Florida Cookery is the kind of place a food writer loves to have on her docket. Though far from perfect, it’s got a few fantastic dishes and a good story. Chef-partner Kris Wessel borrowed the old-fashioned name and even some recipes from a vintage cookbook handed down from his dad’s mom, Grandma Esther.
Set in the newly renovated James Royal Palm Hotel, a 1939 Deco jewel, it’s Wessel’s biggest project yet—breakfast, lunch and dinner in a sprawling dining room that can accommodate 200, with patio seating for nearly as many. Clean-lined wooden furniture on white terrazzo creates an ocean liner-meets-Danish-modern look, and an ’80s soundtrack from Blondie to The Cars lends a lively touch even with few people in the place.
A signature dish from Wessel’s now-shuttered Red Light has acquired a new name, Biscayne Boulevard Shrimp, but is just as delicious. Served with crusty French bread, the plump, head-on shrimp are addictive in a chunky, mahogany-colored sauce that seems to rely on serious amounts of lemon, garlic and Worcestershire sauce with a buttery but bright finish and a kick of heat.
Wessel flirts with Latin America with a nice trio of oxtail, oyster and alligator empanadas. The puffy, golden-brown pillows are slightly doughy but perfectly flaky. Even the chewy alligator was moist and tasty, and nothing beats the cayenne-spiked lemon rouille for dipping.
Frog legs are bathed in an intoxicating, citrusy broth, but ours were thin and wiry. Grapefruit ceviche served with a sprightly corn and pumpkin seed salsa is a better starter.
Main courses range from a standout burger named for South Beach Wine & Food Festival founder Lee Schrager to an elaborate sorrel-lychee-glazed quail.
Grouper is well-treated with a citrus-spiked beurre noir alongside a cheesy grit cake and a few snappy string beans for color and crunch. But my favorite is the whole local spiny lobster. The tourist-red monster arrives dramatically split down the middle and propped out of the plate, its sweet meat complemented by subtle garlic coins. Unfortunately, a heavy hand with the salt shaker ruined the accompanying summer squash threads.
A tawny, roast half chicken was ready for its close-up, but the meat was a bit dry, and the oxtail was more knuckly and gristly than others I’ve enjoyed.
Wessel has loads of talent and an impressive white-trash to White House range. Overall, his flavors here are bright and exciting, but sometimes need modulation. Salads made with fantastically fresh local produce, for example, seem to drown in highly acidic and salty dressings.
Servers were friendly but as green as the perfect fried tomatoes we sampled. One waitress set a fistful of dirty cocktail glasses on our table so she could use her hands to describe the menu, and then proceeded to tell us the wild-caught grouper was farmed off Key West and the frog legs “taste like chicken and aren’t that bad if you put enough lemon on them.”
Pudding and pie helped sooth any new-restaurant sting. Both are marvels, but especially the banana- and pecan-studded bread pudding doused with smooth and smoky whiskey sauce.
So far, this welcome addition remains a hidden gem, frequented by hotel guests and loyal Wessel fans. Still, with some work, it might well be the story of the year: Local boy makes good. Damn good food, that is.