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Review: One Door East is loud and proud

 

★★★

You've heard of the proverbial fork in the road. A top Fort Lauderdale dining destination now has a culinary pivot at the entrance. Step through the door at 620 S. Federal Highway, and you'll be presented with a choice. To your right, Valentino Cucina Italiana is sleek and classy. To your left, One Door East is loud and brassy.

Giovanni Rocchio, the highly regarded chef at Valentino, opened One Door East in August, but he's not cooking there. He hired Jeremy Bearman to launch the global small plates concept. Bearman earned a Michelin star and kind words from the New York Times during his six-year stint as executive chef at Rouge Tomate, a 200-seat, 15,000-square-foot dining palace on Manhattan's Upper East Side. "A head chef with obvious talent ... and, on occasion, real artistry," Frank Bruni wrote about Bearman in a 2009 review. Rouge Tomate tried to bring healthier touches to fine dining, including a staff nutritionist to oversee the menu and kitchen.

Bearman, 41, and his nine-person kitchen crew are doing all kinds of fun things without the formality, or nutritional nanny, at One Door East, a food laboratory in an industrial setting. He's playing with fresh, seasonal ingredients and changing dishes by the week. He's using products and flavors from Asia, Europe, Africa, South America and the good ol' USA (he's keen on barbecue and his 48-inch Lang smoker). Many of his plates are outstanding, particularly raw fish, seafood and vegetable dishes. A few are clunkers, such as the burnt brisket ends that have great char but are tough and chewy.

The biggest problem at One Door East: When it gets crowded, it gets loud. I MEAN REALLY LOUD. The wooden tables are slightly elongated, better to set all those tapas plates on, but that makes it even harder to hear your dining companions across the way. The acoustics are atrocious. On a recent Saturday night, I sat at a table wedged against the wall. "I can hear every conversation in here except the one at this table!" my tablemate shouted. Bearman and Rocchio say soundproofing, heavy drapery and other noise buffers are on the way.

Rocchio used to bake bread in the space occupied by One Door East, a converted garage with industrial chic elements that are all the rage: high ceilings, exposed pipes and vent ducts, utility boxes on the walls, concrete slab floors. Now, Rocchio and his partners are trying to make real bread — as in cash — at this spot. The quality plates, craft cocktails and wines are expensive, and in the case of a Meiomi Pinot Noir offered by the glass with a markup four times its retail price, excessive. It went for $16 a glass on my latest visit, and sells for $16.97 a bottle at the Total Wine & More down the road. Most small plates are in the $10 to $20 range (you'll need a bunch to fill up), but there's also a $24 burger and $69 rib-eye steak. Cost doesn't seem to be a concern for the well-heeled regulars coming from the surrounding Rio Vista neighborhood and beyond, who keep packing the 16-seat bar and 96-seat dining room.

"Everything seems to be working," Bearman said when I popped in for a follow-up interview this week after two unannounced visits in the past three months. It was a Tuesday night, and the room was hopping. "We've got whole pigs coming in this weekend. I'm thinking of doing pork belly and waffles. I'm going to do a fish dip made with hamachi collars ... In fine dining, there are all these rules. Here, we can do whatever the hell we want."

One Door East is culinarily exciting, and with more than 30 items on its constantly rotating menu, the restaurant can also be a minefield. Or as a busboy said when he came to clear dishes and we told him we were up to dessert: "Choose wisely." The problem is, at every stage, it can be hard to choose. Every dessert I tried from pastry chef Breanna Tepper was a winner, including the sticky bun with toffee ($9) and apple pie tacos ($9), served with a dollop of gelato that you can spread across the crunchy tacos, just as you would with sour cream or guacamole on a real taco. Cute.

There's no need to put anything on Bearman's popular tuna tacos ($15), a signature dish featuring crispy tempura shells filled with minced spicy tuna and topped with creamy avocado and cilantro. There are many more hits than misses on the menu. I had 15 items over two visits, and 10 were very good to outstanding. Just when you have the menu figured out and want to order something again, it's gone. The simple, pristine tuna poke I had on my first visit, in September, is off the menu. So is a grilled mushroom dish with whipped carrots that was a textural delight, the woodsy crunch of king trumpet mushrooms blending with the sweet carrot puree. Thankfully, hamachi crudo ($18) is still around, beautiful slices of fish served with beet, horseradish yogurt and powdered piles of dill that turn to oil when it hits your tongue (maltodextrin does the trick). Also remaining is the corn and blueberry salad ($14) with crispy grits and queso freso, an original and delicious dish.

Bearman says he keeps changing because he doesn't want the kitchen to get bored or to turn into assembly-line robots. As a newcomer to South Florida, he says his philosophy is simple: Ask around, find the best purveyors and ingredients, and use them. Case in point, the house-cured salmon toast ($17) with chive cream cheese, caper, dill and large red roe, which he just added this week. He's using sesame-seed bread from Miami's Zak the Baker. It's better than any bagel with lox and cream cheese I've ever had. The Scottish salmon is cured in salt, sugar, caraway, anise, coriander, fresh dill and lemon zest.

The crackling shrimp ($15) has been around since the start. It's a bit of gimmick, but a tasty one. Jumbo shrimp and strips of basil are wrapped in Tunisian brik, a phyllo-type pastry, then fried and served on long wooden skewers, lined up like lollipops on a plank and served with a sweet and spicy dipping sauce. There were just three dishes I didn't like: the burnt ends, gnocchi, and a popular crispy duck salad, which was a scattered, discordant mess. It features a tempura-battered blob of shredded duck in creamy sauce (think cream chipped beef, but with Daffy instead) next to a pile of greens. I thought I'd be getting crisp-skinned pieces of duck. Oh, well.

Bearman grew up in Rockland County, N.Y., went to Cornell University's school of hotel management, then worked for top chefs Daniel Boulud and Joel Robuchon in New York and Las Vegas. He says he got priced out of living in New York, and he spent a year working at an Auberge Resort on Anguilla, a Caribbean island. He likes warm weather, has relatives in Boca Raton and Wellington, and recently moved his family to Delray Beach. I'm hoping talent like his sticks around in Fort Lauderdale. It should be fun to watch Bearman evolve and grow at One Door East, even if I have to wear earplugs or Bose noise-canceling headphones to do so.

mmayo@southflorida.com, 954-356-4508. Follow my food adventures on Instagram: @mikemayoeats. Sign up for my weekly dining newsletter at SouthFlorida.com/EatBeatMail.

ONE DOOR EAST

620 S. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale

954-368-6902, OneDoorEast.com

Cuisine: Global small plates, and barbecue items

Cost: Expensive

Hours: 5 p.m.-midnight Monday-Saturday. Closed Sundays

Reservations: Recommended

Credit cards: All major

Bar: Full bar, with specialty craft cocktails and extensive wine list

Sound level: LOUD!

Wheelchair accessible: Yes

Parking: Valet

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