I just may remember 2015 as the year of the down-home, comfort food fix. I’ve indulged in the year’s winding buffet of humble, local-meets-global offerings, from Southern deviled eggs to South American empanadas, chicken fried steak to crispy fried chicken, Dominican mofongo to Indian chickpea curry.
Yes, I’ve had my share of “fancy” multi-course feasts, leisurely voyages into the sublime, including one featuring four James Beard Award-winning chefs.
And I’ve had my share of foodie adventures, like sampling a series of refined gator dishes (gator tail ceviche with celery root, chicory, pomegranate molasses and Serrano chile, anyone?) by Café Boulud sous chef Jimmy Strine during the summer-long “Chef vs. Chef” competition at Max’s Harvest, Delray Beach. Strine not only went on to slay that series, he turned me into a gator (meat, not football) fan.
I’ve scarfed up charcuterie and brunched like nobody’s business. But what lingers most deliciously at this year’s end are the unfussy, from-the-soul dishes.
What follows reflects the best of what I sampled this year. I didn’t dine everywhere or taste everything, and I don’t pretend to name every chef worthy of an honor. Palm Beach County, which is rich in talented cooks, scenic restaurants and delicious food options, is impossible to devour in a year.
That said, here are my Critic’s Choice picks for 2015.
BEST RESTAURANT: MEAT MARKET PALM BEACH
When Chef Sean Brasel brought a replica of his refined South Beach steakhouse to Palm Beach in the fall of 2014, he not only raised the bar on steak preparation, but also on service. All this while commuting between the two restaurants several times a week, clocking 150 miles each round trip.
He has created a sleek temple of food and drink designed to wow diners beyond the carnivores. Yes, carnivores will find nirvana in a menu that offers a selection of reserve cuts, such as dramatically presented mega-steaks, all tender beneath a gorgeous char. But seafood lovers will find some of the heftiest stone crab claws around, a selection of creative fish and shellfish dishes and an ample range of delectable veggie and side dishes.
Beyond the food, Meat Market is an elegant, sexy spot where you are well fed, well served and dazzled.
Meat Market Palm Beach: 191 Bradley Place, Palm Beach; 561-354-9800; MeatMarketPalmBeach.com
BEST NEW RESTAURANT: QUEEN OF SHEEBA
When a former registered nurse named Lojo Washington opened this jewel-box of a restaurant on a neglected block of West Palm Beach’s Historic Northwest District, she tapped into the essence of what makes a restaurant truly great: passion and devotion. The Ethiopian-born restaurant owner and cook presents the foods of her native land and the lightly sour injera bread, which serves as a scoop for stewed dishes and veggies she serves. Because Queen of Sheeba is South Florida’s only Ethiopian restaurant, her customers hail from near and far – a dream come true for a woman eager to share the flavors of her childhood with the community at large. But it is Washington’s devotion to the restaurant’s struggling neighborhood that fuels her sense of purpose in the kitchen. She wants to do more than dazzle customers with stunning plate presentations – she wants to share with them her food stories, to nourish them in body and soul.
Queen of Sheeba: 716 N. Sapodilla Ave., West Palm Beach; 561-514-0615; QueenOfSheebaWPB.com
BEST SERVICE: THE WOODS
Tiger Woods, superstar golfer and restaurateur, brought a stroke of excellence to Jupiter’s Harbourside Place when he opened The Woods in August. The place has steakhouse sophistication and sports bar accessibility, good meat dishes and top-notch service.
This is where servers in Nike kicks and sportswear hand out luxuriously hot towels after rounds of finger food. Servers check in often and command the menu. Their bosses check in as well.
All this in a jammed, busy restaurant, in a region stricken by spotty, inconsistent service. It is clear exceptional service is a priority here. Nike sneaker-induced speed accounts for only part of it.
The Woods: 129 Soundings Ave., at Harbourside Place, Jupiter; 561-320-9627; WoodsJupiter.com
BEST CHEF: RICK MACE, CAFÉ BOULUD
With a sense of adventure, a heart that beats for history and the impeccable skill of a Daniel Boulud-ordained chef, Chef Rick Mace brings his fascinations to plate. He is a storyteller, one who shares Boulud’s time-traveler interests and food passions, and one who has managed to enhance the café’s offerings without straying from the Boulud spirit.
Boulud himself says he encourages his chefs to “take ownership” of their kitchens, and his Palm Beach chef has done this extremely well.
“Chef Rick brings his own personal soulfulness to Café Boulud,” Boulud told me during a visit to the café this month.
The Ohio-born Mace, who has commanded the kitchen at the Palm Beach café since the summer of 2013, kicked off the year with an exploration of Florida cuisine throughout 500 years.
As he continued to do throughout the year, Mace told this story in powerful, nuanced strokes, with modernist techniques and, as his boss puts it, a whole lot of soulfulness.
Café Boulud: 301 Australian Ave., Palm Beach; 561-655-6060; CafeBoulud.com
BEST RISING STAR CHEF: NICK MARTINKOVIC, JEREVE
Chef Nick Martinkovic’s dishes are almost too pretty to eat. His “plating” skills are appropriately inventive for Jereve, which embraces an art studio concept. But there’s substance beneath the pretty on Martinkovic’s plates.
The Johnson & Wales grad has impressed with a menu that elevates both creativity and flavor. The chef came to Jereve (which means “I dream” in French) in the spring, when it opened at the EmKo art space on South Dixie Highway in West Palm Beach, having worked with acclaimed New York chef Carlo Mirarchi at the Michelin-starred Roberta’s eatery in Brooklyn.
His delectable shrimp and grits display as a deeply hued Renaissance work, with violet-blue corn grits crowned by red, head-on shrimp and a cloud of lobster foam. It’s a good example of the chef’s desire to present “the occasionally whimsical dish, but grounded in technique,” as he told me some months ago.
A bit of a culinary daredevil, the chef admits he likes to “nudge people out of their comfort zone.”
To which we say: Go for it, chef! The dining scene always benefits from a bit of nudging.
Jereve Culinary Studio: 2119 S. Dixie Highway, West Palm Beach; 561-227-3511; EmKoPB.com
BEST VIEW: RUSTIC INN CRABHOUSE, JUPITER
If your idea of a captivating view is a panorama of shimmering water and bobbing boats, punctuated by a stunning-red lighthouse, you will find your sweet spot here. Whether you’re cracking crustaceans or simply having a batch of conch fritters and a glass of wine, you can always count on a side of soothing visuals here, at the Jupiter Inlet.
Rustic Inn Crabhouse: 1065 N. A1A, Jupiter; 561-320-9130; ArkRestaurants.com
BEST BAR: BRULE BISTRO, DELRAY BEACH
Belly up to the intimate bar at this Delray Beach bistro, or grab a seat at the adjacent long high-top table and enjoy the charms – and delicious bar bites – of Brule. You won’t find a staggeringly long cocktail list, but some notable, locally inspired updates on classics, a respectable menu of wines and a small but well-curated list of craft beers.
But you will find it quite easy to segue from happy hour (3 to 6:30 p.m.) to dinner service here, as regulars populate the indoor and outdoor tables and raise the volume to lively levels. Blocks removed from Atlantic Avenue and its traffic, this Pineapple Grove bar/bistro has established itself as a local favorite.
Brule Bistro: 200 N.E. Second Ave., Delray Beach; 561-274-2046; BruleBistro.com
BEST DINE-IN LUNCH SPOT: LEOPARD LOUNGE AND RESTAURANT
Tucked into the Chesterfield Hotel in Palm Beach is the refurbished, still glitzy Leopard Lounge, punctuated by glossy black shutters, leopard-pattern carpet, black granite tables and punkah fans.
Here, well before happy hour kicks off or weekend celebrations begin, lunch is served with exquisite style. The setting is sedate and sophisticated. Service is excellent. And the well-edited menu boasts one of the best dishes I had this year: the chicken schnitzel with haricot vert, lemon béchamel and French fries. For dessert, indulge in a chocolate molten cake. Why not? Lunch here is always a special occasion.
Leopard Lounge: at The Chesterfield, 363 Cocoanut Row, Palm Beach; 561-659-5800; ChesterfieldPB.com
BEST A LA CARTE BRUNCH: AVOCADO GRILL
Chef Julien Gremaud has tapped into the lively capsule of weekend a la carte brunch, a zone populated by millennials sipping bottomless rosé, bopping to DJ-spun beats, maybe even dancing on tables. He does this, of course, with some spectacular dishes. His Benedict dishes are outstanding, his tapas plates perfect for sophisticated sampling, and his main dish plates delectable and filling enough to carry you through into the night. Sunday brunch here can be an all-out party – one with stellar dishes.
Avocado Grill: 125 Datura St., West Palm Beach; 561-623-0822; AvocadoGrillWPB.com
BEST RAW BAR: PB CATCH
Welcome to the Magic Kingdom for oyster lovers, a restaurant and raw bar that knows its bivalves. On a recent night, I had sampled my way around a tray of oysters at the bar, arranged from briny to sweet by head chef Aaron Black. Wine lovers as myself who are used to the reverse lineup in wine tastings – from light bodied to full bodied – may be skeptical that this is the way to go. But, I’m glad I trusted the chef – the progression from powerful to milder, sweeter tastes made all the sense in the world where it counts – on the palate.
I’m told the bar’s seafood specialists are exploring ways to present such tastings and potential pairings.
PB Catch: 251 Sunrise Ave., Palm Beach; 561-655-5558; PBCatch.com
BEST TAKE-OUT SANDWICH SHOP: SANDWICH SHOP AT BUCCAN
You’ll have to grab your Maine lobster roll and go – or eat it standing up at the tiny sandwich shop adjacent to Buccan bistro in Palm Beach. But it’s a lunch for which we’re willing to sacrifice formalities. The bread is freshly baked onsite. The meats are roasted in-house. The condiments are homemade. And orchestrating it all: South Florida star chef Clay Conley. That would make it a five-star sandwich. We’ll take it – even to go!
Sandwich Shop at Buccan: 350 S. County Road, Palm Beach; 561-833-3450; Facebook.com/buccansandwichshop
BEST CHARCUTERIE PLATE: CITY CELLAR
This upscale eatery, located on the second floor of CityPlace, offers the best, most comprehensive selections of cured meats and eclectic cheeses in the county. Executive Chef Kevin Darr truly has excelled in this niche area, doing his part to grow a national trend. (And if you have a doubt, try a slice or two of the truffled salami he cures in-house.) From Italian speck to dried Rioja chorizo to air-dried, hand-sliced Jamon Iberico Pata Negra (a super-premium Spanish ham), the Cellar offers enough to keep you coming back. For the pairing, the restaurant pours interesting wine flights, as well as an ample range of wines by the glass and bottle.
City Cellar Wine Bar & Grill: 700 S. Rosemary Ave. (CityPlace), West Palm Beach; 561-366-0071; CityCellarWPB.com
BEST BURGER: MEAT EATERY & TAPROOM
When Chef George Patti brought the Inside-Out Juicy Lucy Burger to Boca Raton from his Islamorada burger joint, he set a new standard in pure decadence. This burger, a brisket and beef patty stuffed with pimento cheese and house-made bacon bits, then topped with a swoon of American cheese, is a thing of beauty in all its messiness.
Meat Eatery & Taproom: 980 N. Federal Highway, Suite 115 in the Cendyn Spaces building, Boca Raton; 561-419-2600; MeatEateryBoca.com
BEST GROWN-UP SHAKES: BURGER BAR
At Burger Bar, you’ll want more than fries with your burger – you’ll want a Chocolate Black Russian shake, a Nutella Bourbon shake, or perhaps a Brandy Alexander Split. They’re delicious, with or without a messy burger on the side.
Burger Bar: 4650 Donald Ross Road (in Donald Ross Village), Palm Beach Gardens; 561-630-4545; BurgerBar.com
BEST CLAM CHOWDER: CHOWDER HEADS, JUPITER
This is the chowder that won our hearts and bellies at local green markets. Nothing fancy about this traditional, creamy chowder, but I find it downright addictive.
Chowder Heads: 2123 U.S. 1, Jupiter; 561-203-2903; ChowderHeadsUSA.com
BEST DEVILED EGGS: FAT ROOSTER
Are you over the national deviled eggs menu fad? Hang on: Here’s a batch not to miss. Fat Rooster’s “Wicked Deviled Eggs” are filled with creamy, kicky deliciousness and gussied up with a judicious amount of candied bacon and pickled pepper relish.
Fat Rooster: 204 E. Atlantic Ave., Delray Beach; 561-266-3642; TheFatRooster.com
BEST FRIED CHICKEN: CRISPY GARLIC CHICKEN AT GRAND LAKE
This is not chicken that is served atop waffles, or the kind you order with a side of mac-and-cheese. But the Crispy Garlic Chicken at this suburban Chinese eatery is crispy, juicy and unforgettable. It’s marinated whole, fried whole (without batter), then cleaver-chopped into large pieces. A sprinkling of garlic-soy sauce is the finishing touch.
Grand Lake: 7800 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach; 561-681-1388
BEST RESTAURANT FREEBEE: FLAKOWITZ MARBLE CAKE
It arrived moments after I settled in at my table, ordered coffee and started perusing the menu at Flakowitz of Wellington deli: a generous wedge of marble cake. How did they know about my weakness for marble pound cake? They didn’t, but no matter: The freebee is offered at this location as well as at Flakowitz of Boynton. Smitten with it? You can buy more to take home.
Flakowitz of Wellington: 2803-300 State Road 7, Wellington; 561-847-4346; FlakowitzofWellington.com