Here's a quote from chef Johnny Vinczencz in 1997, at the tender age of 32, when South Florida's most adored young foodist was rising as brilliantly as a solid-gold moon over Miami:
"There's so much glamour in this business that it's easy to get caught up with presentation and looks. But I make sure my people keep asking themselves one thing, 'Does it taste good?' It's so simple and so important."
Vinczencz was running the kitchen at the posh Miami Astor Hotel then, having completed his apprenticeship with Ziggy Alespach, Norman Van Aken, and Kerry Simon. His customers were falling all over themselves to scarf down his wild mushroom pancakes with sun-dried tomato butter and drizzled balsamic. Ten years later, after tours through Delray Beach (Sundy House) and Lauderdale (Johnny V), Vinczencz was back at the Astor, serving that same portobello short stack as one option in a menu of "Nuevo American" dazzlers. In the intervening decade, he'd perfected a whimsical cooking profile that was part Deep South, part Latin-Caribbean, and part circus: Florida lobster corn dogs; barbecued wild boar with corn-bread crostini and star-fruit salsa; local black grouper with citrus dulce de leche; and sage-grilled Florida dolphin with lobster pan gravy and cranberry-mango chutney. He was the über-locavore, and he'd earned fame for his three- and four-way presentations long before those notions became hackneyed clichés in the hands of lesser chefs. His "duck, duck, duck" offered seared duck breast, a confit leg, and duck liver-wild mushroom stuffing; a quartet of "four shells" tossed shrimp, mussels, clams, and scallops in a luscious tomato saffron broth with chorizo; "tres maneras" featured vaca frita, empanada, and ensalada, all composed as variations on beef short rib.
Vinczencz's sensibility, in keeping with his Midwestern roots, has always been tinged with the scent of barbecue smoke. Critics called him the "Caribbean Cowboy" because he elevated baby backs and pulled pork into a gastronomic tour de force. Lauded in Esquire, fêted by the James Beard Foundation, featured on Iron Chef: In short, he was our darling, darling boy, and if we could have swallowed him whole, along with his plates of "green eggs and ham," we would have. And licked our satisfied chops.
The glitter that has fallen from Vinczencz's chef's toque every time he turned his beautiful head has bedazzled us for well over a decade now, and expectations were starry for his new place on Las Olas, Smith & Jones, which opened in November. We had high hopes even after we learned that his most recent Miami venture at the Astor had floundered and failed. It didn't bother anybody much to hear that at Smith & Jones, he was serving affordable comfort food (pulled pork, macaroni and cheese, hot dogs, meatloaf) or that the restaurant was situated on the lower-rent end of the street — those details just added to its potential charm.
Here, at last, was a Vinczencz for the people. And just in the nick of time too, because the economic crisis was promising to strip away every shred of our financial dignity. We were losing our shirts, but we still had Johnny V's short ribs. We had a few things to be thankful for, and the anticipation of a fried green tomato and molasses-cured bacon sandwich ($9.95) at Smith & Jones was one of them.
I thought about Johnny V's question, "Does it taste good?" as I bit into a fried green tomato BLT one afternoon at Smith & Jones about a month after it opened. Because it didn't. Taste good. I had to take the sandwich apart to figure out why. The fried green tomatoes were sodden and greasy. The bacon cloyingly sweet. The toast, if it wasn't Wonderbread, was a wondrous approximation of it. And the lettuce! I was shocked by it — the wilted white ends from a head of romaine, the very part of the vegetable most of us toss into the compost pile. I considered what might motivate a line cook to put that bloodless, sour stuff on a sandwich, particularly where it's one of the headlined ingredients. In a BLT, after all, the L stands for something more than a garnish. I tried to imagine him, my sandwich man, putting the final touches on his creation. Was it boredom? Contempt? The place was nearly empty at 1 p.m. on a Sunday, so it couldn't have been that he was rushed.
You'll say I'm making too much of a few nasty salad greens, but something about the unrelenting mediocrity of that sandwich really hit me hard. Vinczencz has said that he named his new restaurant Smith & Jones because they're the quintessential American names to represent his quintessentially American restaurant. With no disrespect to the Smiths and Joneses who may be reading this column, they're also names that quintessentially represent the masses, the faceless, the average, the unexceptional, the common. They're the aliases you take to disappear, the monikers of men in gray flannel suits, the humdrum one fears to become.
What had become of Johnny V? The man I knew would never serve his customers a sandwich like that. The day I picked apart my BLT, we also ate a plate of smoked beef brisket and sausage, which came from Kreuz market in Texas ($16.95). We had a dish of runny macaroni and cheese made with Cheez Whiz ($4). And on the side were homemade barbecued potato chips ($4). None of it rose beyond competent; none of it approached what hundreds of mothers across the southeastern United States have been serving their families for decades, much less what you'd expect from a chef of this caliber. It hurt my brain and my heart.
I've been pondering the conundrum of Smith & Jones ever since. The space isn't much to look at during the day, outfitted in blacks and grays with just the enlivening touch of a few brick walls. Light pours through skylights over the drab booths next to the empty music stage, and you feel as if you've stumbled into a nightclub after the party's long over. Once the sun goes down, it's a different story. When we went back for dinner a couple of weeks later, things were livelier. The two rooms and the bar were full. Our service was more polished; a band was setting up on stage. I got the point: Once the music starts rocking, the place takes on the character of a down-home roadhouse. We ate the Midwest White Boy Pot Roast with Gravy, smashed potatoes, and roasted vegetables ($16.95) and found it had a good deal of character in the rich gravy and melting meat. A wild mushroom flatbread with spinach, goat cheese, and balsamic ($10.95) on a thin crust was no more than a fairly well executed bar snack. A plate of crispy fish tacos ($10.95) looked bright and pretty with its tomato salsa, a brisk jalapeño tartar sauce, and sliced avocado, but the flour tortillas had even less character than the ones at Baja Fresh — and those tacos had nothing on the roadside carts of Southern Cal. There's nothing, in the end, to distinguish this comfort-food menu of sliders and franks from the one at Clematis Social, Palm Beach Grill, Yolo, or any one of the half-dozen retro-American restaurants that have opened here lately.
The problem with having a name like Johnny Vinczencz, apart from the spelling difficulties, is that you can't get away from it, from the obligations of fame, from your status as a local hero. If Joe Nobody had opened this restaurant, the food would rate OK. It might even taste pretty good at midnight, when you're a little bit drunk and there's nothing else open and you're tapping your toe to live bluegrass in a crowded, noisy room. It could be that Johnny V just got sick of having to rise to meet his own reputation when he got up every morning, so adopting the alias Smith & Jones seemed appealing. Maybe deep down, he longed to be like the rest of us, just another face in the crowd.