Minimalism at the Beach

Clean lines. Polished tiles. Sparkling glasses. The interior of Restaurant Doro might be intimidating, if it weren’t for its chef and owner, Christopher Polidoro. He brings a comforting sense of warmth and relaxation to the space. His restaurant is a fine-dining destination, but Polidoro says, “Cooking is what I like to do; it’s not pretentious.” Nor is the spirit of the place. The focus here is squarely on the ingredients of the dishes presented to the guests.

Like many chefs who understood their calling early on, Polidoro always knew he was to be part of the culinary world. Born and raised in New York, he would hang out with his mom in the kitchen, and he took more than a casual interest in her methods.

“I knew I was going to do it for the rest of my life,” he told Folio Weekly. “I think I kind of knew my freshman year in high school.” That’s when he entered the business on the ground floor, as a dishwasher. Gradually, he worked his way through the ranks, attended culinary school, and became a private chef.

In 2015, he began looking to trade up his New York life. Specifically, he wanted to raise his son in the great outdoors—or at least close to it. Northeast Florida was promising, so he started looking for a place. It had to be on the beach, and there had to be plenty of sun. When he visited Neptune Beach, he found what he describes as a “community that supports independently owned restaurants.” Plus, the surf appealed to his wave-catching heart.

Now, Doro has carved a niche of its own at the beach, thanks to Polidoro’s vision and his dedicated crew. The entrepreneur encourages the young chefs working with him to get involved with other aspects of the community, such as organizations like Slow Food First Coast, learning from other local chefs or experimenting with new techniques. Team members balance and complement each other, as each one has a unique perspective and adds something to the kitchen. Drew, Polidoro’s sous chef, is responsible, the kind of guy who’s in early and stays late. Xavier, from San Juan, is well-rounded. “He’s made everything before.”

The staff doesn’t seem burned out. This may have something to do with the compact footprint of the restaurant. “I wanted a small space; I didn’t want to do a big spot,” Polidoro explains. “I like to work a station.” Logistically, small means “fewer staff, fewer problems, less waste.” Being near the ocean was non-negotiable, too. When the space, which had been a former sushi joint, opened up in the Beaches Town Center, Polidoro snapped it up.

Even with less square footage than an average eatery, Doro is bright and airy. One of its best features is the open kitchen. You can watch the magic as it happens. If there’s room at the bar when you arrive, make that your home base. There are only about 10 tabletops and a marble bar, where the garde manger station is set up. That’s where you can find Polidoro most nights, chatting with regulars and first-timers.

Polidoro finds that less waste and more ideas are born in a smaller, versatile kitchen. “A lot of times, dishes will evolve,” he says. “Out of one dish, I might get three more dishes.” For example, there may be dried apricots in one dish, then on your next visit, the apricots might be reconstituted in white wine and seared in duck fat for another recipe. Polidoro buys whole fish that his team breaks down in-house. The chef and garde manger Xavier can slice as much as 50 to 60 pounds of snapper as it arrives fresh from the sea.

Doro’s menu focuses on execution. Simple ingredients are plated with such perfection—it would be an insult to not savor each forkful. The emphasis here is on the ingredients involved in that precise execution. Sometimes it’s a challenge to work with what grows under Florida’s withering sun. Polidoro’s menu is all about clean eating. “I don’t want to say ‘healthy’—even though it is healthy,” he explains. “It’s pretty much what California’s been doing.”

When asked what inspires him, the chef cites the indomitable Alice Waters, a champion of the farm-to-table movement, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, a French-American chef who has had a massive impact on the American palate and dining scene. Minimalistic is how Polidoro describes his fare: “I like to let main ingredients speak for themselves.” He laughs, saying, “Neil Young plays the same three or four chords in different progressions, but there’s a lot of passion behind it.”

The dining room has sweet tunes piped in through overhead speakers. Polidoro says, “We listen to the same thing [in the kitchen as] in the dining room.” The whole Doro crew gets to pick songs, which means they all learn what the others like.

It’s always interesting to discover how a chef creates with a menu, and Polidoro is a fascinating case study. He says he doesn’t try most of his dishes before they’re plated before the diner. Yes, that’s right. There’s no menu testing at Doro, but you’d never know!

According to Polidoro, it’s all improvisation. He might see a farm list, and things go from there. “Because it is simple food, the palate is the database of flavors—kind of like embedded.” A lot of the menu variety just spills from what he has in his mind, with a tweak or three. He doesn’t often get a chance to eat his own food, but he laughs, saying, “I do like it when I eat the food!”

When it comes to food inspo, Polidoro reminisces about the pre-internet era of printed cookbooks. The visual was not only an image of what should be, but art in itself. “I could create a dish from that,” he says. Now, this menu is born mostly from the purveyors. “I go grocery shopping and go from there.”

Catch a glimpse of the row of cookbooks lining the top shelf toward the left of the kitchen and jot down a few titles. Some look more well-loved than others. Polidoro says the American fave, Joy of Cooking, is “the only one that’s got the most kitchen grease on it.” These days, he’s not reading or even looking at cookbooks. Instead, he’s reading about “how to be a patient parent” to his energy-filled 5-year-old who just started school. When Polidoro isn’t in the kitchen, you’ll find him hanging out with his mini-me.

Restaurant Doro is continuously morphing into even more tasty, seasonal versions of itself, so it’s a must to try any time of the year. Catch Polidoro at the bar one night and ask him how tasty the waves were that day.