At the top end of Florida you have Jeb Bush shouting “yeehaw” wielding pistols on his gubernatorial tower, on the lowest tip you have gay men riding scooters near Ernest Hemingway’s favorite bar; in between you have grown adults dressed in mouse costumes, suntanned tourists stepping off cruise ships in sombreros and wrinkled gray-haired senior citizens shrinking into the driver’s seats of their neon green Cadillacs as they threaten to plow into you on 1-95. Yes indeed, Florida is a cultural mishmosh. And my family adds to that mishmosh from their home in Boca Raton where, every so often, I go to visit. That’s what I did this weekend and, as you’ll soon see, we ate three culturally mishmoshed meals at:
Bice in West Palm Beach
Johnny V on Las Olas
and Prime 112 in South Beach.
Those are my parents holding up a menu. They’re the ones who treated me to all these Flordarrific meals. It is their hope that I will someday see the light at the end of the orange grove and move my life back to the Sunshine State. And while that may not happen before I reach 65, at least I can join them in celebrating the cuisine of their place of residence. So onward and Florida-ward we go!
West Palm Beach is a strange mix of WASP-y Connecticut culture and the tropical culture of palm trees, sand and views of the Atlantic Ocean. The ocean in Palm Beach, to my mind, always looks darker and colder than the water in Ft. Lauderdale or Miami. Perhaps that’s a function of the iciness in the air; the navy blue sweaters and the matching pants, the white hats and the white shoes, the Rolls Royces and Donald Trump’s Mar Lago. Smack in the middle of all that you have an Italian restaurant. Welcome to Bice:
Bice is a scene. In fact, before you taste the food at Bice you taste the wealth and entitlement of those eating there. The table of businessmen with cell phones perched before them; the two young rich white “thugs” in sunglasses and baseball caps dipping their foccacia into olive oil on a shiny white plate. We sit right near the door and the weather on this Friday is chilly and un-Florida like but sort of perfect for West Palm Beach, where sweaters easily function as a second skin for many of the inhabitants.
To start, I have a mozzarella and tomato salad—not in season, true, but maybe they can pull it off?
It’s hard to tell, looking at that picture, whether that tomato is just an unripe regular one or a green heirloom. After eating it, I still can’t say. But the mozzarella was very fresh and pillowy. I suppose money CAN buy you pillowy mozzarella.
For my entree, I had a half order of buccatini with bacon, onions and tomato sauce:
It’s a tasty looking dish, I’ll concede. And the noodles had the pang of fresh homemadeness that made me wonder if I really had the right to be snarky if the food was so good. On the other hand, I’d much prefer a bowl of penne a la vodka at Pepe Rosso in New York where the food’s half the price and served with half the pretension. But we’re in Palm Beach, not New York, and if you want to experience the scene than you can do far worse than Bice.
At dessert, they gave us a plate of cookies…
But mom wasn’t happy. We were being ignored by the end, no one to take our coffee order, no one to bring us our check. But the manager’s heightened Italian accent charms the sourpuss right off our faces when he apologizes for not arriving sooner. The bill gets paid and it’s time to shop on Worth Ave.
Before we do, though, let’s take a quick glimpse at another peculiar aspect of Florida culture. Mom says this happens in New York too, but as far as I’ve experienced it’s mostly Florida. Can you tell what’s happening in this picture?
That woman in the black dress is talking to a couple under an umbrella. It looks normal except she doesn’t know them: she’s a model for a store nearby. Right: in Florida, stores send models out to the restaurants in fancy clothes to promote business and to make old Jewish men drool a little in their pasta sauce. It’s a strange form of promotion that slightly resembles prostitution. But only slightly… real prostitution often involves a vibrating bed.
Now we speed ourselves southward to Las Olas Blvd. in Ft. Lauderdale, home of Johnny V:
If I had to live in Florida, I might consider living on or near Las Olas. For a state void of any real culture (sorry, Gloria Estefan and the Tower of Terror don’t count), Las Olas is always buzzing with art galleries and art festivals and funky food. Check out our meal at Johnny V, a place where we went because my dad the dentist received a gift certificate from his staff for the holidays. Of course, I had to be present before it could be cashed in, after all: the reviews for this place are universal raves.
When we arrived at 12 pm on Saturday, the place was pretty much empty. But that’s because it opens at 12, we told ourselves. Eventually it got a little more crowded–maybe the cold weather kept people away?–but this place deserves a greater audience. The food is really interesting and exciting—one of the best lunches I’ve had in Florida. What did we eat?
We started with: “Blue Corn Crusted Calamari, Spanish Sherry Aioli, Chipotle Lime Vinaigrette, Grilled Hot and Sweet Fruit Salas.”
There’s innovation for the sake of setting yourself apart and then there’s innovation for the sake of improving upon something. The blue corn crusting these calamari transformed the experience entirely; suddenly I was in South America and mountains rose up behind me and I was named a new god of the Aztecs with my own gold-plated necklace. Then I returned to earth.
The dipping sauces for this calamari were also outtasite. It was a great beginning.
Then came: “Macaroni and Goat Cheese with Fresh Herbs.”
In a week when macaroni and cheese was prominently featured in The New York Times Dining Section, this totally filled the void that the article created in my soul. Cheesy, crunchy (from the breadcrumbs) and comforting, this is just the sort of food you wouldn’t expect to order at a restaurant, you slightly worry about after you order it, but pat yourself on the back once you taste it because it’s better than you could have imagined.
My dad turned up his nose, though. He’s a cheese hater, his whole life. He passed that trait on to me until I killed my inner cheese hater in order to rise to a higher level of foodie consciousness. And so dishes like macaroni and cheese, which I never ate in my childhood, become revelations. This one was no exception.
For their starters (and remember, we were operating on a gift certificate here so we ordered more than usual), mom and dad both had: “Skillet Seared Barbeque Spiked Jumbo Shrimp, Smoked Rock Shrimp Potato Salad, Corn Salsa, Chipotle Cocktail Sauce.”
Big flavors here, and all of them successful. Well: except for the potato salad. But I don’t think I like potato salad, so don’t trust me on that.
For my entree, I had: “Ancho Cinnamon Barbequed Pulled Pork Sandwich, French bread, Tamarind Caramelized Onions, Mango Cole Slaw, Barbeque Demi Glace, Yuca Frita.”
I’ll put my rave on pause for a second to say that sometimes dish titles are so over-descriptive that the imagination raises your expectations beyond the point of reason. Here, it all sounded so unusual and exciting that I expected this to taste like Plato’s ideal version of a pulled pork sandwich. Instead it tasted just very good, which is fine, but I can’t say I wouldn’t prefer the pulled pork at R.U.B. (again, in New York) smothered in BBQ sauce with onion strings on the side. As it was, though, the pork here was very tender and the coleslaw very crunchy.
Dad here models: “The Barbeque Burger, Bbq Spiked and Stuffed with Barbacoa Butter, Caramelized Onion and Tomato, Bbq Fries.”
And mom models: “Fresh Corn Crusted Snapper “Soft Taco”, Habanero Tartar Sauce, Greens, Tomato Salsa, Red Chile Blue Corn Chips.”
Dad truly enjoyed his burger. Mom and I traded our sandwich plates, each eating half of the others. Neither of us were dazzled by the others but they were all fine and in the context of our larger experience–those bright and shiny appetizers–all was forgiven.
Then came the dessert. Hey, we were on a gift certificate, remember? So there were two. Frozen key lime souffle pie: (sorry, don’t have the exact title there):
And a chocolate cake with peanut butter and bananas:
Both were very good but we were stuffed. How could we possibly go to dinner that night (last night, in fact) at another restaurant serving remarkable food? Wouldn’t we burst at the seams?
But burst we did not. We arrived at Prime 112 in South Beach after speeding along 1-95 without the smallest dose of traffic.
“Last time we went,” said mom, “we sat in traffic for two hours. You’re very lucky.”
Like Bice in Palm Beach, Prime 112 is a scene. A very different scene in that it’s younger, hipper, shinier and louder. It was also recently mentioned in Gourmet Magazine as some of the best food in South Florida.
Mom and dad model the menu again:
And then two waiters pass by with giant platters of shellfish:
Dad tells a financial horror story from the last time we came.
“The last time we came,” says dad, “The people we were with asked if we wanted to each get a stone crab claw to start. ‘Sure,’ we said. So it comes, we eat it and then the bill came. We almost fell off our chairs. It was $36 a claw!”
Tonight the claws, said our waiter, were $41 each. They come from the same provider that serves Joe Stone Crab, site of the best stone crabs in Florida. Perhaps it’s justified but if you look at the picture above one more time, those trays of shellfish (each covered in stone crab claws) must have cost $400 or $500 each. If you were the family that ordered those platters, please adopt me…
No, just kidding. Of course I’m kidding. Believe me, I’m well fed. TOO well fed. Stop feeding me, mom and dad. Can you believe all the food we eat? [The secret to our skininess is a combination of anorexia, bulemia and dyslexia. I could go into more detail but it might get too graphic.]
Study this salad:
It may look blurry, but that’s the fault of my camera. It may look small but that’s where pictures lie. At a restaurant that serves $41 stone crab claws, you’ll be shocked to learn that for $15 you get the most enormous salad anyone’s ever served you in a restaurant. This salad could feed six people well, and I’m not joking. It comes with lettuce, carrots, bacon and avocado and it’s coated in a green goddess dressing. And so the serving you see above was served from the main salad plate by our waiter. But I had two plates of that before the entrees came and also one third of this crab cake:
Well made indeed but starting to fill me up past the point of comfort, past the point where I can comfortably eat my entree: crab-encrusted grouper.
Yes, it’s good but I literally took three bites and stopped. No clean plate club award for me: we’re taking this home. And I can barely even enjoy these truffled french fries:
Or the creamed corn:
And maybe I nibbled on our dessert: vanilla creme brulee with mint chocolate brownies.
But my Florida binge-eating ended here.
And so in conclusion, Florida may be a cultural mishmosh but much of the mishmoshedness contributes to some great food. Eat enough of that food, and you have a solid case for perhaps relocating to the state. Eat too much of that food, and return home vowing never to eat again, crashing on to your bed like waves on a beach only to discover that you’re in New York, where the cultural mishmosh is the mishmoshiest of them all and food more plentiful than anywhere else and be thankful you don’t live in Florida where people expect you to wear a bathing suit.