At the circular outdoor bar, middle-aged men wearing short-sleeved button-ups and sandals sip cocktails. Inside, on red cloth banquettes and fanned wicker chairs, six women, all wearing short silk dresses and high heels, laugh and clink glasses. At the sushi bar, two stern-looking businessmen talk over the young boy sitting between them. Every so often, the man with the round-framed glasses and red tie in a fat Windsor knot pauses to show the boy how to hold chopsticks.
Wavy beige and brown panels hanging from the ceiling hold lights that envelop the 300-seat restaurant in a warm orange glow. The large open kitchen is full of hustle and bustle as nearly a dozen cooks toil in front of a blood-red-tile backdrop. Black-clad servers carry long, narrow plates with sticks of fried yucca topped with juicy, medium-rare slices of coffee-rubbed skirt steak and mango chimichurri sauce. A small dish of tender fried artichoke hearts with an herbed dipping sauce is dropped and quickly gobbled up.
Across the street, the Atlantic Ocean twinkles an aquamarine blue. Despite the sensory overload inside the restaurant, the focus is on the water — or at least, that is the idea. Though its name is meant to evoke thoughts of the ocean, S3 in a few ways neglects it.
"S3" is short for sun, surf, and sand. The Restaurant People — the company that owns YOLO, Vibe, and the Tarpon Bend chain — spent $4 million and a year and a half transforming the first floor of the Hilton Fort Lauderdale Beach Resort into an Asian-inspired waterfront oasis. The inside of the restaurant is cleverly terraced so that every seat comes with a spectacular view of the ocean. However, the deep earth tones and low lighting, especially at night, darken the space, making diners almost forget they're only steps from the water. The Restaurant People's president and cofounder, Tim Petrillo, said he drew inspiration from the Pacific, where dark woods and slates are abundant.
If you want to get the full ocean experience, be sure to get one of the 48 seats on the outside patio, where you can smell the sea spray and open fire pits are lit up at night. As at YOLO, there's a heavy focus on the cocktail scene. Bartenders pour $12 cocktails; there's a berry mojito and gin tickle with Bombay Sapphire, pineapple juice, sage, and peppercorn. In late June, S3 threw its first full-moon party, complete with scantily clad hula girls, fire spinners, and one almost-naked woman covered in sushi.
The surroundings and the well-heeled crowd create a trendy scene that toes the line between the über-luxe hotels continually popping up along the beach and the ever-present beer-and-pizza, spring-break-style debauchery.
"We saw very high-end restaurants and very casual restaurants but nothing in between," says Petrillo. "Our goal was to bring locals back to the beach."
He may have succeeded. The house was packed, even on a Monday night.
It's not really surprising. No one can deny that the Restaurant People — led by Petrillo; executive chef Peter Bouloukos, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America in New York City; and real estate developer Alan Hooper — are the reigning titans of Fort Lauderdale's dining scene.
For S3, they reunited with chef Chris Miracolo. The trio first worked together in 1995 — ancient times by South Florida standards — at Mark's Las Olas (run by Mark Militello, the closest thing to a Broward celebrity chef), and all three left together to open Himmarshee Bar & Grille. They later parted ways, but Miracolo returned in 2009, staying only two years before the downtown mainstay shuttered. (It was bought in 2011 by Dave Nicholas, who, with chef Brandon Whitestone, reopened it as PL8 only to close it in 2012.) Miracolo helped launch the lauded farm-to-table restaurant Max's Harvest in Delray Beach while Petrillo opened YOLO in 2008 and Vibe in 2010.
But Miracolo was lured back.
"When we were conceptualizing S3, we thought he would be the perfect fit," Petrillo says. "We wanted to give him the freedom to make his talent show."
And in many places, it does.
A grilled romaine salad is a delight for the salad-weary. The charred lettuce is a touch sweet and smoky. Pecorino cheese and crisped prosciutto provide a satisfying hit of salt and meatiness while a fresh, acidic lemon dressing rounds it all out. The grilled octopus is one of the best presentations in town, better even than the same dish at Greek restaurants that should specialize in it. Thick slices of tentacles have the perfect balance of chewiness and give, with healthy char that provides crunch and smoke. Fat, off-white gigande beans are a smart foil to the luscious cephalopod, and a piquant salsa verde helps brighten each bite. Pork loin — cooked until pink just in the center — is perfectly juicy and meant to be savored. It gets even better when combined with an herbaceous sausage bread pudding reminiscent of Thanksgiving.
Oddly, it's the seafood dishes that are underwhelming. Two gorgeous, fat slices of yellowtail sashimi come cupped in a verdant shiso but taste too fishy and a touch oily. "Crispy rice cakes" is a trio of rice squares, quickly fried and topped with chopped tuna mixed with spicy mayonnaise, a sliver of red onion, and avocado. All three bites are bland, and the "crispy" cakes are actually chewy. A chopped blue crab and sweet shrimp roll with Asian pear sounds promising but offers only the funky flavors of the sea. The sushi program is run by one of the first people to respond to a Craigslist ad, Daniel Binghak, who worked at Masaharu Morimoto's restaurant in Philadelphia and the New York City sushi temple Masa.
Miracolo says he's incorporating foods from farmers he met while at Max's: Produce is delivered weekly from Swank Farms in Loxahatchee. Pork comes from the lauded Fudge Family Farms in Alabama. Beef is sourced from Creekstone Farms in Kansas.
He'd like to use more local farmers, he says, but demand for local products has skyrocketed, making it difficult for Florida farmers to meet everyone's needs.
"We make sure we at least get California garlic instead of Chinese," he says. With seafood, "we're doing more traditional Japanese fish, causing us to go more Pacific," he adds. However, "we make sure our shrimp is sourced from Gulf waters, and clams come from Sebastian Inlet exclusively."
That's good enough for the Restaurant People's loyal crowd. With Miracolo's talent, Petrillo's business savvy, and the team's ability to create buzz, there's no doubt they'll do fine. The beach has long needed a place where you can grab well-executed dishes and stunning ocean views without breaking the bank.
But success at this level is measured not only in dollars and cents. Petrillo last month told New Times he wants to see "edgier restaurant concepts that push the envelope" in Broward County. Yet S3 misses the mark of "edgy." It's beautiful, it's nice, but the décor is barely reflective of the nearby ocean, and the trendy sushi flops next to the rest of the menu.
The Restaurant People is the driving force behind the downtown Fort Lauderdale dining scene, and certainly this won't be the last concept the group executes. S3 will determine whether it heads for higher ground when it is ready to strike again or whether to continue storming the beach.
"We'll see if this thing is going to be a roaring success or huge failure," Petrillo says. "If it works, I'd definitely consider it."