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The Grateful Palate sits empty just after 5 o'clock on a Wednesday. Two black-clad waiters occupy the small bar that runs along the right side of the restaurant's back wall. Behind the counter, the sommelier, a tall blond in a Mad Men-style dress, pours them one-ounce tastes from a bottle of rosé.
"This should be very floral to the nose," Grace Abel says. The waiters swirl it on their tongues and then dump the remainder from their glasses in a bucket. I ask about the tasting, and Abel explains: "We're doing our tasting of the new wines by the glass. Like to join us?"
817 SE 17th St.
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33316
Region: Fort Lauderdale
The next eight pours progress from the rosé to a fruity Cabernet to an earthy Bordeaux, then to a smooth garnacha, and finally, to a white dessert wine that tastes of honey and prunes.
The restaurant's wine menu features 200 bottles in total and offers no fewer than 40 wines by the glass. Abel adds and subtracts a few twice a week, and each time, the waiters need a new lesson. After they're done with the tasting, Abel explains that liquor distributors stop by constantly trying to get her to add their bottles. Three rejected wines sit behind the counter, and she pours me tastes of a buttery Chardonnay and a dry Riesling.
"I just can't seem to sell a dry Riesling," she says. "Everyone thinks of Rieslings as too sweet. But the dry ones are actually quite nice."
She's right, and I can't help thinking that the same type of confusion exists for the Grateful Palate. A year has passed since it reopened as a high-end restaurant, and somehow the crowds haven't found the place. Here's a restaurant, I'd come to learn, that is serving some of the best plates of food in South Florida, with a wine list that's almost incomparable. Lines should be forming for Abel's afternoon winetastings and the food by chef Bill Bruening.
The Grateful Palate landed Bruening after Christine's closed, a shame considering the praise reviewers lavished on his food there; New Times even named it Best Romantic Restaurant in 2009. But Christine's never took off. After joining the Grateful Palate, Bruening created a small menu of approachable dishes like crab cakes and "chicken supreme," a common name for a dish with a creamy risotto cake and thyme au jus.
The lack of crowds at the Grateful Palate is likely an indication that people haven't realized the place remade itself, says General Manager Adam Irvin. It reopened in August 2009 after years as a company that stocked yachts and offered ready-made foods to go. "Everyone is still trying to figure out what we are and what we're doing," Irvin explains.
Now, the Grateful Palate is one of the more comfortable restaurants around. Behind me at the bar is a living-room-style area with couches, coffee tables, and high tops. A decorative colored glass partition separates the bar from a dining room with a mere nine four-top granite tables. The open kitchen sits in the back left, with a row of barstools facing the chefs, the sounds generally drowned out by trip-hop music. Across the dining room is a walk-in, humidor-like wine cellar and a long, high-top table that looks perfect for a small office party.
By the time I order a cup of the carrot soup, only two tables occupy the place. Hopefully they also order the soup du jour ($6), which tastes of curry, ginger, micro herbs, and cream. Truffled potato chips on the bar make a perfect accompaniment. So does the Sequana pinot noir ($16 by the glass), the best of the waiters' winetasting.
With all those tastes Abel set me up with before dinner, that pinot carries me through to dinner, the menu's only steak, a "sterling silver" rib eye ($32). It's charred black, pink inside, and nearly melting on the end of my fork. A water-glass-high pile of broiled mushrooms on top is as meaty as the steak and does well dipped into the plate's thin wine reduction. Completing the dish is a rectangle of au gratin potatoes reminiscent of church casseroles but reinvented into a block of cheesy creaminess.
One of the waiters from the tasting stops by to ask about the steak and make a suggestion. "You should come back on Saturday," says the waiter, whom everyone calls Frenchy. "We have live music. It's so much fun."
I take him up on that offer and come by early the following Saturday night. At 6:30, just two bar tables and another three in the dining room are occupied. They sit my wife and me together on a plush couch on the far wall. Cushions seem everywhere, and we joke with the waitress that we're so comfortable we might not leave.
Frenchy, on his way back from a table, jokes: "You missed tonight's winetasting!" Abel comes over to explain the wine special — a five-glass pinot noir flight from Oregon. "The winery is run by three women," she says, "and we had one of them in here for a tasting."
The $15 tasting begins with a rosé that, like the one from the other night, has floral notes but not much else. Its flavor gets entirely lost with the night's amuse bouche, a deep-fried risotto cake stuffed with tomato marmalade and served with basil oil. The bread in a basket nearby is perhaps even better — chunks of olives are suspended in tender slices with crusty edges.
The menu consists of just 11 "firsts" and 11 "seconds," and here's my singular complaint about the Grateful Palate: menu prices that seem both reasonable and extravagant. On the reasonable end: $26 for the chicken supreme and $28 for a roasted duck breast. But other dishes seem outrageously priced, like the $14 house salad, the $17 Caprese, and the $18 Wagyu burger. It's the high level of ingredients, explains Irvin. He defends the burger, an item that originally appeared only on the lunch menu until enough people requested it at dinner. "We've tried to take it off the menu, but people begged us to put it back. It's that good."
I order the salad, expecting to scoff at the double-digit cost. But it's a generous and artfully created salad, full of arugula, micro herbs, bits of yellow beets, sour orange segments, and blue cheese. It's served in a pasta bowl and could've fed two. It'd be better, though, with a portion half the size — and half the price.
What's well worth the $14 price tag is the Peking duck appetizer. It's disassembled, with wontons in a bamboo steamer, plum sauce, cilantro, and green onions. The duck's flesh is tender and the skin as crisp as candy coating.
Our entrées are equally perfect. My fish special ($32) is served bouillabaisse style; from bottom to top: white wine broth, buttered crostini, peppers, capers, tomatoes, fillet of basso, South African lobster tail. If you got out of the Mediterranean Sea right now, walked up to the nearest fine restaurant, and asked for the best dish, it should taste like this.
My wife's bone-in short rib ($22) melts over goat cheese potatoes, the meat so tender it seems to have been simmering since the restaurant's conversion — last year. The ribs taste as if flavored with nothing more than salt and pepper. Dip them into the reduction — veal stock, perhaps — and you taste why they need nothing more.
As our lava cake arrives, so does the entertainment. Not the band, which starts late and after we left, but a table full of what we could guess was the yachting crowd that has always frequented the place. At the head of the table, a man in a $500 shirt picks out a bottle of champagne and then a few bottles of red for his five friends. Abel pours the champagne and decants the reds tableside, offers him a taste, and takes one herself. They swirl. They nod. "Oh, that's good," $500 Shirt says.
It occurs to us, at about the point that the lava cake's chocolate center is oozing over to the blackberry sorbet, that maybe it's OK the crowds haven't found the Grateful Palate. $500 Shirt and his friends aren't exactly ordering the $15 wine flight and calling it done. Besides, if the crowds start coming, they might start charging for the waiters' winetastings.