Restaurant Spotlight: Nineteen61, Lakeland

Located in historic Dixieland, the restaurant occupies a quaint building that has been completely refurbished. You enter through an outdoor arbor filled with tables. Inside, the ambiance is sleek and contemporary with a subtle geometric design. There is a clean, upscale combination of cream-colored leather and dark and light woods. Vivid artwork of flamboyant flamenco dancers and matadors dressed in strident reds and yellows adorn the walls, and rich wood cabinets hold the global wines with which the restaurant pairs its dishes.

Nineteen Sixty-one Executive Chef Marcos Fernandez is the quintessential chef, immaculate in his white chef’s coat as he scurries around before the lunch patrons arrive. As I wait to taste his signature dishes, I watch him accept wine deliveries, greet a local grower who has just delivered garden fresh rosemary, and lead what is obviously an enthusiastic staff in a laugh-filled discussion around the opulent stone tile bar. As intriguing combinations of smells waft from the kitchen and classical guitar music plays, I think to myself that Chef Marcos is like something out of a movie—the perfect, genteel, capable host, and I can’t wait to find out more about the creator of this unique restaurant.

Energetic and passionate, Chef Marcos was raised in Miami. As a teenager, he worked for a retired chef who was then designing cabinetry for yachts. His employer would talk about his days as a chef, and the young Marcos was inspired to begin cooking. His mentor, however, tried to dissuade him given the stresses inherent in being a chef. Undaunted, Chef Marcos moved to Denver, attended culinary school and began his upward rise, working in hotels and restaurants as he developed his own cooking style. Along the way, he worked as an anchor for Telemundo and co-hosted a magazine show. From Denver, Chef Marcos moved to Chicago and Boca Raton, ultimately landing the position of executive chef at the Lakeland Yacht and Country Club, a post he held for four years. Then, late last year, Chef Marcos realized his dream of opening his own restaurant—Nineteen Sixty-One, named for the year his parents fled from the Cuban regime and started a new life in America.

The restaurant’s name is indicative of what its owner is trying to accomplish. Just as his parents built a new life from scratch, adapted and succeeded, so Chef Marcos seeks to build a new dining destination known for its ability to combine features from the world’s great cuisines and adapt them into successful and exciting dishes. An example of this union of cuisines is the Pato, an appetizer combining succulent shredded duck with palmetto honey biscuits, a jam made with Peruvian Rocoto pepper, and creamy Italian Mascarpone cheese. The presentation is as surprising as the flavor combination. Two dollops of light Rocoto jam flank small squares of lightly browned biscuit topped with the juicy fowl as the orange-colored jam swirls paint the white plate like calligraphy. Its appearance is of an artistic piece fit to be signed by a master. The taste is quite honestly like nothing I’ve ever experienced. The sweet fatness of the rich cheese and the cakey consistency of the biscuit fool you into thinking you are eating a decadent dessert, but the pepper jam brings a zing that lingers on the tongue happily and sets your mouth to buzzing.

Chef Marcos emphasizes that at Nineteen Sixty-One, there is no cutting of corners. The dough for the beef picadillos of the Empanada de Carne is hand-made fresh, something unheard of in other restaurants. The Charcuterie Plate combines a variety of Spanish cheeses with Jamon Iberico, a dark red ham marbled with veins of fat. Extremely prized and imported from Spain, it is made from that country’s original black swine fed entirely on acorns, and is reputed to be the finest ham in the world. It has been cured three times, and on the appetizer plate, it is served paper thin, allowing its sweet and nutty complexity to come through.

Another Spanish ham, the Serrano, has been a delicacy since Roman times. Emblematic in Latin-inspired cuisine, this ham is part of several dishes at Nineteen Sixty-One, including the 1961 salad. Fresh variegated lettuces, sheep-milk Manchego cheese and Gaelic tetilla cheese sparkle attractively with a light spritzing of dressing that tastes strongly of garlic and olives. Yet what is rare is that this salad is both lightly refreshing and satisfyingly filling. The secret is the Serrano ham strips. The dry-cured ham has a deep, slightly salty flavor, and because it has a firmer texture than other cured hams, any dish made with it feels instantly substantial.

Serrano ham also appears in the popular Croquetas. Looking like small meatballs, these spheres of quinoa and yucca flour rest in a dark pink guava glace’. The ham’s saltiness merges pleasantly with the subtlety of the flour and the glace’ delivers a sweetness which makes this appetizer pop.

One of the most popular items is the Ropa Vieja, Cuba’s national dish. Nineteen Sixty-One’s version of the shredded braised flank steak dish features the mixture of two sauces which take five steps and three full days to prepare. The lengthy process results in a moist, tasty meat that combines with classic espagnole sauce, sherry wine, peppers, onions and olives to create a decadent flavor I couldn’t stop eating. Slightly crunchy jasmine rice and sweet plantains are perfect complements.

Chef wants to create an experience that people will enjoy—consistently. Patrons appreciate the quality ingredients—often locally grown organic produce, honey, and goat cheese—superior service, and intriguing recipes. He reminds me that in addition to multi-course meals, half size lunch portions are available, and he urges guests to drop by also for appetizers and drinks or to enjoy desserts made by Pastry Chef Carlos Anglero, the former owner of the popular Deli Delicacies.

I, for one, will be heeding his suggestion—because my friends were right; their lavish praise of this restaurant is well deserved.

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