East Is Eden
He's a star, Nick Morfogen. And I love him the way I love Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet: purely, deeply, from afar. I have Dennis Max and Burt Rapoport to thank for bringing Nick into my range; that Unique Restaurant Concepts power couple, throwing open contemporary California-style bistros with fanatical determination, lured Morfogen to South Florida in 1998. This bright lad had scooped up one of Food and Wine's "Top 10 Best New Chefs in America" awards while at Ajax Tavern in Aspen. He was in his early thirties then, studly as hell, and with an excellent pedigree the kind of guy you might pick out of a book of sperm donors and think: He's the one.
Morfogen's fine genetic inheritance included a father and uncle well entrenched in the New York restaurant biz. He was smart, with a degree from the Culinary Institute of America. Plenty of ambition: He'd held jobs in some of the most prestigious kitchens in America, working with Boulud at Le Cirque, Rachou at La Côte Basque, LeCoze at Le Bernardin. Swoon! Morfogen came to Florida to partner in Nick & Max's, in the old Boca Raton Maxaluna space. It turned out to be the one bad call of his career Nick & Max's tanked within a year. The partnership dissolved in bitterness and lawsuits. When Morfogen went to work at 32 East in Delray Beach soon after, his old partner Dennis Max, like a heartbroken suitor, used to stalk him, sneaking in for dinner regularly and sitting with his back to the kitchen until finally at the end of his rope one night, Morfogen lost his cool and refused to serve him. That may be the only juicy story you'll ever hear about a man who's managed to keep his temper and a low profile ever since.
Morfogen's kitchen is a destination. I've been eating there for years, but in deference to our relationship, I've never written about 32 East until now. Feeling about him as I do, how could I be objective? And did I really want to share him? In reputation and regard Morfogen holds his own with the likes of Militello (Mark's), Vinczencz (Johnny V), and Des Marais (Four Seasons). He's racked up a wall full of Golden Spoon Awards; he's cooked at the James Beard House. At 32 he was a babe; at 41 he's got a bit of a paunch and a trace of a jowl but I say now there's just more of him to love.
With or without the paunch, Morfogen's talents go beyond what he can do with black grouper and black truffles. We'll never see the day of desperation, I hope, when he introduces a line of sauces (Nick's Hibiscus Aioli), pens a biography (Verjus! A Success Story), or opens a chain of celeb-chef eateries (32 West, 32 North, etc.). I can live without a Morfogen cookbook too will I ever yearn to whip up a plate of foie gras with pineapple coulis and yucca chips? Why? When I have him to do it for me? He's held out so far against cultural pressures to become a Brand, to set up Morfogen kiosks in shopping malls and to fill up the last 30 minutes available on the Food Network between Paula Dean and Sandra Lee. Not that you wouldn't find me glued to the screen. The way he squeezes those key limes is so dreamy.
No, he just goes along doing what he does, in the semi-open kitchen at 32 East, like a man of integrity. He changes his menu every night. He buys local produce (zucchini and tomatoes from Green Cay and frilly cilantro from Swank Farms) and sources the most excellent pork (Prairie Grove and Nueske Bacon); grains (Anson Mills polenta); Florida seafood (mahi, black grouper, snapper); chicken (Belle and Evans); and tropical fruit (grapefruit, honeybells, tangerines, kumquats).
Last time I dropped in... well, you don't really "drop in" at 32 East. You make reservations, even for a latish Monday dinner. Last time I made reservations and scored us a booth in the main dining room, the menu included gems like "oak fired Parma proscuitto-wrapped d'Anjou pear in thousand flower honey glaze with Sonoma goat cheese and 25 year old balsamic." Imagine dictating that mouthful. Period, end quote, new paragraph.
If you think thousand-flowered menu descriptions like this are just trendy, pretentious, and silly, you don't understand my Nick. This is a guy who thinks the distinctions in terroir regional differences mean unique growing cultures, which affect appearance and taste are vital. Morfogen has said, modestly, that the food is more important than the chef in other words, that if you start with excellent ingredients, you've practically won the game. He wants to know where his bacon comes from and what the pig was fed what the pig thought about while it was eating. He thinks small local farms provide better tasting vegetables, if for no other reason than the trip from plot to kitchen is a lot shorter. He's right.
Three appetizers from our last visit illustrate the righteousness of this principle: "Crispy wild shrimp with avocado-lime aioli, jalapeno-kumquat relish and Swank Farm's frilly cilantro" ($15); "Pan seared La Belle foie gras with spicy pineapple coulis, crispy yucca, mint and pineapple salad" ($18); and "Ceppo pasta in Forever Braised short rib ragu with porcini mushrooms, English peas, black truffles and Vacche Rosse reggiano" ($15). Morfogen's palate tends toward Mediterranean by way of Florida by way of California he's the Alice Waters of Delray Beach without her Francophilia. Having this trio of fantastic dishes at the same table was almost scary. I'm absolutely certain that this was one of the most successful foie gras pairings I've ever eaten. The La Belle duck liver foie gras, to begin with, dissolved on contact into waves of fatty flavor. Every bite from this plate was a new experience the heat and cool of the pineapple coulis, the dusky-leafy fragrance of the mint, the brittle yucca chips studded with sea salt, and that foie gras holding it all together, a constant under note. It was beautiful.
The same went for the shrimp, which was lighter and tangy-er but no less fascinating in the way it revealed itself. Morfogen never gives away his game in the first bite. You ease your way into one of his creations the way you might begin an affair tenderly, delighting in what you learn as you enter more deeply. It's not enough to think "citrus," because the lime and the kumquat assert their own gregarious flavor notes they're as different as two little, round, acid-heavy fruits can be. Where the avocado aioli is voluptuous, the relish is sharp and snappy. And instead of using the frilly cilantro which looks a bit like very young tarragon as a garnish, Morfogen has given the dish a good solid salad of the stuff, plated on top of everything else; you can tease out these delicate, sultry threads so they run through every bite and lend their texture and perfume.
The ceppo pasta was the most conventional of the three appetizers, but it was still a bottomless well of pleasure. If the shrimp was the coloratura, and the foie gras a great dramatic mezzo soprano, the ceppo was the bel canto baritone, ranging through the dark notes of a slow-cooked ragu, of primordial fungi in the porcini and black truffles, in the long-aged flavors of Parmesan and mature English peas. It felt timeless and eternal. The groupings of each appetizer were harmonious in their tone, strange in certain bright peaks of unexpected flavorings. The ceppo, dense, chewy tubes, held up to this very serious sauce.
Of our entrées, the grilled filet mignon was the highlight ($37). Which may be a phrase you'll never hear from me again. I never order filet, it bores me but let Morfogen add this flavorless cut of meat to his vocabulary and he's suddenly spouting poetry. Interesting ideas broccolini crisped up so it's all about the texture and, as if one green weren't enough, sautéed spinach filling out a sauté of yellowfoot chanterelles and Nueske's bacon. There are slices of roasted fingerling potatoes. And the whole thing is set in a cabernet reduction that practically defines the term this sauce has been reduced until it has the force-field of a high-gravity star.
I loved my pork tenderloin ($27), although it was fractiously anti-seasonal yams, apples, and grapes, over salted braised greens mined with slivers of bacon seemed like a weird offering for a balmy tropical night in March. The Queen snapper ($28), rubbed in a Japanese togarashi 7-spice mix (chili pepper, roasted orange peel, yellow and black sesame seeds, Japanese pepper, seaweed, and ginger) had lost a good deal of its moisture, and the cold rice salad it sat on, tossed with pickled ginger, mango, and peanuts, I'm sorry to say, felt a little prosaic.
My pen is going to run dry before I can finish this love letter properly with all due encomiums for homey desserts (pear crumble, $9; creamy cheesecake topped with a second story of creamy whipped cream, $10). I haven't begun to start on the service (professional, knowledgeable); the noise level (intense); the crowd (older in the dining room, younger at the bar, youngest on the patio including everything from a six-foot tall black Amazon who was either a fashion model or a drag queen to somebody's dear old granny). Not that I'd ever criticize but maybe it's time for a bigger restaurant? With better acoustics, so we can actually hear ourselves waxing ecstatic over the fonduta and the Barolo-tangerine vinaigrette? Morfogen is outgrowing his space.
I have no intention of letting him outgrow me.
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