Tucked away on Avenue B Southwest is somewhat of a masked moment waiting to be experienced. A savory surprise, if you will, all within the walls (and adorned patio) of a quaint bungalow home. So quaint you may drive right by it assuming it’s just another house on the street, not realizing what you’re missing. Camouflaged among surrounding similar cozy homes sits Nutwood — the city’s newest dining experience.
photography by Dan austin // styling by daniel barceló
On a soft wooden floor beneath low-lit hanging lights and within an airy ambiance, Chef Steven Rojas serves a weekly evolving, seasonal menu.
LA-born and Argentine-raised, it was inevitable that food would be a fundamental focus of this chef’s life. Immersed in the restaurant business from a young age, for Rojas the culinary scene has always been the place he’s thrived. Upon completing a degree at the Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena, California, he continued to pursue a passion for vibrant flavors along the West Coast, throughout the United States, and even overseas.
Rojas went on to serve as executive chef at Chicago’s TRU, progressive French fine dining. Later venturing to Europe, he solidified a job in Spain working along the coast at Lasarte for the three-star Michelin-rated restaurant Martin Berasategui. The vast opportunity gained Rojas culinary techniques and experience in classic Spanish cuisine working mostly with seafood, before returning to the States to continue his career. It was back on the West Coast where Rojas would next work at Saddle Peak Lodge in Calabasas, California. It’s also where the young chef would soon earn a Michelin star.
While in Los Angeles, Rojas met his wife AJ, who is originally from Winter Haven. The two soon decided to pack up and move to a new location to pair Rojas’ European skills and diverse tastes with the seasonal produce bounty of Central Florida.
Opened just this past February, Nutwood highlights the vibrant array of high-quality local flavors, though it may take a route slightly different from the norm where common vegetables and fruits are concerned.
Take, for example, the infamous kale leaf. (Yes, the superfood grass, green enough to put hairs on your head . . . quite literally.) A hearty, cruciferous vegetable, Lacinato kale (often referred to as dinosaur kale) has received much attention for its healthful benefits whether it’s boosting a morning’s green smoothie or adding density to a Buddah bowl base.
With all its health appeal, it no doubt is overlooked as a green delicacy, one which Nutwood plates to perfection even for its most savory of dishes (especially when accompanied by a smoked Gouda fondue burger). The green leaves of the house special salad (recommended to me not once but twice upon entering the Nutwood abode) are well-dressed in olive oil and bejeweled with pomegranate and mustard seeds, mixed with golden-toasted sourdough bread, and topped with paper-thin slivers of pear. Rojas’ pairing and preparation of vegetables exceeds the common expectation for daily veggie consumption.
Following this approach to spotlighting powerful and vibrant so-called superfoods is the pickled beet salad with pomelo and watercress, covered in a citronette vinaigrette.
Plates that make a star out of a common unsung hero ingredient continue with the starters. From the fresh ricotta drizzled with local honey and paired with grilled sourdough, to the PEI steamed mussels cooked in white wine, baby heirloom tomatoes, and confit garlic, all of the dishes’ flavors are naturally enhanced when shared among many.
On to the entrees, the fluorescent Seared Floridian Snapper often steals the limelight, cooked with coconut curry broth, sticky rice, toasted sesame seeds, and lime.
However, many of Rojas’ dishes don’t stray far from the homestead meals to which we’ve all grown accustomed — except that each chicken, skirt steak, burger, and potato are all local and crafted to a luscious array of flavors that the taste buds may not be accustomed to, but will surely by pleasantly surprised with. After all, it’s in the preparation and source of product where Chef Rojas’ food philosophy takes root. Nutwood’s focus is not necessarily to place the most foreign and exotic ingredients in front of you, but rather a true ingredient. A meal with integrity.
“A sardine is a humble ingredient,” explains Rojas. “A lobster is high-end. I would never serve a day-old lobster just because it’s a lobster. I would much rather serve the freshest sardine. My focus is to stay true to the ingredients.”
Though . . . a humble ingredient would hardly mean a humble finish. Nutwood is more than a satisfying meal to consume; it’s the unearthing of a fresh, vibrant meal.
132 Avenue B SW
Winter Haven, FL 33880