Wild boar with Spanish omelette
July and August are arguably the hottest months of the summer. It’s that sticky time of year when you feel like a dollop of spoon bread in the oven every time you get into your car. Still, most local epicureans adore these months for one specific reason: mangos. This is when the early-to-midseason varieties of the fruit, ranging from Haden to Kent, are at their jewel-toned best. And unlike some of us with multiple trees, who despair at ever utilizing the entire bounty, Miami toques, like chef-partner Kris Wessel of Florida Cookery in The James Royal Palm, know exactly what to do with them.
I used to stop in at Wessel’s previous restaurant, Red Light Little River, for various delights that I didn’t have to make myself: His on-point mango jam, a sip or two of his powerful mango moonshine and his native Miamian grandmother Esther’s mango pie. In fact, the two-story Florida Cookery, with ocean views, soaring ceilings and lots of polished wood, is named for Esther—or, more precisely, the 1940s cookbook she used to consult, and which she gave to Wessel before she passed away in 1989. A true farm-to-table cook (as well as a mother of 10 children), Esther would drag a wagon behind her in which to collect nearby bounty to use in a variety of her dishes.
Wessel, it seems, is cut from the same, all-natural, all-regional cloth. A native Miamian himself, he lived his formative years in New Orleans before coming back to Miami to sharpen his culinary skills at Florida International University and then work under the likes of Mark Militello at the then-renowned Mark’s Place. His first solo-owned restaurant, the well-received but underfunded Liaison on Española Way, radiated Big Easy influences. After it closed, he brought the establishment’s most requested dish, the barbecued shrimp, to Red Light, where it remained a best-seller. Now called Kris’s Biscayne Blvd. Shrimp, it’s once again a savory appetizer at Florida Cookery. Don’t be surprised if you find a leaf that you can’t quite identify garnishing the large, unpeeled shrimp, which aren’t barbecued in the tangy, traditional Deep South sense but instead bathed with a spice-infused butter. Wessel, a true forager, picks the nutmeg leaves from his neighbor’s tree, and they add more of a boost than the more typical dried bay leaves from laurel trees. The shrimp are a messy way to begin a meal, sure, but be prepared as Wessel’s cuisine is often more finger-licking than dainty, especially if you indulge in items like the ribs glazed with guanabana, or the fresh-as-grass frog legs, pan-fried in cast iron and smote with some serious citrus essence.
“Serious,” come to think of it, may be the one word that really doesn’t apply to the fare at Florida Cookery. While his trained chef’s technique is in every way readily discernible on each dish, Wessel has too much personality—and too much passion for his region—to be restricted to executing mother sauces and stocks. Thus, the appetizer that encompasses his flaky oxtail, oyster and alligator empanadas—all of which have just the right texture for the protein encased—are plated with sofrito jus and a lemon-cayenne rouille. That Wessel moxie also comes through in salads— like the one entitled Latina Caught the Gringo’s Eye, comprising a grilled squab breast and “sexy” seared foie gras placed precisely over endive—and main plates, including Florida is the South, a choice piece of pecan-dusted grouper laced with a citrus beurre noir and partnered by string beans and a cheese-inflected cake made from grits.
One of my go-to dishes, the local Weekly Snapper Species, offers diners the chance to sample whatever is day-boat, backdoor-fresh that morning. The sauteed fillet, subtly flavored with a garlic-infused mojo and accompanied by wilted cassava spinach and coconut rice, is your basic doctor-recommended protein, veg and starch combo, but Wessel takes it to a level your physician probably never envisioned.
Wessel is just as accomplished a craftsman when it comes to meats. He marinates chicken for 24 hours before plating it with roasted purple and gold potatoes, and accents grilled, wild boar chops with sapodilla jam—the fruit, naturally, also sourced from a neighbor’s tree. My favorite beef entree may be the simplest: the Lee Schrager Burger, named for the South Beach Wine & Food Festival founder and director. Topped with Vidalia onions, homemade ketchup and Homestead goat cheese, this sandwich rules the locavore roost. The always-energetic Schrager has won many accolades in his time, but this burger’s appellation might be his finest to date.
Naturally, mango pie—chunks of fruit interspersed with a creamy custard and topped with home-whipped cream—is a popular dessert at Florida Cookery. Wessel brings it in from home, where his daughters, Natasha and Anais, participate in the making of it. The oh-so-sweet mango pie, thick with backyard fruit, is one last reminder of how important Wessel considers our regional ingredients to be. And how deliciously he can convert them into fare worthy of attention... and seconds.
Florida Cookery at The James Royal Palm
1545 Collins Ave., Miami Beach,
Lunch: Mon.-Fri., 11:30am-4pm Dinner: Sun.-Thur., 5:30-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 5:30-10pm Brunch: Sat.-Sun., 11:30am-4pm
Main plates: $18-$42
If you want to look your best...
Don’t sit on the patio dining area by the pool at night. The yellow spotlights, which chef Kris Wessel is aching to change, turn faces gray and food purple.
If you want a hot meal...
Sit upstairs in the dining room closer to the kitchen. The servers occasionally take their time bringing food downstairs.
If you don’t want to get lost...
Ask at the front desk. The entrance to Florida Cookery is at the end of the lobby and up a gorgeous flight of walnut wood stairs.
If you don’t want to be mistaken for a tourist...
Dine during a weeknight—and ask to sit inside.
If you like art...
Check out the curated local artworks on the walls and the artist-in-residence program at the hotel.