We had the most outrageous fries in Palm Beach the other night. We don’t usually cross the bridge for fries, and we didn’t intend to fry-out at our dining destination.
But when you visit Chez l’Epicier, island outpost of a longstanding Montreal restaurant, you can’t help but to order a side of poutine. (Fries No. 1.)
And because it’s mussels and fries night, you can’t help but to snag some not-overly-thin frites from your dining companion’s heap. (Fries No. 2.)
By dessert time, amazingly, you’re still ready to scarf up frites – the hot, sugar-dusted pineapple fries served alongside the popular Chocolate Club Sandwich. (Fries No. 3.)
It’s a Thursday night in the deep off-season and it’s bustling inside the French country-inspired space with the name that translates to “at the grocer.” The bustle is due to the mussels. On Thursdays, you pay $22 for all-you-can-eat mussels and frites with your choice of four sauces (no sharing). So the place is packed and lively, exuding Quebecois charm in touches of aqua, rustic washed wood and occasional chandeliers.
The mussels alone are worth the visit to this year-old eatery. We ordered our batch of plump Prince Edward Island bivalves with a delicate wine-shallot sauce – it was superb. But if you come here exclusively for the mussels, you are missing out on Chez l’Epicier’s full range of inspired offerings. They range from interesting bar bites and starters (including a creamy foie gras with compressed rhubarb, a pink peppercorn cookie and vanilla gel, $22) to ample main dishes to stellar desserts.
Just as a grocer’s shop is driven by the harvest, Chef Laurent Godbout’s menu celebrates seasonality. Godbout, who owns and operates the restaurant with his wife, hostess Veronique Deneault, is an exceptional chef whose artistry is reflected in a dish’s heightened flavors as well as stunning looks. His whimsical style is evident from the welcome tray of fresh macarons – they only appear to be chocolate with a vanilla cream filling. In reality, they are savory bites, black olive cookie stuffed with a goat cheese middle.
The bite is not simply for show – it’s truly delicious, as delicious as the hot, fresh-baked rustic rolls that are delivered with slab butter and whipped, honeyed butter.
Along the lines of showy and delectable was the grilled octopus ($21), an almost fork-tender take of the Mediterranean classic. The octopus is simmered for at least two hours, then grilled over high heat, so it is most tender beneath a smoky char. It’s served atop a fresh tomato wedge, with a block of creamy, rich feta, fresh cucumber curls and a good dollop of thick tzatziki sauce.
For a starter dish more typical of the chef’s native Canada, glance ahead at the side-dish list for an Authentic French Canadian Poutine ($9). A heap of fries doused in gravy and dotted with cheese curds may sound like fair food to Palm Beach ears, but its inclusion on this menu says many good things about this eatery. This is a place that refuses to take itself too seriously, that is proudly Canadian, and loves what it loves, be it a fancy entrée or a comfy side.
The gravy was impeccable, not overly rich or cloying. The fries and plump cheese curds succumbed to the sauce just enough to soak up the flavor.
Fancier fare is well composed here, as evident in a dill and almond-crusted snapper ($32) that’s presented with a salad of marinated fennel and apple and a mini pitcher of malt vinegar beurre blanc. The crispy fish is crusted generously with almonds. The sauce deepens the nutty-buttery flavors of the fillet, while the shaved fennel salad offers cool, crunchy contrast.
My favorite main course dish of the night: the Sweet Pea Risotto ($29), a loose, almost saucy risotto swimming with tons of sweet peas and dotted with slivers of crisped Spanish Iberico ham, dollops of soft fior di latte cheese and thin wisps of Moroccan preserved lemon. The peas give the dish a baby green vibrancy and sweetness that’s tempered by the salty ham. The preserved lemon brightens up the entire dish.
A dining companion ordered beef stew as part of a summer prix fixe menu ($30 for three courses). It arrived in a charming, enamel-coated cocotte pot brimming with meat and root veggies. It was the kind of dish that warms your belly, but does not wow you. It was preceded by a very simple bowl of mixed salad greens. Unlike the mussels and frites special, our summer prix fixe menu experience left us wanting.
Of course, that’s what dessert is for. And dessert at Chez l’Epicier is worth the calories.
An avocado cheesecake ($10), served in a simple glass, gets a lift from a layer of almond-flavored foam and pineapple sorbet. A key lime curd dessert ($10) proved to be a work of art, creamy custard cylinders served with mango passion puree, pineapple ribbons and tangy yuzu gel.
The most decadent bite, however, proved to be those crispy, sugar-dusted pineapple fries served with Chez l’Epicier’s Chocolate Club Sandwich. The sandwich itself is composed of frosted triangles of rather tame cake. But those fries were insane – and memorable.
There are more memorable details about this place than there are forgettable ones. Like those dishes with whimsy, the friendly and warm service is memorable. Yes, on nights when the place is jammed, service can be a bit slow and a weeknight evening can stretch longer than you’d like. But that won’t dissuade me from returning to this lovely, comfy place.
There’s a sense here that one is in good hands. The chef cooks with style and authority. The servers are more than welcoming. Add a batch of hot frites and you’ve got good reason to visit.
R E V I E W
ADDRESS: 288 S. County Rd., Palm Beach
PRICE RANGE: Expensive
NOISE LEVEL: Tends to get noisy when packed, but conversation is manageable.
FULL BAR: Yes, a full liquor bar, with a separate bar area. Happy hour is served from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. at the bar.
HOURS: Open Wednesday to Sunday from 5 to 10:30 p.m.
SPECIALS: A 3-course special summer menu is offered for $30 per person. Thursday night is endless mussels and frites.
CREDIT CARDS: Major cards accepted
RESERVATIONS: Strongly suggested.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes
WHAT THE GRADES MEAN:
A — Excellent
B — Good
C — Average
D — Poor
F — Don’t bother