It's hard to believe that Johnny V has been open for business for 10 years. Restaurants have a way of drifting from their original paths, relying too much on old menu items and old ways of doing things. Other times, they become so attached to novelty that the things that made them brilliant fade away.
Not so at Johnny V. And that's because it's led by a strong-willed chef whose name is on the door. Johnny Vinczencz knows how to manage his customers' wishes and his own creative needs
When I first came across Vinczencz and his smoked-tomato soup, he was cheffing at Astor Place in South Beach. Later, he brought his fresh, Caribbean-accented Florida cuisine and that same soup to the then-floundering Sundy House in Delray Beach. He turned it around.
Late last month, I was dismayed to learn his signature tomato soup was nowhere to be found on Johnny V's menu. I just had to be patient. He now offers an espresso cup of the soup as an amuse-bouche to anyone who walks into the restaurant. The soup is on the lunch menu, and fans can still get it at dinner. As usual, it's served with "little grilled cheeses" made with brie, goat and Parmesan.
Vinczencz specializes in broad flavors, and his food boasts a heartiness that speaks to his roots in the Midwest. You never feel as if you need a food dictionary to eat at Johnny V. Sometimes, his plates seem overcrowded with flavors, but you start eating, and it all works. Consider a smoked and then grilled Hatfield Farms center-cut pork chop ($29), served with house-made chunky apple sauce, sweet-potato hash and cranberry sorbet. The dish speaks to his summer vacation a few years back, when he traveled across the country in search of barbecue.
The Thai barbecue lamb ribs ($15) appetizer is exquisitely executed, served with crushed pistachios, Asian vegetable slaw and red-curry vinaigrette. But then, the chef throws in a dish called Bacon, Eggs and Toast ($13), featuring crispy pork belly, quail eggs, fig marmalade and toast points. Longtime fans will be delighted to know his wild-mushroom pancake short stack ($12) will never leave the menu. Wild mushrooms are formed into pancakes with fresh basil. Those cakes are layered with roasted portabellos and topped with sun-dried tomato butter and balsamic vinaigrette. The diner meets the chef.
I had a very good chipotle barbecue-grilled T-bone ($29) that's not currently on the menu. Served with cheddar-cheese mash, wild-mushroom ragout and asparagus, it verged on too smoky tasting. Barbecue-spiked seared jumbo shrimp "Picnic" ($30), however, was spot-on. It is a combination of ever wonderful summer flavors: smoked-rock-shrimp potato salad; creamed corn; Brussels sprouts salad with warm bacon vinaigrette; and barbecue-vinaigrette potato chips.
A hog snapper special ($34) had the fish fillet topped with spinach and crab, and then served with mashed yucca and sherried honey-mustard baby carrots. This one tasted like a mash-up of the Caribbean, a Midwestern fall and a very creative chef working with the best ingredients he can find. Johnny V always offers specials, and on weekends, the chef invents three each night.
The 250-seat restaurant is still casually elegant, but after a decade, it can use a light freshening up. Servers — dressed in black with black aprons — are professional, but friendly. At lunchtime, Johnny V attracts a business crowd, because it's one of those restaurants that instantly imbues business with a nice bit of casual formality. For some people, this is a special-occasion-dinner restaurant, but plenty of locals uses it as a regular spot for a quiet dinner with consistent food and service. For foodies, it's the most-serious restaurant on Las Olas Boulevard
With 375 bottles on its wine list and 39 kinds of cheese, Johnny V is also a great spot to come after work or after dinner for great samples of both. And don't forget pastry chef Justin Gomes' ever-changing menu. I love Johnny's favorite chocolate cake ($13), with caramel, bananas and peanut-butter mousse served with malted chocolate-chip ice cream. Gomes make all his ice cream and sorbet.
When outsiders ask for my favorite Fort Lauderdale restaurants, Johnny V always tops the list.
625 E Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale
Cuisine: New American
Cost: Expensive-very expensive
Hours: Lunch and dinner daily; Sunday brunch
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full service
Sound level: Conversational
Outside smoking: No
For kids: Highchairs, boosters, menu items on request
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Street parking and lots