In a part of the country that doesn't always respect its history, chef Kris Wessel's new Miami Beach restaurant, Florida Cookery, offers plenty to love.
As its name implies, the restaurant is an homage to all that was and is great about food and eating in the Sunshine State. Wessel calls it his "culinary love letter to the state of Florida."
While he's delighted to be part of the culinary explosion that brought name chefs and every kind of cuisine imaginable to South Florida, Florida Cookery came about for more personal reasons.
"As great as it has been to be part of this boom," Wessel writes on the restaurant's website, "I've also noticed that it has become harder and harder to find truly authentic Florida cuisine — the kind my grandparents enjoyed when they arrived in the state in 1925, and that I've been blessed to have passed down through the generations to me."
So on the top of the menu is an exquisite conch chowder ($14) based on a 1948 recipe served with what Wessel calls "fritter dipper," a bundle of old-fashioned, stick-shaped hush puppies that are indeed perfect for dipping. Kris's Biscayne Blvd. Shrimp ($10 small/$19 large) have a wonderful barbecue flavor heavy with Worcestershire. They are a holdover from his previous restaurant, Red Light Little River, a dinerlike spot in a Miami motel that was just a few years away from room-by-the-hour rentals. It closed in December after a four-year run.
Many of Florida Cookery's dishes reflect the increasing Latin influence on our cuisine. We had a trio of empanadas ($14), one of each filled with oxtail, oyster and alligator. They're served with lemon-cayenne rouille. Sticky guanabana-glazed ribs ($10 small/$19 large) are the kind of ribs you crave — fall-off-the-bone but still chewy, and deeply flavored but not spicy.
We shared the refreshing Royal Palm salad ($12) with hearts of palm, micro-sprouts, orange vinegar and shaved Brazil nuts. The CSA Box Salad ($12) is made from whatever is fresh from local farms. The night we dined, the ingredients were from Swank Specialty Produce in Loxahatchee.
For entrees, we had "Florida Is the South" pecan-dusted grouper ($32). Wessel knows when fish is done. It came with a cheese grits cake, string beans and citrus beurre noir. It was served on a sweet, old-fashioned plate with flowers around the rim. Slow-braised oxtail ($26) was served in a white stoneware baking dish. It arrived a little cold for my tastes, but was quickly reheated. It comes with coconut-water-steamed callaloo, a Caribbean leafy-green vegetable not unlike kale. Sherry-scented spiny lobster ($34) from Miami-Dade County came in a metal baking dish with old-fashioned spoon bread. It was loosened from the shell for easy eating.
Dessert was a highlight of the meal. Grandma Esther's Key lime pie ($8) was more of a tart than a pie. The filling met all my sour to sweet needs, but the pastry was a bit chewy. Banana-Southern pecan pudding ($9) with caramel-whiskey sauce was also good. But Puerto Rican pineapple rum cake ($9) was just amazing. The accompanying house-made coconut-pineapple frozen yogurt reminded me of what chef-made yogurt can be.
The James Royal Palm has its own history. Built in 1939, it was rebuilt and expanded in the '90s and recently renovated to the tune of $42 million. The art-filled lobby is gorgeous, while the Florida Cookery dining room is a comfortably cool mix of Danish modern meets "The Jetsons." The decor underscores the mix of old and new that is Miami Beach, as you sit eating from this homey-leaning menu among a glitzy redo.
Waitresses wear white blouses with a revealing slit open in the back. Waiters wear aprons, while runners and assistants have French sailor shirts and capri pants. While I couldn't figure out what the uniforms had to do with the measured theme of Florida Cookery, service was of the doting kind.
I want Florida Cookery to be a hit — an enduring hit. Because like Wessel, I believe the Sunshine State has lots of food to celebrate and explore.
The James Royal Palm, 1545 Collins Ave., Miami Beach
Hours: Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full service
Sound level: Conversational
Outside smoking: No
For kids: Highchairs, menu
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: $20 valet