Critic’s Choice: The year’s best in food and dining in Palm Beach County


The pessimists among us might have expected the year ’13 to bring relentless bad luck. But in the food and dining world, this year of mixed fortune brought its waves of deliciousness.

Yes, it was the year that brought us the Satisfries at Burger King and horrendous mutations of pumpkin-flavored food and drink (I’m talking to you, online vendor of the $8.99 brown sugar, vinegar and pumpkin-flavored ketchup!) , but it was also the year that gave us the Cronut, that sinful donut-croissant hybrid.

And for those of us who did not travel to Chef Dominique Ansel’s bakery in New York City’s SoHo neighborhood to stand in a snaking line for one of the flaky treats, the Jupiter Donut Factory offered a respectable, albeit far simpler, knock-off: the Jupiter Kronut.

It was a bumper year for Korean tacos, grilled octopus and, yes, kale. It was a year when the term “GF” referred more to your dietary choice (gluten-free) than it did to your social life (girlfriend). It was the year we would not allow the chicken-and-waffles movement to die – proud and maple syrup-laced, it marches on.

We guzzled and paired our rapidly expanding options of craft beer, and sipped our retro cocktails, sometimes made of garden-infused liquors, sometimes served in ubiquitous Mason jars.

We celebrated the holiday feast that was 1,000 times more rare than Halley’s Comet: Thanksgivukkah, when Thanksgiving coincided with the second night of Hanukkah.

Egg-cetera.

Literally. We came to grasp the culinary truth that chefs are obsessed with eggs – fried, poached, 6-minute-boiled, coddled and deviled. On the plate, in the world of modern American cuisine, the farm-fresh egg has replaced the curly-leaf parsley sprig.

Locally, 2013 gave us an invigorated food and dining scene as a batch of hot new eateries opened and picked up traction: Hullabaloo on Clematis Street, Kitchen in West Palm, The Grove and Burt & Max’s in Delray, Del Frisco’s on Palm Beach.

I didn’t dine everywhere and did not taste everything, but of the many places where I did dine and the many bites I did savor, these are my picks as the year’s best.

BEST CHEF

Tim Lipman, Coolinary Café, Palm Beach Gardens

This cat can cook. His domain is a sliver of a restaurant in a busy plaza on the northern fringe of Palm Beach Gardens, but Lipman can deliver the world on a plate. He’s a chef who allows his inspiration to be renewed daily, not by what’s in style, but by what’s in season. Check out his blackboard listing his daily purveyors, the Florida farms that harvest his ingredients.

Lipman is not content with simply adopting the farm-to-table template – he expands the concept just as he expands his list of Florida purveyors. He takes inspiration from his fellow cooks at family meals, from local artisans, such as the tortilla-maker from a nearby Latin American market. That tortilla becomes the foundation for his stellar rabbit tacos. He stays fresh. He stays focused. And, most importantly, he keeps learning.

Coolinary Café: in Donald Ross Village at 4650 Donald Ross Road, Palm Beach Gardens; 561-249-6760; www.CoolinaryCafe.com

BEST RISING-STAR CHEF

Roy Villacrusis, Aah Loi Thai & Sushi, Jupiter

To call Villacrusis a sushi chef is woefully incomplete in description. He’s an artist – in both aesthetics and flavor. That he became sushi chef at chef Charlie Soo’s Aah Loi eatery earlier this year is a gift to lovers of sophisticated, Asian-inspired bites. It meant Villacrusis, a gypsy chef since the closing of his short-lived Kubo restaurant in North Palm Beach, had found a good home.

There, the Filipino-born chef creates multicourse omakase – or “trust” the chef’s choice – meals, offering almost poetic descriptions of each palate-tingling course.

Aah Loi: 3755 Military Trail, B-14 (Admiral’s Crossing plaza), Jupiter; 561-748-5201

BEST NEW RESTAURANT

Kitchen, West Palm Beach

Chef Matthew Byrne and wife Aliza Byrne opened this small bistro on Belvedere Road in West Palm in early September, and it has been bustling since. Byrne, former personal chef for Tiger Woods, turns out ingredient-driven, modern American dishes (like a luxe and loaded burger and a buttery chicken schnitzel topped with a gorgeous fried egg) while Aliza manages the dining room with the sparkle of an expert dinner party host.

Kitchen: 319 Belvedere Road, West Palm Beach; 561-249-2281; KitchenPB.com

BEST LANDMARK RESTAURANT

Buccan

That’s right – we just called Buccan a landmark restaurant. What else would you call an eatery that shakes up the establishment and sparks a new scene in a traditional place like Palm Beach? And chef/co-owner Clay Conley continues to do just that, turning out spectacular plates that keep the local buzz going. He did just that at the Palm Beach Food & Wine Festival’s “Last Supper” last week, when he served the most outstanding, deconstructed frutti di mare known to (this) woman.

The flavors seem to reflect the great intangibles of Buccan, that essence known in Spanish as “duende” – kind of like fairy dust.

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

BEST BAR

HMF at The Breakers, Palm Beach

This bar slips on like a satin glove. Not only is it exquisitely appointed in a style that’s both sophisticated and sultry, it lavishes you with its vintage-inspired cocktails and deliciously prepared bites. Plus, you’ve got to love a bar that lights up a Baked Alaska table-side.

Leave it to The Breakers to deliver perfect glam.

HMF: The Breakers (lobby), 1 S. County Road, Palm Beach; 561-290-0104; HMFPalmBeach.com

BEST AMBIANCE

The Grove, Delray Beach

This slip of a restaurant is as serene as a temple. And, indeed, it is a temple of sorts – one of excellent food by Chef Michael Haycock, superb service and soothing setting. Within its minimalist lines, there’s space and quiet to enjoy a proper conversation. Come in, settle, sip. Then peer through the window panes at the quick-paced sorts barreling toward Atlantic Ave’s hectic scene.

There’s no water view here, no strolling musicians, no lush landscaping. There’s serenity. And sometimes that’s the best ambiance in which to enjoy sumptuous food.

The Grove: 187 NE 2nd Ave. (Pineapple Grove), Delray Beach; 561-266-3750; TheGroveDelray.com

BEST SERVICE

Papa’s Tapas, Delray Beach

Not only does this family-owned tapas spot pull out the stops to serve its guests, it’s the happiest place in town to dine.

Papa is Spaniard Cristobal Parra, in the kitchen with his Dominican wife, Suzie, and their daughter Yvette. The front of the house is firmly in the hands of daughters Annie Kolensky and Rosa Madrigal, who with the help of assorted other relatives make you feel at home, well attended and quite spoiled.

Their service is a perfect match to Papa’s (and team’s) outstanding cooking.

Papa’s Tapas: 259 NE 2nd Ave. (Pineapple Grove), Delray Beach; 561-266-0599; PapasTapasDelray.com

BEST FOODIE EVENT

Chef Lindsay Autry’s “A Taste of The South” summer dinner with wines selected by sommelier Stephanie Miskew, at Sundy House

What happens when one of the best chefs in South Florida explores her roots on a typically-slow summer night? If that chef is North Carolina-born Lindsay Autry, delicious happens.

This was perhaps the best meal I had all year, one that started with bites of fried chicken and biscuits, crispy okra and pimento cheese, and quickly pickled cubes of watermelon topped with Old Bay toasted peanuts. Courses included pickled shrimp over a buttermilk-laced green tomato slaw, grilled cobia fillets over dirty rice with black-eyed peas and country sausage. And the most glorious course: a country-fried tenderloin of Duroc pork with a cider gastrique, topped with grilled peaches and served it alongside grilled collard greens. The crowning touch: creamy grits, which one could top with crispy bacon, shredded cheese or green onions.

Add to that a sequence of wines impeccably paired, and this was a Southern dream. And while Autry left the Sundy House earlier this month, we can hope she’ll recreate this meal wherever she goes next.

Lindsay Autry and Stephanie Miskew: LindsayAutry.com; WineAtelier.com

Sundy House: 106 S. Swinton Ave., Delray Beach; 561-272-5678; SundyHouse.com



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