When The Balcony opened about a year ago on Las Olas, one thing jumped out from the start: the place was big. Two stories, a massive front-of-house staff and enough space to house a sit-down restaurant, music club and bar.
For the chef charged with running the kitchen in this diverse venue with live music and cuisine that leans – but not too heavily – on a New Orleans theme, coming up with a menu that fits meant taking several influences and having some fun.
“I went in with the Southern-style cooking in mind,” chef Simon Porter says. “With the Louisiana (cuisine), it’s such a diverse style.
“It really allowed me to feel what the Floridian palate was looking for as well. I added a lot of leeway with putting that menu together. I feel now that we’ve got a really good balance.”
There have been some tweaks. For example, he toned down some spices – or made that more of a DIY job for guests. “I still give it a spice, but we make our own fresh hot sauce here so if nobody wants to kick it up, we can do so as well.”
Sharing plates were a challenge at first as well, but he’s glad they’ve stuck with it.
“It was a little bit challenging in the beginning,” Porter says. “The tapas, people needed to be educated a little bit on that style. We’ve kept it because it has been successful in the way that a lot of people order and share.”
The Balcony’s the work of PDKN Restaurant Group, the group owned by local television personality and former Miami Dolphin Kim Bokamper and partners that’s best known for its Bokampers Sports Bar and Grill restaurants. (Recently, the group also opened Bo’s Beach at the spot where northbound and southbound A1A rejoin just north of Bahia Mar.) The Balcony was a little something different – less sports-oriented, perhaps a bit more sophisticated. More, well, Las Olas. In Porter, they saw someone who could deliver that.
Born and raised in Britain, Porter worked in London for a couple of years before moving onto Geneva and Brussels. Then came a six-year stint working on cruise ships for the Seabourn and Cunard lines. Then after a brief return to Britain, he made a move to a place that would be home for 14 years, Puerto Rico. When the PDKN team found him, he was in a Ritz-Carlton kitchen on the island. He accepted an offer and came to Fort Lauderdale to build a menu for The Balcony’s opening last spring.
The chef who has seen the world sees in Fort Lauderdale a culinary culture that’s growing up – but where people also know what they like.
“I feel that given a little bit of time, people are opening up,” he says. “I do feel here that there is a little bit of a culture of people know what they like and they stick with and don’t lean too far off the straight path. It was a little bit of a learning curve for me in the beginning in terms of what people like and don’t like, and what to incorporate in the menu (to) give the best options at reasonable prices as well. “It’s getting those good quality ingredients – I think people are looking for where the ingredients are coming from, where the products are coming from now. We’re at the front trying to keep up with trends and keeping up with what people may hear and educating them a little bit more.”
It’s a balancing act. The Balcony’s a Las Olas restaurant aiming for a high standard of service, but it’s also a laid-back Fort Lauderdale joint from the people who brought you Bokamper’s. The balance between quality ingredients and good price points is something Porter finds interesting. He speaks with pride of the quality burger you can get for six bucks.
“Trying to get those ingredients and trying to keep the price of a menu down, that is a challenge,” he says. “I think we’ve done a good job of it. I hope people do realize that getting those top products does come at a price.”
One of his favorite things about South Florida is being in an area where so many of those top products are on the doorstep.
“When you’re in a great area – you have great fruits, you have great fish, you have great products – why wouldn’t I hone in on those things? It only makes sense to do that.
“We’ve taken the products which are from Florida, and also matched with products that are from the South as well, and we put our spin on it.”
The Dish: Grilled Chicken & Sausage Gumbo
- 1 lb. chicken thighs
- 8 oz. andouille sausage, diced
- 8 oz. chorizo sausage, diced
- ½ red pepper, diced
- ½ yellow pepper, diced
- ½ green pepper, diced
- 1 large carrot, diced
- 3 sticks celery, diced
- 1 large onion, diced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 4 oz. rice (boiled for garnish)
- 2 qt. of chicken stock
- 2 oz. white wine
- 2 oz. tomato purée
- ½ cup vegetable oil
- 1 oz. sweet smoked paprika
- 1 oz. file powder
- 2 oz. Cajun spice
- 2 oz. finely chopped parsley
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1 cup corn oil
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
Place corn oil in a pan. Over a medium heat, add the all-purpose flour and stir 5 minutes until it has turned brown. Set aside. Heat skillet to a temperature of 400F for 10 minutes. Place chicken thighs in skillet. Do not stir as the fond builds (5 to 7 minutes). After fond has built up, add and render the andouille and chorizo sausages (7 minutes). Add the red, yellow and green peppers, onion, garlic, carrot and celery. Let them sweat (5 minutes). Add white wine to deglaze. Stir in the chicken stock, tomato purée, sweet smoked paprika, file powder, Cajun spice, salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer. Whisk in roux and cook on a low heat for 30 minutes. Garnish with rice and chopped parsley.