Features — 13 September 2019
The top secrets of top South Florida chefs

By Eric Barton

City & Shore Magazine 

It’s your turn to pick the lunch spot, and your coworkers are expecting something special. Or you’re making dinner tonight for that couple from the neighborhood who always throws the best dinner parties. Or you need a new place for a weekend getaway with a lineup of amazing restaurants. Or maybe you’ve just always wondered: What do restaurant workers eat before they open the doors?

For those questions and more we reached out to the experts. More specifically, we hit up some of South Florida’s top chefs to see if they could give us their best tips – right down to making sure your next dinner party goes perfectly.

How’d you find the coolest sushi spot or make that killer soufflé? You learned it here, from the experts.

Where the Chefs Eat

When we asked chefs where they go to eat when nobody’s looking, they named spots that mostly will never appear on a list of James Beard Award finalists or crack the top-ten on Yelp. These are places, they promised, with simply great food.

For Chef Lindsay Autry, that starts at downtown West Palm Beach’s Mediterranean Market and Deli. Autry, who’s made a name for herself nationally with The Regional Kitchen & Public House across town, says she stops at the bakery regularly for lunch and raids the shelves for olives, tahini, halloumi cheese and “the best pita bread in town.” Also in her to-go bag: falafel wraps, gazpacho and cauliflower with tahini.

You’ll find Chef Michael Schenk of Farmer’s Table in Boca Raton at Yellowtail, where he says he’s “never disappointed in the service or food” in this spot off Atlantic Avenue near the Turnpike in Delray Beach.

With a runner-up finish on Hell’s Kitchen and her position as executive chef at The Ritz-Carlton on Fort Lauderdale Beach, you might expect Paula DaSilva to spend her nights off getting lavished at the top restaurants in town.

Instead, her favorite is in a strip mall west of the Turnpike, a Caribbean fusion spot called Swirl Wine Bistro in Coconut Creek. She has picked out a three-course menu for you there: Baked brie cheese with jam, roasted chicken with fresh pasta and braised oxtail.

Many of the chefs we asked for advice steered us to hole-in-the-wall spots, some barely discovered by Yelp regulars. Head to Hollywood’s GoBistro for the miso ramen with pork belly, which American Social Chef Tyler Spute says is “absolute perfection.” Alter Chef Brad Kilgore says Panya Thai on 163rd Street in Miami must be the best Thai food in South Florida.

Chef Elgin Woodman of the Joy Wallace Catering & Design firm recommends two authentic Asian spots in Miami: Lung Yai Thai Tapas on Calle Ocho and Zaika Indian Cuisine in North Miami.

In Hollywood, check out Kussifay, says Chef Jose Icardi of Diez y Seis and Leynia in Miami Beach. Kussifay is a mash-up of Italian and Argentine food that’s common in Argentina, a country with many immigrants from Italy. The place serves everything from grilled sweetbreads to alfredo with shrimp, but Icardi recommends the Argentinian-style pizza, typically a traditional crust tucked into bed with toppings like ham, eggs and red peppers cut into slices.

It may have been discovered by the Instagram crowd over the years, but Rocco Carulli of R House in Wynwood says the hype is deserved for Cake Thai, now housed inside the 1-800-LUCKY food hall.

You won’t find any avant-garde sushi experiments at Katana on Miami Beach, but that’s exactly what Chef Christian Quiñones of ADDiKT likes about it. The tiny restaurant has a “really crazy” process, he says, starting with butcher-shop-like tickets handed out to waiting customers, and ending with sushi boats arriving down a canal.

For a sample of the food made by Chinese immigrants who came to South Florida via Cuba, there’s Kon Chau, Tropical Chinese and Dumpling King. Miguel Massens, currently running the demo kitchen at the new Time Out Market in Miami, says he grew up eating the traditional-Chinese-via-Cuba dishes you’ll find at those three spots.

Just when you thought all the chefs were going to recommend authentic Asian spots, Chef Steven Zobel of Big City admitted to an indulgence: English chips smothered in Guinness beef stew with a Newcastle ale on the side at the unassuming Kingshead Pub in Sunrise.

And while you wouldn’t think a local chef would admit to hitting a chain restaurant, that’s exactly where you might find Chef Angelo Elia of the Casa D’Angelo Ristorante empire. He says among his favorite spots is sitting along the Intracoastal Waterway at Houston’s in Pompano Beach. “You get the chance to relax, take a couple of hours off your back and indulge in a delicious meal,” he says.

Off-the-Menu Items You Need to Know

If you’re lucky, you’ve had Steve Martorano’s meatballs, the eggplant stack, his pastas and, OK, pretty much anything else he makes. But what you maybe didn’t know you could have is the bucatini amatriciana.

It’s made with San Marzano tomatoes, red onions, Pecorino-Romano cheese and the star of the show: a bacony cured pig cheek called guanciale. It’s one of Martorano’s personal favorites, although he’s never actually put it on the menu. Still, he’ll make it for those who ask nice.

Turns out there are similar secret dishes at many of the places we’ve been eating at for years. Sometimes, you simply need to be polite to find out these dishes exist, and sometimes you need some advance planning.

Massens knows to call well in advance when he’s dining at Michael Mina’s StripSteak in Miami Beach and ask for the Wagyu. It’s slow roasted for three hours over wood. “The slow-rendered fat with wood smoke creates an ethereal and memorable experience that needs to be tried once in your lifetime,” Massens says.

At The Regional, Autry says she will make chicken and waffles on Sundays for those who ask. She also has a pair of secret burgers, a patty melt and then a “Regional style,” which comes topped with the filling of the restaurant’s famous tomato pie, including a tangy herb aioli.

Regulars to Café Centro in West Palm Beach should know to ask for the BLT, with avocado, gouda and chipotle, wrapped up in fresh pizza dough. Chef Jamie Steinbrecher also makes lasagna on Tuesdays, and it’s never the same recipe as the week before.

New Englanders will find two foods that remind them of home at the Wild Thyme Oceanside Eatery. If requested special, Chef Steven Dapuzzo will top his traditional potato-bun lobster roll with a row of crispy fried clams.

And there’s more: Kilgore says the much-written-about soft egg and bread is available anytime at Bar Alter; Icardi will add gold flakes and lobster to a caviar guacamole at Diez y Seis; and Jose Mendin of the Pubbelly restaurant group will top the mofongo with truffle oil at La Placita for a kicked-up version of Puerto Rico’s national dish.

Tips for the Home Chef

If there’s one thing the chefs said when we asked for tips on cooking at home, it’s this: keep it simple.

Those who make their living creating things we couldn’t possibly cook at home say the easily accomplished will not only ensure everything turns out well but also that you’ll have more time to actually entertain. “Make it easy enough to execute,” Elia says. “Don’t get too creative and try out something for the first time.”

That’s made possible by buying quality proteins that need nothing more than salt and pepper, Woodman says, served up alongside simply grilled veggies, a starch and bright salads to bring color to your table.

When Autry is entertaining at home, she creates a menu of things that can largely be made in advance. “I love to make a vegetable display with some different dips. I cut all of my vegetables the day before and place them in individual Ziploc bags, so all I have to do is arrange them on a platter before the guests arrive,” she says. Then she adds interest to the platter with a dip made from caramelized onions, pimento cheese, or feta and piquillo peppers.

That crudités platter of vegetables can only get better by adding pickles you’ve made at home, Kilgore says. He recommends as a good rule of thumb: three cups of apple cider vinegar, one cup of sugar, one cup of water, spices and salt to taste, poured over vegetables – an easy way in advance to add tang to a dish.

No matter the size of the gathering, be prepared in advance with way more food than you think you might need, Schenk says. Plan things so the timing works out for each dish to be ready at once. “Most of the time, simple is better,” Schenk says. “That’s what most prefer whether you’re a guest or a chef. Don’t we all keep going back for something that we’ve always loved and we just can’t get enough of?”

To save time, buy a rotisserie chicken that can be pulled at home for use in salads, stews, enchiladas or burritos, Steinbrecher says. Similarly, bao buns can make for an easy but creative dinner with lots of ingredients made in advance, like braised meats and slaws, ready to stuff in the buns when guests arrive, Woodman says.

While keeping it simple, Mendin says you can also be thinking about something that’s going to wow your guests. “Put love into your presentation,” he says. Maybe that involves a whole roasted lobster, whole vegetables or a fish baked in salt and cracked open at the table. Similarly, Carulli recommends pushing yourself beyond the simple roast chicken by adding exotic spices to your menu, like saffron, sumac or fresh kaffir lime leaves.

If you’re simply out of ideas on how to put everything together, Dapuzzo recommends a visit to Pinterest to see how others have plated a dish. That’s where he has discovered unique wood boards, plates and platters that give life to the presentation. For more inspiration without a long visit to the supermarket, Icardi says try the Supercook app, which turns up recipes based on what you’ve got in the pantry.

Zobel recommends mastering a sous vide machine. The cooking method involves dunking items in a low-temperature water bath, sometimes for a day or more. “It’s much easier than most people expect,” Zobel says. “Some say it’s cheating. But if that’s so, some of the world’s most cherished chefs are cheaters.”

Weekend Culinary Trips from South Florida

Before opening his pop-up kitchen in the Time Out Market in Miami, Massens spent six weeks last summer in Mexico. In Oaxaca, he learned how to make a traditional mole negro from a mother and son who developed the recipe used by the famed Chef Enrique Olvera at Pujol in Mexico City.

“So many people discount Mexican cuisine for just tacos, but the truth is that Mexican food is very complex,” Massens says. “A well-made mole to me takes more skill than a well-made French sauce. Not many people can artfully balance 30-plus ingredients in a sauce while still letting each shine on its own.”

Count Mexico as one of the places local chefs recommend for a weekend getaway from South Florida, a country where Massens says people often go expecting tacos and burritos and leave with a far fuller idea of the country’s cuisine.

But you don’t need a passport to find a great culinary destination. Several chefs recommended a simple jaunt down to the Keys. In Key West, be sure to hit Half Shell Raw Bar for what Icardi says is among the freshest seafood in South Florida. Carulli recommends Blue Heaven, where good Caribbean food is served in a yard where wild chickens roam. In Key Largo, hit Harriette’s for the muffins, Zobel says, and then Snappers for dinner.

Chef Fabian Di Paolo of CVLTVRA says be sure to hit Islamorada Fish Company at sunset. Feed the tarpon and nurse sharks before dinner, and then walk to Morada Bay for live music with your feet in the sand.

Elsewhere in Florida, Mendin heads to Naples, where at Baleen on the Beach, “the setting is ridiculous.” James Strine of the Trophy Room in Wellington is a fan of St. Augustine, where O’Steens and Saltwater Cowboys are his favorites. The burgeoning culinary scene in Tampa has lured Kilgore and Autry, who both recommend the classic Bern’s Steakhouse. “You can find bottles of wine older than you are for a super affordable price,” Kilgore says.

For longer weekends away, Dapuzzo recommends the chill vibe of Asheville, a small town with the culinary scene of a city, including highlights Rhubarb, Cúrate and White Duck tacos.

  Jason Grasty, the chef behind Beehive Kitchen, got his start in the business as a dishwasher in New Orleans and since has made the Big Easy one of his favorite places to visit. For a first timer, Grasty recommends the classics: beignets and chicory-flavored café au lait at Café Du Monde; a muffuletta at the place that created it, Central Grocery; a shrimp po-boy from Dimartino’s; and veal sweetbreads with sherry-mustard butter from Bayona.

Di Paolo recently discovered the cobblestone streets of Colmar in the Grand Est region of northeastern France. “The city is on the Alsace Wine Route, and local vineyards specialize in Riesling and Gewürztraminer wines, and of course food,” Di Paolo says. His favorite dish there was baeckeoffe, a casserole of beef, lamb and pork simmered for hours in Alsatian white wine and served with potatoes, leeks, carrots, onions and spices.

For Elia, of course he prefers his native Italy, even if it’s just a weekend trip. But he’s also happy to head to New York City. “There is so much variety and always something new,” Elia says. “It’s so wonderful to walk around in the summertime and discover even more.”

The Family Meal

Before doors open for dinner, many restaurants serve up big platters of hearty food that’ll keep the always-on-their-feet staff going. They’re called “family meal,” and we asked local chefs for their favorite dishes served to the staff.

Rocco Carulli of R House: Chili made from the trimmings from different cuts of meats like tenderloin, ribeye and short rib and garnished with guacamole, pico de galo, tomatillo sauce, grated cheese, rice and warm corn tortillas.

Steven Dapuzzo of Wild Thyme Oceanside Eatery: Wood-oven pizza with creative ingredients like blackberry jam, bacon and mascarpone.

Fabian Di Paolo of CVLTVRA: Chicken cacciatore with onions, herbs, tomatoes, bell peppers and “sometimes wine, if we have an open bottle.”

Angelo Elia of Casa d’Angelo: Pastas most days, but on Sundays it’s pot roasts or ribeye

Steve Martorano of Café Martorano: Linguine aglio e olio.

Jose Mendin of Pubbelly: Katsudon, a Japanese rice with crispy pork cutlet that the chef says is “so easy and a crowd pleaser.”

Michael Schenk of Farmer’s Table: Butter chicken and tres leches cake.

Chef Jamie Steinbrecher of Café Centro: Rice with saffron, veggies and chicken.

 James Strine of the Trophy Room in Wellington: Chicken wings. “I always try to make them extremely hot – the staff really gets a kick out of it!”


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