Our annual Critic’s Choice Awards

Food editor Liz Balmaseda’s top picks for the best in food and dining.


It was a food year so flavorful that the Merriam-Webster dictionary saw fit to add the words poutine, yuzu, pepita, pho and ají to its pages.

But even if we didn’t know the newly ordained food lingo, we’d know that 2014 was a year that made us drool more than once.

A couple of the year’s movies alone — “Chef” and “The Hundred-Foot Journey” — offered drool-worthy cinematic moments. (Who didn’t crave a Cuban sandwich after watching “Chef?”)

It was the year that declared kale retro and avocado toast so 10 minutes ago, the year that acknowledged that bacon was simply a gateway substance for more specific pork fat (hello, guanciale!), the year that went coconuts for everything coconut (water, oil, flour, sugar).

Locally, we went nuts for Nutella, and we brunched like it was going out of style.

Cooler than cool

Locally, the already cool beverage world experienced a cold wave.

From cold-pressed juices at newly opened juice bars to cold-brewed coffees locally roasted by Oceana and The Rabbit, to expanded options of cold, local beers, Palm Beach County warmed up to chilly drinks in a big way.

Grocery games

The county welcomed six new specialty markets, doubling the alternative grocery options for local shoppers.

Trader Joe’s, the boutique grocery chain, opened no fewer than four locations in Palm Beach County (Wellington, Delray Beach, Palm Beach Gardens and Boca Raton) from May to September.

The Fresh Market amped up its local presence this year when it opened stores in Delray Beach and Jupiter. (The produce, meat and prepared foods market already had locations in Wellington and Boca Raton.)

Meanwhile, Whole Foods Market announced its long-awaited West Palm Beach store would open in February 2015.

‘Cue the smoke

This was a good year for barbecue lovers, as at least four new ‘cue joints opened in the county. Smoke BBQ brought its Kansas City-style eats to Delray Beach’s Atlantic Avenue dining district, while Sweet Dewey’s BBQ delivered Mississippi-inspired barbecue in Boca Raton. Blue Front Bar-B-Que opened in Lake Worth, and Mrs. Smokeys BBQ debuted a second location on Military Trail in Jupiter.

Chain reaction

Our newest shopping complexes greeted chain eateries, from the new Palm Beach Outlets (BJ’s Brewhouse, Red Robin Gourmet Burgers) to the newly opened Harbourside Place (Tommy Bahama, Bravo Cucina Italiana, Another Broken Egg).

Even tony Palm Beach continued its foray into chain territory with the opening of Bricktops early this year. Later in the year, the island welcomed Meat Market, which is not exactly a chain but does have a location in South Beach.

THIS YEAR’S BEST

What follows are my picks for 2014’s top eateries, chefs and dining experiences.

They are based on my own dining experiences, the dishes I sampled and enjoyed this year. I could not dine everywhere or taste every dish. But, based on meals I did experience, here are my picks for best in food and dining.

RISING STAR CHEF – Julien Gremaud

The former executive chef of Pistache and PB Catch has found his niche and unique voice at Avocado Grill, the buzzy eatery he opened in downtown West Palm Beach in October. A true stickler for quality, Gremaud keeps a tight rein on his open kitchen, finessing each roast, braise and even dessert he sends out. His St. Tropez roots are revealed in his menu’s lighter leanings, the fish and seafood dishes he so favors. Rounding out the offerings is a globally inspired mix of dishes, from short-rib-stuffed jumbo shells to duck tacos.

Gremaud, 35, who brought his talents to the United States 13 years ago, has worked in classically inspired French eateries in the Chicago area and Palm Beach County. What led him to culinary school was a love for cooking instilled in him by his mother, the woman he calls “my food inspiration.”

The talented chef hit the ground running at Avocado Grill, opening every day, serving lunch and dinner, as well as brunch on Saturday and Sunday. Gremaud is the ubiquitous presence at the eatery that juggles the duties of detail-obsessed chef, pastry chef and party host. He has breathed new life into a temperamental corner of Datura Street, filled it with heady aromas, beautiful people, weekend rosé and rhythmic music.

“I think you can call Palm Beach the American Riviera in a way. It’s a seasonal place. It’s beach and sun,” Gremaud told me. “What I wanted to accomplish is food that’s appropriate for this weather. I wanted to develop food that would pay homage to Floridian cuisine.”

He’s certainly a chef on the rise, and one from whom we can expect continued success.

BEST NEW RESTAURANT – Avocado Grill

Chef Julien Gremaud opened his first solo eatery in a long-dormant space in downtown West Palm Beach. It has been a hit from the start, hopping on weeknights, packed for weekend brunch, lively in the late night. And there’s a reason for this: His inspired small plates — ranging from crudos to braises — cater to a younger, more fit clientele that’s always ready for a good pub crawl. His larger, more classic dishes are popular with the more traditional dining set. Avocado Grill reaches a wide customer base and does it with polish, good service and a certain spunk.

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

BEST CHEF – Clay Conley

That Clay Conley is the best chef in Palm Beach County is not necessarily news. It’s old news that warrants periodic bulletins — because he is that talented. His flavor combos are masterful, his menus always fresh.

Conley is not afraid to look back and pay homage to the experiences that have shaped him as a chef. We saw him do this when he hosted mentor Todd English at his eatery last year, just as when he ventured into his Asian space (Imoto) at Buccan, inspired by his work and travels in Japan.

But Conley’s true strength as a chef is his ability to look ahead and stay fresh. He is a chef who operates in forward motion, even though he does it at his own deliberate pace. Four years after opening Buccan, Conley now prepares to open a new restaurant — a casual Italian spot — in West Palm Beach. And by “prepares” I mean Conley has immersed himself in the language of the modern trattoria, learning the fine points of pasta extruders to commanding pizza crust science. News of his upcoming, yet unnamed eatery already has West Palm’s Flamingo Park neighborhood drooling — and with good reason.

BEST RESTAURANT — Buccan

Chef Clay Conley and his partners, Sam Slattery and Piper Quinn, ought to bottle their formula for a successful Palm Beach restaurant. Their Buccan bistro not only revolutionized the way the island eats when it opened four years ago, it continues to delight diners.

Conley’s fresh, flavorful cuisine has expanded within Buccan’s very walls, first in an Asian nook he calls Imoto and just this month in a sandwich counter (Sandwich Shop at Buccan), where he makes fresh-pressed sandwiches with meats roasted on premises, hand-pulled Maine lobster and fresh fish. Buccan’s sandwich endeavor reveals one of the many things that make this eatery a new classic: It remains true to its mission to serve real food, fresh food, stellar food.

Buccan: 350 S. County Road, Palm Beach; 561-833-3450; BuccanPalmBeach.com

BEST SERVICE — Okeechobee Steakhouse

At a time when sloppy, inconsistent and sometimes downright poor service seems viral, it is a true joy to settle into a seat at the Okeechobee Steakhouse. Here, you get capital “S” kind of service delivered with a smile (our server gave us his business card as well). The service here is as precise as the steaks — it’s polished without being pretentious. There’s no up-sell. There’s none of that last-minute “so-great-to-serve-you!” pretense that’s become an unfortunate norm just before the check is delivered. Okeechobee does it right.

Okeechobee Steakhouse: 2854 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach; 561-683-5151; OkeeSteakhouse.com

BEST BAR — Meat Market

This new steakhouse offers more than stellar steaks: It offers one of the best bars in town. The Palm Beach sister to South Beach’s Meat Market, the steakhouse celebrates one of the most exquisite happy hours I’ve visited.

The place is sleek and stylish, the bar bites delicious, the drinks inspired. Sip signature cocktails ($7) like the MM Mojito, Highland Sandia (with fresh crushed watermelon), Lychee Martini and Pimm’s Cup, a nice glass of wine ($7), specialty beer ($3.50 to $4) or a glass of Veuve Clicquot Brut ($10) during happy hour. Pair those with delicious bites created by chef/co-owner Sean Brasel and chef de cuisine David Valencia, who make a killer Kobe beef slider duo with bacon and Gouda ($14), a mean ceviche and tuna tartare, as well as flavor-popping toppings for raw oysters on a half shell ($2 each).

Happy hour goes from 4 to 7 p.m. daily. Bonus: The service is excellent.

Meat Market: 191 Bradley Place, Palm Beach; 561-354-9800; MeatMarketMiami.com

BEST VIEW — U-Tiki Beach Bar and Restaurant

To issue superlatives on local views is a tricky thing. A view could be glorious by daylight, but entirely lost at sunset. Besides, panoramas are most beautiful in the eyes of their most devoted beholder. This beholder is partial to water views and lighthouses, which is why U-Tiki captured my heart. The sister eatery to Jetty’s (next door) is a terrific place to sip a cocktail and enjoy the view of Jupiter’s iconic lighthouse and its sparkling inlet waters.

U-Tiki: 1095 A1A, Jupiter; 561-406-2210; Facebook.com/UTikiBeach

BEST NEIGHBORHOOD SPOT — Jimmy’s Bistro

Chef Jimmy Mills tends to this intimate bistro just off the Atlantic Avenue frenzy in Delray Beach. His menu — handwritten daily on a chalkboard behind the bar — is simple and dishes are simply delicious: local fish and seafood, braised rabbit, pork schnitzel, etouffee, house-made ravioli and fried chicken. For the pairing, Jimmy’s pours some excellent wines.

Jimmy’s Bistro: 9 S. Swinton Ave., Delray Beach; 561-865-5774; Facebook.com/JimmysBistro

BEST REVISITED RESTAURANT — Coolinary Café

Chef Tim Lipman’s Coolinary Café is a true expression of its time and region, with dishes inspired by and cooked with freshly harvested ingredients. Its core values go well beyond the farm-to-table fad. In fact, what Lipman does is not fad-driven but guided by a commitment to what’s fresh and real.

This is Coolinary’s gift to Palm Beach County diners.

Coolinary Café: 4650 Donald Ross Road, #110, Palm Beach Gardens; 561-249-6760; CoolinaryCafe.com

BEST ALTERNATIVE RESTAURANT — Christopher’s Kitchen

When Christopher Slawson introduced his polished style of plant-based cuisine in north county, he started a revolution of sorts. Now, the spaces adjacent to his Midtown PGA eatery are occupied by health and fitness endeavors. Perhaps what Slawson has done best is that he has created a mainstream following. His decadent pizzas, soul-warming soups, gorgeously complex salads and sinful desserts have lured diners beyond the vegans and raw foodists. Yes, you’ll find your share of carnivores at CK as well!

Christopher’s Kitchen: 4783 PGA Blvd., Palm Beach Gardens; 561-318-6191; ChristophersKitchenFL.com

BEST CULINARY EVENT — Miami vs. Palm Beach chef throwdown during Palm Beach Food & Wine Festival

Plenty of national stars descend on Palm Beach each December for the annual Food & Wine Fest, but this year my favorite event involved South Florida chefs. It happened on the festival’s third night at the Four Seasons resort: a Street Food celebration that pitted chefs from Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties in an open-air cookout competition. Local foodies sampled dishes from some of Miami’s top chefs, including Sugarcane’s Timon Balloo (who took home Critics’ Choice and Blogger’s Choice awards for his beef on a stick) and Eating House’s Giorgio Rapicavoli. At the end of the night, the local palates favored Buccan chef Clay Conley, who took home the People’s Choice award.

The gravy: Attending a chefs’ after-party, which took place after the showdown in the resort’s “Living Room” lounge, and chowing down on roast pork made by James Beard Award-winning chef Stephen Stryjewski (Cochon, New Orleans).

Palm Beach Food & Wine Festival: PBFoodWineFest.com


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