Robbin Haas was a little nervous about opening his latest project, Bex, in Boca Raton. And who could blame him? The award-winning New American chef, who was named one of the top ten chefs in the nation by Food & Wine magazine in 1991, has also received critical acclaim from Esquire, Metropolitan Home, Food Arts, and Bon Appetit. He has won gold medals in the Culinary Olympics, he has participated in prestigious fundraisers with other internationally known chefs, and, on and off for almost a decade, he has run restaurants in South Florida from Palm Beach to Miami Beach. But he has never dealt with the Boca crowd before.
In the nearly ten years that I've been visiting, working, and living in South Florida, I've had plenty of opportunities to observe Boca diners (my in-laws live there), and I'm not talking about hamburger joints. The most noticeable thing about the residents of this town, besides their love of restaurants, might be their yenta-fueled loyalty. Long story short: Let one person whisper in the right country club ear something complimentary about a trendy new cafe or trattoria, and the place'll be overwhelmed with business quicker than your tennis pro's serve. The food might not be any good, but it's the perfect spot to be seen.
A Boca diner's greatest fear, it seems, is sitting in an otherwise empty restaurant. Of course the follow-the-crowd philosophy can backfire. Forget about the bad meal in the right restaurant, and think about the good meal in the wrong one. Should words be said against a restaurant, be it about the prices (overpaying is the Boca diner's second-greatest fear) or the policies of the management (what do you mean, you don't know who I am?), the entire community may turn its collective back. More's the pity when that word is misspoken, as sometimes occurs. Then a perfectly good restaurant gets ignored, and everyone loses out.
So Haas' fear was understandable. But fortunately his business partner Peter Beck knows the market, having owned the Bex property (formerly Wildwood Grill) on East Palmetto Park Road on the Intracoastal for more than seventeen years. He also has shares in some of the most popular restaurants in Fort Lauderdale, including Yesterday's, Aruba Beach Cafe, H2O, and Casablanca Cafe. In fact, Bex's stunning Forties supper-club look (arranged by Ken Crawford Interiors) -- fringed leopard-print lamps in the lounge, a low-beamed ceiling on the first floor and a high ceiling on the second, and plenty of smoky glass light fixtures and wrought iron -- should be enough in itself to bring in business.
Perhaps Haas doubted his own recognition factor. For the past two years, he has been living in Washington, D.C., helping his long-time friend Mark Miller (of Coyote Cafe and Red Sage fame) run his Raku restaurants, a pair of Asian noodle houses. Haas says he was originally scheduled to head up a venture for Miller in San Francisco, but that project was delayed, and Miller persuaded him to formulate recipes and train the management for the noodle houses instead. In the meantime Miller brought in corporate execs to take over Raku, and when Haas finished setting things up, he says, he found he'd essentially worked himself out of a job. (Miller is out of the country and couldn't be reached to comment for this piece.) At the age of 43, the chef decided to come back to the place he considered home. In late summer he opened Bex and also Rosie's Wraps, a high-end sandwich emporium in Coconut Grove.
Not that I had forgotten about him. I've been following Haas since 1991, when he drew raves during his stint at the Colony Bistro on South Beach. I thought his Southern-influenced New World cuisine was brash and unpredictable but vibrant and appealing all the same. He continued to evolve at Bang, adding more classic touches to his daring dishes at that now-defunct South Beach eatery and nightspot. Now, at Bex, he has brought to the table all he learned in his travels to Asia in preparation for Raku. The results are an intriguing mix of Asian, Southern, and New World cuisines I can only call mature.
Though it has been open a mere three months, Bex has the feel of a long-established restaurant. Perhaps that's due in part to the old-timey decor. But the staff is also well trained; servers have tasted every item on the menu in order to make smart recommendations. Ours lauded an appetizer of Alaskan king crabcake, and she was right to do so. In this case the "king" might have referred to the size of the cake rather than the crab, though as far as we were concerned it could have been even bigger. Accented with a mellow roasted corn sauce and a zippy cilantro pesto, the pan-fried crabcake was an absolute delight.
A simple starter of Prince Edward Island mussels and whitewater clams was terrific as well. Chopped tomatoes, garlic, and parsley were steamed with white wine to create an aromatic but not intrusive sauce for the dozen mixed mussels and clams, which were exquisitely fresh. (The menu indicates that the diner has a choice of mussels or clams, but the kitchen was happy to comply when we asked for a combination).
I was also pleased to see fried green tomatoes, a Haas staple at his previous local ventures, on the menu. I ordered these lightly battered, deep-fried tomato wedges out of nostalgia, but eating them was sheerly a gustatory pleasure. A sunny corn-tomato relish was a lovely centerpiece, while a tangy (red) tomato vinaigrette was a flavorful backdrop for the green composition.
Cold starters such as shrimp cocktail, carpaccio of the day, no-egg caesar salad, and organic greens with roasted shallot-citrus vinaigrette sound less inspiring than they actually are; presentation is as important to Haas as taste. We appreciated the way he put together a tomato and mozzarella "napoleon," layering the juicy vine-ripe fruit with the mild, semisoft cheese. Organic greens were a frilly garnish, and basil-flavored olive oil and balsamic vinegar gave the stacked salad a little kick.
For entrees, Haas just recently switched to exclusively Black Angus meats, a choice I applaud. Though one of the priciest dishes on the menu at $26.50 (Boca be warned!), the New York strip steak was a meaty winner, seared dark on the outside and juicy-pink on the inside. The beefiness was enhanced by a plethora of sauteed mushrooms and onions, with red bliss potatoes mashed with buttermilk providing a hearty starch.
Tuna steak was also seared, this time to a beautiful medium-rare. It's hard to imagine tuna done better than this, especially when the succulent fish is laid out over a gingery bed of Japanese somen noodle salad. The slippery noodles were shot through with shreds of carrot, white radish, shiitake mushroom, green onion, and cucumber, and dressed with sesame oil, soy sauce, and rice wine vinegar. Fried rice noodles topped the dish, adding some crunch to the soft textures.
A spit-roasted double pork chop was a little dry despite its mammoth size. But the flavor of the white meat was pleasant, and side dishes of sauteed spinach and corn helped alleviate some of the plainness. Draped over most of the plate, slices of a moist rssti potato pancake, sauteed with thyme and then stuffed with apples and onions, were at once sweet, tart, and buttery -- a highlight.
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A hash of chicken and wild mushrooms also had a potato-based lid on it, this one a little thinner and crisper than the version served with the pork. The crunchy potato cake was delicious crumbled into the "hash," which turned out to be a bit of a misnomer. In reality an almost creamy (but nondairy) stew, the dish comprised hunks of steamy chicken, carrots, and cremini, portobello, and shiitake mushrooms poured into a bowl over a scoop of mashed potatoes laced with garlic. This filling entree is definitely worth its $13.50 price tag.
You can easily sniff the homemade desserts as they're being prepared in the open kitchen, and the perfume of a caramelized apple tart, destined for another table, made up our minds for us. We admired the soft, cinnamon-scented apples, sugar-crusted pastry, and caramel-pecan ice cream for all of an instant before demolishing it with our spoons. Though I normally detest such distractions, I must admit that the gentle vocalizings of lounge singers Wendy and Mark, Bex's resident torch song duo, helped the dessert slip down even easier.
Bex: 551 E. Palmetto Park Rd., Boca Raton, 561-391-0000. Dinner nightly from 6:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m.
Fried green tomatoes
Alaskan king crabcake
Spit-roasted pork chop
Seared tuna steak
Caramelized apple tart