Best Of :: Food & Drink
It takes guts to open a restaurant in a place where even the hardiest eateries have succumbed to the deadly Clematis Street pox. There isn't a restaurant on West Palm Beach's Main Street that has survived into adulthood; recent road construction, a late-night club crowd, parking horrors, and the apotheosis of CityPlace have apparently made it impossible to operate a profitable food-related business there. But Roy Assad and his wife, Evelyn, who also own the popular and acclaimed Leila Mediterranean Restaurant around the corner on Dixie Highway, love an underdog. Along with partner Cosmo Dishino and undeterred by last fall's hurricanes, which mangled the front of the building, they've taken the old Big City Tavern and turned the space into an open-air French bistro. With those pressed tin ceilings and velveteen crimsons, the place really looks the part; what's more, the food is astonishing. Nostalgic dishes like escargots in the shell ($12 dinner, $9 lunch), bouillabaisse ($26, dinner only), and duck a l'orange ($25 dinner, $15 lunch) are served alongside bistro standards like New York steak pommes frites ($26 dinner, $16 lunch). Chef Laurent Loupiac, who comes to West Palm via Daniel in New York and Alain Ducasse in Paris, is a real catch for our gold-digging little burg. The guy knows how to put together a brochette of sea scallops with crushed rosemary Yukon gold potatoes better than just about anybody. The service is as crisp as the starched linens on the tables, and with that wall of doors thrown open on a warm evening, a cold cocktail in hand, and a perfect little goat cheese tart on the plate in front of you, you might almost start to believe in downtown revitalization.
It's clean, it's bright, and it serves confections so sweet that your teeth almost rot just looking at them. Gone are the days of Grandma's neighborhood bakery, where only muffins, brownies, and loaves of bread were available. When this company was founded nearly two decades ago during the "Let's Get Physical" '80s, more than 50 flavors of cheesecake and dozens of pies, tortes, and other cakes were delivered to the hungry masses by Celebrity's chefs. Through the no-fat '90s and the "anti-carb" new millennium, this bakery has continued to thrive with loads of options for anyone from the carb-conscious to the reckless. This is your go-to joint for Hello Dollies and brownies ($2.75 each), custom cakes (slices $3.25 to $3.50), platters, and seasonal selections like egg nog and cranberry pumpkin cheesecake ($3.50 to $26). What else makes this a great spot to visit? Lots of little tables, decent cups o' Joe, evening hours, and a personable staff. Cooking classes are held for kids and adults too so you can learn how to make more than just Betty Crocker.
Gourmet Deli House will make you feel like Henny Youngman smack in the middle of Del Boca Vista. Come in the late fall, especially, when you'll hear an old folk's reunion in the line. As you wait to order the signature corned beef ($10.95 a pound) or the lox ($24.50 a pound) or chicken salad ($8.95 a pound), you'll always overhear a couple of codgers talking about Ohio and Pennsylvania and New Yawwwk. Diners in this joint -- and we love this -- sometimes need to be reminded that they'll be charged for the buckets of free pickles and rye bread if they don't order an entrée. Make no mistake, these folks know a bargain. And so do the deli owners, who upon request will even split a loaf of bread in half for frugal deli customers. Just remember to drive slowly in the parking lot.
He's the guy whose name tag says Freddy Scoops. This is Fred Sabloff, co-owner (with Fay Decker) of Maggie Moo's, the Coral Ridge ice cream emporium where they stir your favorite toppings into your flavor of choice on a stone cutting board. What? You didn't know? It's the latest thing. Last year was the store's first full year of operation, and it packed 'em in, with customers clamoring for signature flavors like grape bubblegum, very yellow marshmallow, and udderly cream.
Moo's even gives the ice cream a carny spin or two.
"Our biggest-selling flavor is cotton candy," says the gregarious Sabloff, a New Yorker with a penchant for street scenes. "I go to all the carnivals. I like the excitement. I like the food -- hot dogs on a stick, all the stuff that's not good for you. Mostly, I like to be where there's a lot of people, where people are tumling." Tumulting? "It's like tumult. But it's tuml." That would be Yiddish for noisy, chaotic, and entertaining.
Food as Sideshow
Michael's Kitchen is a showy new restaurant in downtown Hollywood where dinner is as much a spectacle as a food experience. Flames spout from stoves in the open kitchen, frying pans sizzle like lava eruptions, and chefs parade through the place with creatively displayed dishes. This is "Cirque de Soleil dining," says Michael Blum, co-owner (with his wife, Jennie) and namesake of the restaurant. The food? It just tastes good. But the presentation is, well, carnyesque.
Blum, the food showman, feels right at home in the lurid sideshows of county fairs and traveling carnivals. "I like the wow effect -- the 3,000-pound pig and the lady with the 14-inch nose. At the carnival, it's all about the wacky people. That's kind of how I go through my day. We give you in-your-face dining."
Tropical Café has been dishing out flavorful Cuban grub at its present location -- an out-of-the-way store in the Sears shopping center -- for four years (and seven years before that on Andrews Avenue). It's all about the pork -- which is roasted, indelibly touched with garlic and secret herbs -- and the coffee (thick, sweet, hot as a punctured radiator in July). That's why we like owner Humberto Fajardo's peerless breakfast deal. For a mere $4.99, you get an omelet, a layer of that roast pork -- or ham or bacon -- and a slice of Swiss cheese, all pressed into a hunk of Cuban bread, which has been grilled flat in the kitchen's heavy, metal parrilla. Top it off with a steaming hot café con leche. It's what gets us to work every morning.