Best in dining 2017: Our Critic’s Choice Awards

Dec 19, 2017
LILA PHOTO
Dining-wise, 2017 has been one to savor, as did this guest at the Palm Beach Food & Wine Festival's party at Imoto. 

This was the year of “who knew?” I had excellent meals at chain restaurants. I jumped on the Instant Pot bandwagon. I had good mac-and-cheese at the opening of a WAWA gas station. 

Who knew? 

Sure, it was the year I devoured crackers slathered with canned Easy Cheese in the throes of Hurricane Irma jitters. But it was also the year I sampled exquisite scallops in the most delicate of broths made by Chef Isaac Cerny at Pistache, the year I grew addicted to the Mongolian short rib bao at the new Kapow on Clematis Street, the salmon tartare at Bar Amaro in Lake Worth, the Cuban sandwich at Bistro Bistro in Northwood, the handmade Guatemalan tortillas at Pueblo Chapin on Lucerne Avenue, the charcoal lemonade at the new Prep Kitchen (who knew?), Chef Lindsay Autry’s tea-brined fried chicken thighs at The Regional and anything her pastry chef, Sarah Sipe, creates in the sweets kitchen there. 

It was the year legit charcuterie continued to proliferate on menus across the county. As did upscale “grab-and-go” options. And the food concessions at local breweries got fabulous, thanks to gourmet food trucks and chef collaborations. 

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We said hello to a slew of good, new spots, like Sardinia Delray, Lynora’s Market, The Butcher Shop, RH Rooftop, La Masseria and many others. 

We said goodbye as well – to Tabica Grill, to the original Bay Bay’s Chicken & Waffles location, to the inspired Jardin and Ocean Bleu and 13 American Table, and others. 

So before we enter the “who knows?” territory of a new year, let’s take a look at the year’s best in dining. The list that follows is subjective – these are the best in my opinion. I could not dine at every new restaurant or visit some of the buzzy ones I wanted to. This list is based on experiences I did have. 

Cheers to 2017! 

Sexy starter: Hamachi tartare is offered at Sant Ambroeus, Palm Beach.   Photo: Richard Graulich/  Palm Beach Post Staff

BEST RESTAURANT 

Sant Ambroeus 

Sant Ambroeus is everything. It’s a bar. It’s a bakery. It’s a café. It’s a fancy restaurant. Yet its focus and identity is sharp. 

Styled after the grand, vintage Milanese cafés, it is a New York-famous restaurant with roots in 1936 Italy. But what any of this means for Palm Beach is a concept that’s crisp and enticing, one that promises an element of time-travel and pays off with superb food and hospitality. It’s pricey, yes. But what would you pay for all-around excellence, even if just on a special occasion? Sant Ambroeus is worth that and more. 

Sant Ambroeus: 340 Royal Poinciana Way, Suite 304, Palm Beach; 561-285-7990 

More than decoration, Moroccan tagines are used to serve some of the modern Mediterranean dishes at Costa restaurant, Palm Beach.  Photo: Photo by Samuel Thornhill/ Experimar

BEST NEW RESTAURANT 

Costa 

One doesn’t just drive by this restaurant – one must seek it out. Costa is tucked into the second floor of the quiet 150 Worth building in Palm Beach. But once you arrive at the 11-month-old restaurant, you find a fetching spot awash in the hues of the Mediterranean Sea, a setting that’s as lovely for lunch as it is for dinner, drinks or Sunday brunch. More importantly, the food is exquisite. Chef David Valencia has brought global soul and a refined touch to a menu that pays tribute to Greek and Turkish cuisines. Costa is not only worth seeking out, it’s the must-visit new restaurant. 

Costa: 150 Worth Avenue, Palm Beach; 561-429-8456 

Chef Jeremy Bearman adds a finishing touch to a pan of mezzo rigatoni pesto as chef Matthew Cadelaria looks on at Oceano Kitchen in Lantana. Photo: Greg Lovett/ Palm Beach Post Staff

BEST CHEF 

Jeremy Bearman 

Oceano Kitchen, Lantana 

Jeremy Bearman is a chef’s chef. He’s the guy quietly cooking in the tiny, one-oven kitchen of a cash-only spot in Lantana, the one where the main dining room is an open-air terrace. There, at Oceano Kitchen, he writes a new menu daily, inspired by seasonal ingredients and his wood-fire oven. The veteran chef finesses each plate in a way that has drawn his peers – some of the best chefs in the county – to the small restaurant he owns with his pastry chef wife, Cindy Bearman. Together, they have raised the bar on the local dining scene. All in a place with no reservation list (only parties of six or larger can reserve), no credit card scanners and until recently no phone. Pretty awesome. 

Oceano Kitchen: 201 E. Ocean Ave., Lantana; 561-562-5055; OceanoKitchen.com  

Chef Matthew Byrne has expanded his restaurant, Kitchen, in size and flavor.  Photo: LILA PHOTO

BEST RISING STAR CHEF 

Matthew Byrne 

Kitchen, West Palm Beach 

Four years ago, Matthew Byrne made the transition from personal chef to chef/restaurateur, and he did so by applying the attention to detail he once lavished on his superstar client, Tiger Woods. With wife Aliza Byrne managing the dining room of their small, Belvedere Road restaurant, Kitchen, the chef put his focus on a moderately sized menu of refined comfort dishes. Not only was Kitchen an instant hit, it has remained one as the Byrnes expanded into adjacent spaces to create Kitchen’s “Den” dining room and, most recently, Matthew’s “Prep Kitchen” space for some excellent grab-and-go lunches. All this as he plans another restaurant, an Israeli-Greek concept, just a stone’s throw away on the Dixie Dining Corridor. Byrne has not only made his mark on the corridor, he has helped to elevate it. Once you’ve dined enough at Kitchen, you can see why – this chef lives to feed you, and to feed you well. 

Kitchen: 319 Belvedere Rd., West Palm Beach; 561-249-2281  

Service at Palm Beach Grill is sharp, and it continues to bring customers back to the island mainstay.  Photo: Liz Balmaseda/ Palm Beach Post Staff

BEST SERVICE 

Palm Beach Grill 

There’s a reason a table at the Palm Beach Grill is still one of the toughest to score on Palm Beach. Loyal customers reserve one month in advance. The service here is superb. It’s the factor that keeps the place buzzing, from bar to dining room. By Palm Beach standards, this is not the swankiest spot in town, and the décor is not the most memorable. But the place sweeps you up with confidence and sees to it that you are served well. Outstanding service is the element that enhances an already excellent dining experience. Although the menu here teeters on basic – it is a Hillstone chain restaurant, after all – the dishes are well executed and presented with polish and pride. 

Palm Beach Grill: 340 Royal Poinciana Way, #336, Palm Beach; 561-835-1077  

Chef Tim Lipman pours a beer at his bar, The Parched Pig.   Photo: Richard Graulich/  Palm Beach Post Staff

BEST BAR 

The Parched Pig 

When Tim and Jenny Lipman set out to open a bar in the same plaza that houses their ever popular Coolinary Café, they expected it might be a kind of “waiting room” spot where their café customers could linger before their tables became available. But The Parched Pig had plans of its own. Instead, it has become a drinking and dining destination. And Tim Lipman, ever the industrious chef, gradually has expanded the menu to include substantially more than its initial cheese and charcuterie boards and oysters. One can dine well at The Pig and, yes, drink well. The place has a feel of a neighborhood bar, one with a well discerned selection of wines and local beers. This is not a sports bar or a “ladies-drink-free” bar. It’s the bar where you want to meet your best friends, share a few drinks – and a memorable dining experience. 

The Parched Pig: 4650 Donald Ross Rd. (Suite 100 in the Donald Ross Village plaza), Palm Beach Gardens; 561-360-3063 

RH Rooftop offers a leafy setting with a view of a city on the rise. Photo: Liz Balmaseda/ Palm Beach Post Staff

BEST VIEW 

RH Rooftop Restaurant 

It’s not an ocean view, an Intracoastal view or a lakefront view. But the view from the top of the new Restoration Hardware, home of RH Rooftop restaurant, is a splendid one. It’s a view from a city’s crown, from the structure that now welcomes all to West Palm Beach. And it’s beautiful. From this rooftop, lushly appointed with greenery, a stone fountain and chandeliers, one commands the sharp rows of royal palms, the city’s landmarks and its flow. It’s the view of a city on the rise, the view of endless possibility. 

RH Rooftop Restaurant: 560 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach; 561-804-6826  

Avocado Grill's brunch menu includes delicious variations of Eggs Benedict. Photo: Contributed by Avocado Grill

BEST WEEKEND BRUNCH 

Avocado Grill 

Chef Julien Gremaud’s Avocado Grill aces many components of dining. Lunch, dinner and drinks here are superb. Ambiance is vibrant. The setting places the diner smack-dab in the downtown West Palm action. But there’s something about brunch here that brings all those things together – the chef’s skills, the vibe, the setting. It is brunch that dotes on the food but does not take itself seriously. (Case in point: People dance on the bar here and sometimes wear costumes.) Sometimes in dining a customer can’t have it all. There are times when great ambiance does not come with great food, and vice versa. Avocado Grill arrived on the scene three years ago to shatter that nonsense. No wonder its second location, expected to open in Palm Beach Gardens in early January, is the most anticipated restaurant in north county. 

Avocado Grill: 125 Datura St., West Palm Beach; 561-623-0822  

An assortment of ‘cue and sides await the lunch bunch at Pig-Sty BBQ in Boynton Beach.   Photo: Richard Graulich/ Palm Beach Post Staff

BEST CASUAL LUNCH 

Pig-Sty BBQ 

Belly up to the cafeteria-style line at Pig-Sty BBQ and point to your smoked meat of choice. Any of them will do – they are all tasty, cooked in the wood-smoked, Kansas City style. But, truth be told, I’m happy to dine here on sides and fixings alone. The chili, the Roadhouse Beans, the potato salad, the slaw, the mac-and-cheese – all are delicious. This is no pigsty, but it’s no jazzy joint, either. Expect a no-frills spot, located in a nondescript plaza. Also, expect a hearty, satisfying lunch. 

Pig-Sty BBQ: 706 W. Boynton Beach Blvd., Boynton Beach; 561-810-5801  

The lunch menu at Pistache, which includes a juicy burger, is large and varied.  Photo: Contributed by Pistache

BEST POWER LUNCH 

Pistache 

Behold the civilized lunch served with panache. At restaurateur Thierry Beaud’s flagship eatery, Pistache, lunch is a meal of many inspired options. The menu is French and showcases plenty of hearty choices. (The burger is one of the best and juiciest anywhere.) But there are options for lighter appetites as well. All this in a lovely space that offers a view of downtown West Palm Beach’s Waterfront Commons. 

Pistache: 101 N. Clematis St., West Palm Beach; 561-833-5090 

La Masseria’s Torta Di Ricotta Alla Vaniglia (cheesecake) is rich and luxurious.   Photo: Allen Eyestone/ Palm Beach Post Staff

DESSERT 

La Masseria’s Italian Cheesecake 

Here’s a dessert that’s pure sin. It starts with homemade ricotta cheese and finds its depth of flavor in fontina. La Masseria’s Torta Di Ricotta Alla Vaniglia, or Italian cheesecake, is luxurious and rich. It’s made for savoring slowly. 

La Masseria: 5520 PGA Blvd., Suite 104, Palm Beach Gardens; 561-660-8272 

Grato's pre-Irma treat was inspired by New Orlean's famous Hurricane cocktail.  Photo: Laura Lordi/ Palm Beach Post Staff

BEST COCKTAIL 

The Hurricane special at Grato, on the eve of Hurricane Irma 

Frosty and bright coral in hue, Grato’s frozen Hurricane was one of those last-night-on-Earth indulgences, served at the trattoria’s bar just hours before Irma and her feisty winds plowed across South Florida. It would linger in my memory like sunshine during the power-less hours that followed the storm. Here’s hoping it finds a permanent spot on the menu – and that this time, it keeps the winds away. 

Grato: 1901 S. Dixie Highway, West Palm Beach; 561-404-1334