilantro. A palate cleanser with a bite of heat, ceviche is cut in uniform sizes. It's a tight presentation but not a fussy one.
For a greens course, diced, roasted beets from Swank Farms cascade over arugula, flanked by a pair of goat cheese quenelles and garnished with dried capers.
"I love these!" said my friend Cheryl, who hoarded the little capers in a pile for herself. The cheese is made by a goat farmer at Sweet Grass Dairy in Georgia.
In between courses, we check out the dining room. "They do a good job concealing the parking lot," says Cheryl, who points to greenery and a paneled waterfall that hides cars. Unfortunately, the environment doesn't match the stellar food. The interior is a green haven that's somewhat soulless. Tables are too wide to nestle with company. I crave a more intimate room for such dramatic meals. Take note that it's blessedly more relaxed outdoors than inside, where the evening soundtrack was all over the place.
Further along, antelope is a brawny plate, dressed in a savory soy and ginger marinade, served over a bed of herbed quinoa. Big meats ensure we're quite full.
We wrapped things up with a cheese course in which a rich raw-milk blue from Florida's Winter Park dairy was a favorite, as well as a Rogue Brewery Morimoto Ale cheddar. We coveted a tangy beet date chutney and polished off Marcona almonds. Were we really still eating?
On a Sunday, I sat outside with my friend John and skipped the tasting menu, hoping to order a few items I hadn't tried on earlier visits.
"How's the Bertrand Ambrose sparkling?"my friend asked the server as we sat at an outside table.
"It's good," said our server. "You should get it." Servers are the liaison to the chef and the sommelier. They are the spokespeople for the cuisine, the translators who decode dishes and contextualize a menu. "Good" for a $22 glass of sparkling doesn't cut it. The service is attentive and gracious but not as knowledgeable as I'd like.
Don't miss the sides, such as braised cauliflower so tender, it cuts like meat, seasoned with nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, and sea salt. DeShields knows how to sex up frumpy vegetables.
DeShields' style reminds me of the cooking at a venue closer to the beach: 3030 Ocean. It's no surprise, then, to learn that DeShields is a Dean Max acolyte who began her career with a three-year stint at 3030 Ocean, then detoured to RN74, the Michael Mina modern American restaurant in San Francisco. She was lured back to Florida to serve as Max's chef de cuisine for the opening of 3800 Ocean at the young age of 27.
A dish that exemplifies her style is quite humble: a farm egg atop cheese-laden parsnip purée, a spin on a bed of grits. Brussels sprout leaves and sugar snaps serve as the green middle layer. Bites of pork belly garnish the plate. It's a nod to breakfast that anchovy butter and Meyer lemon make lusty and refined, just like Market 17.