It's 'amore' at Sunfish Grill
February 06, 2008
by Christina DiMartino
If you're in the Fort Lauderdale area of Florida with your loved one Feb. 14, don't miss dining at Sunfish Grill. Besides wonderful appetizer and entr?e offerings, it is acclaimed for its dessert menu created especially with "love" in mind.
Husband-and-wife team Tony and Erika Sindaco will celebrate Sunfish Grill's 10th anniversary this April. It gained international recognition for its fine cuisine many years ago.
Starting at the end of the meal first, Valentine's Day is a good reason for pastry chef Erika Sindaco to let her love for sweets shine through. Key lime pie, a Florida favorite, is a perfect finish to a gourmet seafood meal, and Ms. Sindaco prepares hers with a special flair.
"It's not the usual Key lime pie," she said. "All of our dishes are strongly geared to presentation, including this one. The individual-sized portions are topped with burnt meringue, mango and raspberry coulis, and served with coconut sorbet."
Like the mangos and berries served at Sunfish Grill, all produce is fresh seasonally, much of it from Southern Specialties Inc., headquartered in Pompano Beach, FL. Key limes are available in winter, but berries and mangos are available year round.
"Our chocolate cathedral cake is a mousse cake with triangles placed around it to make it look like a cathedral," she explained. "We serve it with chocolate cr?me brulee, white chocolate ice cream, whipped cream and a fresh seasonal berry coulis."
Ms. Sindaco loves to create desserts with fresh berries or use them for toppings and other treatments. Her mascarpone cheesecake, another restaurant staple, is served with fresh strawberries and mint. Mangos are incorporated in numerous ways, including a cr?me brulee topped with fresh mango slices.
"Our blueberry cobbler is a hot menu item," she added. "It's a very simple dish, but wonderful. We top it with freshly made blueberry sorbet and homemade vanilla ice cream. Southern Specialties blueberries are wonderfully sweet this year. We actually adjust the amount of sugar we add to this dish based on how sweet the berries are when they are delivered, and this year the amount of added sugar is very low. There is nothing as lovely as a warm blueberry cobbler following a fish entr?e. It's a perfect pairing for a special occasion like Valentine's Day."
Raspberry sorbet with homemade ice cream, strawberry rhubarb cobbler and strawberry pie are other berry favorites in Ms. Sindaco's pastry kitchen. She said that the restaurant stocks up heavily on its favorite berries when they are in season and makes large batches of sorbets, coulis and purees to freeze for use when not available. Like the rest of the menu, desserts change frequently based on seasonality of foods.
Mr. Sindaco discourages Valentine's Day foods like chocolate-dipped strawberries because he feels they have been overdone and are too commercial. His attention to detail extends to his side of the kitchen. "Tony is a tough chef to please," added Ms. Sindaco. "Something really has to wow him. He is meticulous, but his dishes must be [simple] so that flavors shine through. He's very much with the times."
Mr. Sindaco holds a firm grip on every detail involved in the restaurant, and the man knows his fish.
Sunfish Grill is a contemporary American seafood restaurant. It doesn't follow Caribbean, French or other cultural dish styles. Mr. Sindaco's inspiration came in part when he studied under Andre Rene at the Helmsley Palace in New York in the 1980s, the only five-diamond hotel in the city at the time. He then went to Switzerland, where he oversaw fish and sauces in restaurants there.
"I took to fish like a fish takes to water," he said. "You can rough up meat a little and get away with it, but you can't mishandle fish. You have to know how to filet and cook fish with a gentle hand."
When he moved to Florida in 1992, he worked at the Ocean Reef Club in North Key Largo, extending his knowledge of fish even more.
"The fish on our menu is all local," he said. "The Yellow Tailed Key West Snapper is one of our top dishes, and will be available through Valentine's Day. We buy the whole fish, remove the bones and butterfly it. The dish is served with braised Belgian endive, rapini, haricot verts, garlic Idaho russet whipped potatoes and lemon-chive beurre blanc. Southern Specialties' haricots are the best available, and its heirloom tomatoes are out of this world."
Mr. Sindaco is currently ordering small buffalo mozzarella from Italy to serve with the heirlooms.
"Right now we are getting about four varieties, including Purple Cherokees, Gold Metals and Pink Brandywines," he said. "I am fortunate to be close to the Southern Specialties' facility. I love to go there several times a week to browse through the coolers. Robert Colescott [Southern Specialties' chief executive officer and president] is terrific to work with, and he gets as excited as I do about special items."
Another popular dish at Sunfish Grill is seared sea scallops. Mr. Sindaco is currently serving the entr?e with a ragu of braised beets, Crimini mushrooms and Yukon Gold potatoes, with tomato syrup dribbled on the outside of the plate.
"When you do this sort of thing with an item like a tomato, it makes the plate crazy with interest," he said.
Tuna tartare is diced and molded, and topped with avocado. It is served unmolded with herb and celery leaf salad and Gaufrette (waffle-cut potato) chips. The dish is dribbled with red chili aioli to add a nice zing.
For both vegetable sides and accompaniments, Mr. Sindaco loves asparagus. "The jumbo white asparagus from Southern Specialties is always consistent quality," he said. "We offer it as a side, but we also like to use it with entrees. The green asparagus is also outstanding. I like to dice it into swordfish risotto. Our menu changes frequently because of the seasonality of fish and produce. With both, 'fresh' always rules."
Besides being fresh, properly prepared vegetable accompaniments are integral to fish dishes, according to Mr. Sindaco.
"Vegetables and fish are as much a marriage as steak and potatoes," he said. "But produce must be prepared with the same gentle and creative hand as fish."
Sunfish Grill has earned the Sun-Sentinel four-star review and a Miami Herald "exceptional" rating. It has also garnered a 25 food rating in the Zagat's Survey, and is one of only 10 restaurants in the state to receive a Florida Trend Golden Spoon Award.
Mr. Sindaco was team captain for the French gold medal teams at the 1982 and 1983 New York food shows. He won three silver medals and one bronze medal at the 1984 and 1988 International Culinary Olympics in Frankfurt, Germany. He also represented the state of New York in the American Seafood Challenge in Charleston, SC.
A wine aficionado, Mr. Sindaco frequently hosts special wine dinners with vineyard owners or executives in attendance to introduce and discuss the wines served with the meal.
Flair and presentation "Sunfish Grill is an out-of-the-ordinary seafood restaurant compared to others in the country because of the flair and presentation of the menu items," said Charlie Eagle, vice president of business development for Southern Specialties Inc. "The restaurant features a full wrap-around bar and private dining area, and an additional large, enhanced dining room. It is casual and comfortable-but-elegant fine dining without pretension."
The haricot verts that Southern Specialties supplies to Sunfish Grill come from Guatemala, and are available year round.
"They are tender and have no fiber," said Mr. Eagle. "This particular bean has been highly favored by the European community and by chefs world over for its wonderful flavor and texture."
The Southern Specialties' asparagus that Mr. Sindaco is fond of is from Peru and is available year round in white and green.
"The Key limes are from Guatemala and Mexico, depending on the season, as are mangos," said Mr. Eagle. "Berries are seasonal, and though available year round, the source depends on the time of year. We handle blackberries from Mexico and Guatemala, raspberries from Chile, [and] blueberries come from Argentina, Chile, Florida, British Columbia and North Carolina."
Mr. Eagle termed Mr. Sindaco a highly accomplished chef with years of experience. He selects his own products, from seafood to produce and everything in between. He is out early every day selecting the foods he wants delivered to the restaurant, rather than employing a sous chef who picks up the phone and orders blindly. He knows what he wants, and is a true perfectionist.
Mr. Eagle said that Mr. Sindaco's experiences are diverse and expansive, which give him the ability to create something unique and always in demand.
"Sunfish Grill is a destination restaurant," said Mr. Eagle. "Many people who visit Florida on vacation or business make it one of their first dining stops." He continued, "Erika's desserts are wonderful. She has a special talent that enables her to whip up delicious and eye-appealing seasonal offerings. You always want to leave room for dessert when you eat at Sunfish Grill."