By Jan Norris
While the dark, clubby Grill Room at the Riverside Hotel in Fort Lauderdale served its power-lunch purposes over the years, Heiko Dobrikow, general manager of the venerable 77-year-old property, kept hearing that it was time for a change.
Everyone was clamoring for a seafood restaurant, he says. “There is no restaurant on Las Olas that offers seafood as its focus, so we thought, what can we do different to make it a stand-out?”
Dobrikow and his staff – executive chef Toby Joseph and food and beverage director Jason Cotter – have now opened the very different Wild Sea Oyster Bar & Grille, a chef-driven restaurant with a hip beverage program that definitely stands out.
A redesign of the former Grill Room space sets a tone for lighter, modern cuisine here, with sea and sky blues, sand beiges and off-whites giving the minimalist rooms a cool, classic coastal feel.
“We needed a bar – so we created one with dining around it,” Dobrikow says. “After hours, we can shut the sliding glass doors to the dining space and open the bar to the outside. Already we’re attracting a late-night following.”
Cocktails do get their due here, with a select menu. Four featured drinks featuring four different spirits are prepared nightly (an elderflower liqueur and basil vodka gimlet was being shaken this night); while craft beers and some unusual wines are on the beverage lists. The beers in particular go well with the addictive bar snack: bar snack: Jalapeño cheddar popcorn – a special blend made just for the hotel, served in silver buckets.
But to get to the bar, diners must first ignore the siren song of the oyster bar, a galley space set near the entrance. Fresh oysters are splayed out on ice, with shuckers ready to crack on command. Six from each coast are offered daily, with a trio of condiments made in-house for dressing them. Top-neck clams from Cedar Key are on the half-shell, and a ceviche and poke of the day also are on the menu.
Chef Joseph enthusiastically points to the wide list of sources for the bivalves, as well as the fish. “We’re looking everywhere and going beyond the usual purveyors to get really great fish and shellfish that nobody else here has. The menu will change almost daily because we never know what might affect the catch.”
Chef de cuisine Jon Sanchez, fresh off a sous chef position at Comme Ça, the notable French brasserie in Las Vegas, is developing the menus with input from Joseph and the culinary team. A sampling of entrées at a press preview included a citrus poached wild-striped bass, the delicate fish set over a bed of mushrooms, kohlrabi and black garlic. An aromatic clam broth was poured over it by the server at the table. (On a subsequent menu, the fish used in this preparation was black bass). Another dish, the sunburst trout, was served with oysters, cipollini onions, baby carrots and scented with coriander.
For non-pescatarians, the meltingly tender beef cheeks braised in craft beer was a table-wide winner. The chef went all the way to Alabama to source the beer, a Back 40 Honey-Brown Ale, which he uses to create the rich sauce.
Dobrikow says the average check is $75, adding the price is justified in the unusual ingredients and sourcing of small-batch products or single catches giving diners a chance to sample foods they won’t find elsewhere in the area.
He says he hopes inquisitive, smart diners will find Wild Sea and spread the word that it’s a “foodie” experience. “I think Fort Lauderdale needs something like this.”
Wild Sea Oyster Bar & Grille, 620 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-467-0671, riversidehotel.com