Dining — 08 January 2016
South Florida dining changes with the times

 Editor’s note: South Florida has not been spared the Foodie Revolution, which has had its most dramatic effect in the past 15 years. Fine Dining Writer Rebecca Cahilly looks back on trends for our anniversary issue.

By Rebecca Cahilly

The sign read: “We’re committed to providing delicious, sustainable food. Wherever possible, our produce is local and organic, our meats are all-natural, our breads and pastries are baked by artisans right here in Florida, and we serve it all up in eco-friendly packaging.”

No, I wasn’t standing in line at some organo-groovy hipster vegan cold-pressed juice shop (although South Florida has those in bulk now too). I was grabbing a quick bite in Terminal 3 at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

Fifteen years ago the dining scene was a tad different.

I moved to Fort Lauderdale from Vermont – that state where gas-station sandwiches are prepared on freshly baked artisan bread using free-range meat and organic vegetables grown in the little garden just beyond the pumps. I’m pretty sure Vermonters coined the term “localvore,” as it was one state where you could indeed source everything you ate – including your butter, coffee, chocolate, beer, wine, ice cream, apple sauce – within a 50-mile radius.

Imagine the adjustment when I landed in Fort Lauderdale in early 2005.

“Fort Lauderdale has more restaurants per capita than New York City,” someone shouted in my ear as I struggled to mingle amidst the stilettos and techno beats in search of a bite that didn’t retain the taste of its neighbors in the fridge.

“The quality of the food is inversely related to the proximity to the water,” another frustrated foodie quipped when I suggested we seek out what would surely be a decent seafood restaurant with a water view.

But that was then.

“The advent of the Food Network has changed the way people see food, it has changed their expectations,” says Chef Michael Lottermoser, executive chef at the Fort Lauderdale Marriott Harbor Beach Resort & Spa. “Guests know when you are being authentic, and you must always be true to the food that you make. You need to be far ahead of that curve. The standard burger and fries is no longer acceptable to most people. They need to be ‘wowed.’ ”

This phenomenon serves to make chefs even more passionate about their craft. Superstar Chef Clay Conley, the name behind būccan and Imoto on Palm Beach and the new Grato in West Palm, says that the focus on quality ingredients and local products has been the biggest change the area has seen in the past 15 years.

“It’s rewarding that our clientele care about how their products are raised and where they are from and that our customers recognize the value in sourcing,” Conley says.

South Florida chefs and restaurateurs understand that a new concept without quality food will not last long. Today any new Broward or Palm Beach county restaurant – from fine dining to pizzerias – does not open without some sort of “fresh ingredients” or “locally sourced” or “organic” or “homemade” bent to it, terms that 15 years ago were scarcely a blip on the culinary PR radar.

Larry Carrino of Brustman Carrino Public Relations has been covering PR in the culinary world for the past 20 years.

“For many years it was South Beach and nothing else,” he says. “That’s not to say there weren’t restaurants in Broward and Palm Beach counties, but in terms of how the national media perceived of our region, Miami Beach was where anything noteworthy in the culinary world was happening.

“In the last five years alone there are now many serious restaurants outside of Miami Beach that are deserving of national recognition. Visitors who are serious about food plan Fort Lauderdale into their itinerary. It has great beaches, culture, amazing food and very talented chefs, great bars and fabulous mixology. Fort Lauderdale is light years ahead of where it was.”

Lee Schrager, creator of Miami’s South Beach Food & Wine Festival, agrees. In 2016, the festival’s kick-off events will be held not in Miami but in Fort Lauderdale. The city’s growing dining scene and diverse mix of quality food, drink and atmosphere gained the festival organizers’ attention.

“It’s certainly a community of talent we’ve had our eye on,” says Schrager, “and this is an opportunity to really highlight the culinary scene in Fort Lauderdale.”

When Chef Giovanni Rocchio opened the original Fort Lauderdale location of his renowned Valentino Cucina Italiana in 2006, it was sought out by foodies and promoted by word of mouth. Today his larger location at 620 N. Federal Highway, which opened in 2012, is packed nightly with people (like me) who don’t even open the menu and instead sit back to be “wowed.”

“Our clientele encourage us to think outside of the box,” Rocchio says. “Guests are willing to try anything creative. They are worldly and well-traveled, so we aren’t afraid to elevate their dining experience.”

Rocchio says the different produce now available from local farms popping up all over the state to provide everything from vegetables to Wagyu beef help chefs create sophisticated dining experiences.

When Rocchio opened his new Valentino, he created an open kitchen to give his guests a full sensory experience.

“Cooking is an art form,” he says. “Having the guests watch our chefs in action encourages them to push for even more creative dishes to provide that ‘wow’ factor.”

Chef Angelo Elia, whose Casa D’Angelo (1201 N. Federal Highway) has consistently ranked as one of the best Italian restaurants in the area, says that the restaurant scene has changed immensely.

“The county is always growing, and a large variety of the population are looking for new, creative food and restaurants,” he says. “We are constantly trying to re-invent our talents.

What’s new for Elia apart from his tapas concepts popping up here and there?

“Brunch!” he says. “I love brunch. This is the meal that my family and I loved coming together for. I tend to prepare traditional Tuscan dishes, using only the finest ingredients and making virtually everything from scratch, so I was beyond excited to try something new and offer brunch to my guests.”

The emphasis on quality ingredients is definitely here to stay, but once that becomes established, what’s next?

“There is always some new trend when it comes to dining out,” Elia says. “New diets, new hot spots to dine at. It is up to chefs and restaurateurs to develop exciting ways to bring repeat guests.”

I’ll toast to that with a fresh-pressed juice in an eco-friendly cup.

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