As a critic, though, I've lived by limitations. After reviewing the 200th sushi bar of my career, I am the fish on the hook: In what new way can I praise a piece of raw tuna? After lauding a few particular local restaurants over and over for more than a decade, how can I even interest myself, let alone the reader, in one of them?
It takes a chef like Tony Sindaco to instill the philosophy of a poet back into the formula of a food writer.
The proprietor of Sunfish Grill in Pompano Beach, Sindaco, along with wife Erika (who makes desserts such as an irresistibly caramelized pineapple upside-down cake with passion fruit crème), just celebrated his fifth anniversary as an independent operator. I've been following his career since I began my own, tracking him from places like the erstwhile Langosta Beach in Miami to the now-defunct Go Fish in Fort Lauderdale. I've always admired his creativity and his deft touch with seafood, though when I speak with him, Sindaco is quick to point out that I once gave him a bad review for his efforts at the Mayfair Grill in Coconut Grove.
Oh yeah, now I remember. But it's such a distant memory. Through the years, largely because of Sindaco's personality -- a man of definite opinions who likes to communicate with others who can be just as blunt -- I've corresponded with him frequently, often quoting him as a source in my Miami New Times column. Then I had the good fortune/bad luck to meet him at an event in Miami where I was the MC -- damn, now he knows what I look like too. When it comes to Sunfish Grill, I'm not only left searching for new ways to enthuse over the gorgeous tuna tartare but I'm thoroughly and completely compromised. As in biased, in Sindaco's favor. "I can't do a review," I protested when he invited me in for dinner recently.
"So don't," he said. "Just write about what you see."
And though it's not my usual format, I decided to take him up on it and see what I could see. If only because, in all honesty, I hadn't dined at Sunfish Grill in several years, and here I've been recommending it on the radio nearly every time I'm on WLRN and sending countless friends and relatives in his direction. Was Sindaco, I wondered, still at the top of his game?
You betcha -- at least at the top of his game fish. (Non-fish lovers got no game, at least not on the standard menu, but Sindaco always features a steak or chop as a special.) One of the showcase entrées of the all-seafood tasting menu he served me, a two-inch-thick fillet of seared sea bass composed of huge, glistening flakes, was simply superb, plated with roasted fennel. Also seared rare tuna, architecturally arranged over a ragout of oxtail and shiitake mushrooms, garlic whipped potatoes, and onion rings as crisp as tempura, was so fresh and healthy that it reflected the light, and the beef-like texture of the fish made it an apt pairing for the savory oxtail stew. Using the same sushi-grade tuna, Sindaco prepared an excellent tartare, molded over buttery avocado, topped by a perfectly fried quail egg, and studded with gaufrette potato chips. A tomato vinaigrette, piped decoratively onto the plate, added a coordinated color component as well as an increase in flavor pitch.
Sindaco's use of stacking techniques, timbales and terrine molds, and pastry-bag piping bespeak his formal training. Though he began his career as a dishwasher at age 14, he knew by age 17 that he wanted to be a chef and undertook an American Culinary Federation-certified apprenticeship at the highly regarded Buckhill Inn. From there, he went to Switzerland, working at the Michelin-starred Palace Hotel as Chef Tournant, then returned to the United States to be Chef Poissonnier at the Helmsley Palace before appearing on the Florida independent restaurant scene in the early 1990s.
You can appreciate Sindaco's precision with dishes such as the crab Charlotte starter. A timbale of avocado "jam" layered with delicate crabmeat salad, the rounded structure is encased by cucumber slices so thin they cling like Scotch tape. An emulsion of green herbs emphasized the seafood flavor of the salad without overwhelming it, and a hard-boiled quail egg, sliced in half lengthwise and dabbed with osetra caviar, shone richly next to it. Similar in structure, a panko-encrusted marshmallow of goat cheese was complemented with roasted yellow and red beets, mâche, and a striking red-pepper syrup. The crust of the goat cheese, a deep golden hue, was perfectly greaseless, and the cheese itself was both nutty and pungent without being sour, as inferior cheeses can sometimes prove themselves to be when cooked.
Less-constructed dishes were no less stunning. Grilled shrimp bruschetta was a hearty appetizer as well as a throwback to Sindaco's Italian roots, enhanced with broccoli rabe, chopped tomatoes, and just-tender white beans. Or consider another bite from the Boot: braised littleneck clams with shaved garlic, tomatoes, and capers in a broth so tempting that the Grill's homemade focaccia, served with a Dijon mustard butter, is readily seduced. Indeed, the waiters claimed it's "illegal" to remove the bowls until the customer has soaked up every last drip.
Is there anything wrong at Sunfish Grill? Yup: the size. Seven years ago, the now-elegant restaurant was a downtrodden luncheonette. Though it has undergone an expansion or two and is attractive with primary earth-and-sky colors and white linen-covered tables, the 40-seat place is overwhelmingly small for the number of hopefuls who come to the door. In addition, the open kitchen that runs along one side of the restaurant sends out so much smoke, I wouldn't be surprised if the residents who live across the causeway think the Grill is sending signals. Perhaps it is -- after several years' absence, I know I've been pulled back in.