The Dish: Olive & Sea

Miguel Toro elevates Eastern Mediterranean fare with a flavor-rich menu at this buzzed-about Lauderdale restaurant.

Origin Story: Miguel Toro didn’t need to look much beyond his backyard in Medellín, Colombia for culinary inspiration. His father, one of 10 brothers, regularly brought his son with him on sourcing runs for the mammoth barbecue feasts he’d prepare for gatherings of family that included 30 cousins. But it was the occasional excursion to a seaside Hilton restaurant in Cartagena that foreshadowed the journey that’s brought Toro full circle—at least in resort terms. “I fell in love with all the logistics behind the food and beverage at that restaurant,” says the executive chef at Olive & Sea, the fine-dining destination overlooking the Intracoastal that’s quickly developing a following at Hilton Fort Lauderdale Marina. “At this young age, I already had a passion for hospitality.”

Wanderlust: Toro’s passion intensified while honing his skills at a culinary institute in Buenos Aires, as well as while traveling abroad in Europe and Latin America. In Belgium, Toro recalls being especially drawn to the Middle Eastern influences on that country’s cuisine. That interest broadened to encompass staples of Mediterranean dishes. Thus, began a love affair with “the spices, the ancient cooking, the simple ingredients, and the rustic, bold flavors,” he says, elements that permeate the menu at Olive & Sea. Toro’s degree in culinary arts includes a major in baking and pastry. Though his kitchen talent benefits from the precision and finesse he learned by creating desserts, it was an out-of-classroom episode that added the final ingredient to his approach. “When I was younger,” Toro says, “there was a chef who always used to say, ‘Fill your mind with beautiful things. Visit museums, walk through the woods, explore nature.’ He told me to express that in my cooking.”

Fish tales: At Olive & Sea, Toro’s past is clearly present on a tightly curated menu of Eastern Mediterranean-style dishes that are as flavorful as they are artfully rendered. The whole branzino al ha’esh speaks to the kitchen’s emphasis on superior sourcing and detail-rich preparation. European sea bass, delivered fresh each morning, is seasoned with spices from La Boite in New York City that are created uniquely for Olive & Sea. In this case, the fish is marinated for six hours in olive oil mixed with za’atar seasoning (a blend of dried herbs and spices), and salt and pepper. The branzino is then seared in a pan with light oil, clipped, then cooked for no more than three minutes. It’s served with a roasted couscous, and sauteed tomatoes and apricots—all of which is plated on a liquid bed of smoked orange butter that recalls a beurre blanc sauce.

Peak picks: Sourcing at Olive & Sea includes seasonal treats (think finger limes) and fresh produce from Harpke Family Farm in Davie. Toro is so insistent on serving nothing but the best that he’ll pull the Greek salad off that day’s menu if the heirloom tomatoes need to ripen for another 24 hours. “If it’s not perfect, we won’t serve it,” he says. Perfection is realized on the featured skewers—fennel-dusted swordfish, shawarma-spiced filet mignon, za’atar garlic chicken and lamb meatballs. The skewers are served with three dipping sauces—spiced tomato, tehina (the restaurant’s version of tahini but with added lemon to increase its tartness) and coriander-chili relish.

Pick of the Pies: The trio of pizzas on the menu may look out of place—until you realize that Toro and his team have incorporated rustic breads (freshly baked laffa crust, cooked in the state-of-the-art pizza oven) into the mix—as well as signature Eastern Mediterranean ingredients like halloumi cheese (a mix of goat’s milk and sheep’s milk). Selections include grilled shrimp, coriander sauce and feta; and pizza with smoked duck (more approachable for guests, Toro says, than a traditional bird like quail), olives, fennel and dates. “This opportunity at a Hilton spoke to my passion and roots,” Toro says. “It’s magical to bring together a team and open a new restaurant.”

Contact: 1881 SE 17th St., Fort Lauderdale; 954.527.6716; oliveandseaftl.com

Photos by Kenneth Smith & Will Pryce

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