17 DEC 2013: Florida used to be best known for its early bird specials geared to seniors and inexpensive all-you-can-eat buffets. To be sure these still exist but all over the state terrific chefs are dishing up meals that delight with their innovation and use of local ingredients. For all the Canadian snowbirds heading south, the following are some of the hottest spots in Florida to dine, starting in this column with a focus on the Atlantic side of the state.


Fort Lauderdale

The Atlantic Hotel and Spa hired Chef Jeff Vincent in June of this year to jazz up the culinary offerings at their East End Brasserie. Chef Vincent does farm to table food in a sophisticated but relaxed way: crab chowder, Jerk spring rolls, Florida tuna poke on grilled pineapple and fresh local fish for example. Even the cocktails feature Florida products such as the delicious Florida Orange Crush made with vodka distilled from four local heritage oranges.

Marando Farms
at 1401 SW 1st Avenue is a farm store chock full of local, organic fresh fruits and vegetables and locally made products such as soups, jams, breads and yogurts. They even sell raw milk and raw milk yogurts – all cheekily labelled “not for human consumption” to get around anti-raw milk regulations. Inside the store, Zen Bar serves up fresh pressed juices and smoothies. Eggstatic, the first and only organic breakfast truck in SoFLa, parks outside Marando Farms’ doors to offer hot, healthy breakfasts to go.

Chef Jean Pierre’s Gourmet Emporium and Cooking School has taught over 17,000 students since it opened in 1997 including many Canadians. He demonstrates multiple recipes in his popular two hour classes which students then get to enjoy. It’s a great way to dine while learning culinary techniques. His shop, stocked with goodies to buy, includes an olive oil tasting bar.

The very popular Casa D’Angelo dishes up authentic Tuscan cuisine. A feature the night I was there was fettuccini with fresh shaved white truffles – a truly blissful dish. The restaurants wine list is extensive featuring hundreds of excellent Italian and American wines, including Chef Angelo Elia’s own Vermentino from his recently acquired Jankara Winery.

YOLO (You Only Live Once) Restaurant on Las Olas Boulevard uses hard oak wood logs to fire their grill pit. Their artichokes grilled over the pit are simply the best version of this vegetable I’ve ever eaten. Grilled triple tail fish was equally delicious. Every Sunday there’s a farmers’ market right in front of the restaurant so visitors can dine and shop at the same stop.

Palm Beach

The Breakers
has reinvented their legendary Florentine Room, previous home to the posh L’Escalier fine dining restaurant and the Tapestry Bar. Gone is the formal, high-end, multi-course restaurant, replaced by HMF (so named after Henry Morrison Flagler, the Breakers founder), a dining room and bar concept with an open kitchen and bar seating.

The cocktail experience is part of the soul of the new HMF and the drinks are dangerously delicious and cutting edge. Try the Red Head made with Charbay Meyer lemon vodka, blood orange liqueur, cranberry juice and lime foam. Once a month on the LBD night, anyone wearing a Little Black Dress, gets a complimentary mini Red Head. The menu is tapa style food – small plates for sharing – and celebrates all the great cuisines of the world. Offerings are varied such as Singapore duck pot stickers, Hawaiian tuna poke, empanadas and the like.

Of course this being the Breakers, the wine list has over 1,600 selections which master sommeliers Virginia Philip and Juan Gomez can help interpret.

Buccan, which opened its doors in Palm Beach in 2011, is all that Chef Clay Conley loves to eat. Chef Conley takes a progressive American approach, blending flavours of his New England childhood with those of kitchens he visited in Europe, Asia and South America. The menu changes regularly to take advantage of seasonal, fresh from the farm products. Some of the dishes I sampled and loved were Hamachi sashimi with Peruvian chilies, warm Brussels sprout Caesar, short rib empanadas, Fontina cheese pizza with shaved Italian white truffles and squid ink orecchiette.

Delray


Delray has been voted the “most fun small town” in the USA in 2012 by Rand McNally, USA Today and the Travel Channel on a televised special Best of the Road. This month their featured attraction is a 100 foot Christmas tree that visitors can walk inside.

Foodies take note that since the 1990’s Delray’s dining scene has blossomed from four restaurants to over 130. What used to be a dark and dangerous downtown is now a bustling hive of activities. To keep things fun and alive, the Downtown Development Authority organizes all types of events. For Savour the Avenue, they close off from traffic their main street, Atlantic Avenue, and set up dining tables in the middle of the street. Every March now about 1,200 people sit down to dine at the world’s longest table.

Sandbar, just steps from the beach, is a bar/restaurant where you can literally dig your toes into the sand. Overlooking the bar, above Boston’s on the Beach is 50 Ocean, a new restaurant where Chef Blake Malatesta creates dishes that reflect his Louisiana birthplace and his European experience. Crispy whole belly clams, day boat scallops, grouper with blue crab mushroom stuffing and of course beignets are on the menu. His truffle garden dessert plate is a wonder to behold.

At Max’s Harvest it’s farm to fork cuisine with Chef Eric Baker. Swank Farm’s shishito peppers stuffed with Florida shrimp, Florida burrata and caviar (yes Florida has a sustainable caviar producer), warm kale Caesar with crispy anchovy and local pumpkin swordfish are some of the dishes. Their nightly three course tasting menu is a bargain $49.

This is just a sampling of the good eats in Florida. In another column I’ll recommend restaurants on the Gulf of Mexico side of the state.



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Margaret Swaine

Margaret is a nationally published wine, spirits, food and travel writer, who has authored thousands of articles on these subjects for magazines and newspapers.

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