Best Of :: Food & Drink
If we could judge best new restaurant by pedigree alone, Zemi would still win. Located in Towne Center, this handsome, trendy spot is owned by executive chef John Belleme and manager Allison Barber, both of whom are veterans of a Dennis Max restaurant, Max's Grille in Boca Raton. The connection to Max is convenient, since Zemi itself used to be Nick and Max's and, before that, Maxaluna. In fact Stephen O'Leary, the former pastry chef at both Nick and Max's and Maxaluna, has stayed on at Zemi. What all this boils down to is simple: chili-crusted shrimp pizza, roasted bobwhite quail and homemade duck sausage, homemade goat-cheese ravioli with pancetta-sage butter; and day-boat scallops with braised oxtail and sweet potato-parsnip mashers. Then, to wash it all down, you can order the truffle chocolate cake, which is garnished with peppermint whipped cream and vanilla-mint syrup, an ideal way not just to end a superb meal but to freshen your breath at the same time.
Don't say we never did nothin' for ya. Because if we had half a brain or one selfish bone in our body, we'd stay mum about Spicy Jenny's. This tiny, three-table storefront eatery, just off Lake Worth's main drag, is one of those little-known places so unfathomably good that we should just shut up about it, because the only good that will come of publicizing the place is that it will be overrun with hordes of lunchtime drones. So, just briefly: chicken thighs in Veracruz peanut sauce tempered with red wine, served over carrots and white grapes; pork chops in soy-ginger sauce with mango salsa and mashed potatoes; spinach enchiladas suiza. And those are just a few of the daily lunch specials. None is more than $6, and all are comparable to dishes you'd pay three times that amount for at any restaurant with amenities (like, say, table service). You want more? The best Philly cheesesteak in town, bar none; huevos rancheros that will leave you forever unable to eat the tepid eggs served at most breakfast joints; ham-and-corn chowder that will make you wish for a nice 30-degree day and a stiff wind; and oh, forget it. We're off to Spicy Jenny's right now, before you unwashed masses tarnish the place forever.
OK, so it's not much of a chain -- yet. This pan-Latin eatery, a conceptual sibling to T.G.I. Friday's, has only two other locations nationwide. Still, more are planned, including two in South Florida, and they're so uniquely suited to our region that we have no problem looking forward to more. Like everyday life in multicultural South Florida, the Samba Room menu puts various Hispanic dishes side by side regardless of country of origin. Where else could you find a ropa vieja sandwich next to Colombian arepas -- with a corn salsa, no less? Or wash down xinxim (Brazilian stew) with a Cuba libre? Granted, the Samba Room, named for a Brazilian dance, takes some liberties by fusing Latin ingredients with Asian ones and palming some Caribbean ones off on unsuspecting Anglos. But all in all, the place is good fun, especially late in the evening when the furniture is cleared away, the dancing begins, and the Samba lives up to its name.
If the aroma of fresh-baked cookies wafting from the café's kitchen doesn't clue you in, allow us to do so: Proprietors Dennis Williams and Ken Rzab make their own. And they're not just tollhouse toadies, either, although the chocolate-chip yummies here are so popular the boys sell 'em by the dozen. This pair gets into the groove with sweets both simple (try the brownies) and sophisticated (sample the cappuccino-chocolate-chip layer cake). And as for the peanut butter cream pie, it straddles the line between delicious and, oh, how about rockin' good. Talk about rhythm -- the sweets here make your taste buds do the tango.
What do you do when confronted with a horny green iguana? Drink it, and fast -- otherwise the aged tequila in this innovative martini might lose its just-shaken chill. Then, once you're sufficiently warmed, take time to examine the rest of the offerings at this splendidly creative Tex-Mex joint. This eatery on trendy Clematis Street has chile-napped winners in such items as chicken breast mole and tenderloin of pork with pumpkin-seed sauce. And you can't dismiss even what would normally be incidentals (that is, chips and salsa) in another restaurant, because every piquant sauce here is made on the premises. Indeed while the mixed drinks tame even the prickliest Mexican-food fans, the fare peps 'em right back up again.
Granted, the name's a little strange, perhaps just a bit too weird to be taken seriously. And the sushi part can easily seem like a backup plan for non-Thai food lovers or for those disappointed in the pad Thai, for instance. And yes, the place doesn't look like much more than what it was before chef-owner Todd Boonya took over: a classic roadside diner. But once you're safely ensconced in a booth and served steaming tom yum soup, a brothy blend spiked with lime leaves, lemongrass, and chile peppers, you'll just have to trust your palate. This is fine Thai dining indeed. Mee krob is exceptional, neither greasy nor too sweet, and curries are supremely well balanced. Ask for your dish spicy and you'll get it that way, which makes Eddie Hills and Sushi Thai not only a pit stop for quick Asian fare but a cure for the common cold as well.
Not only does this place offer 40 different selections of wine by the glass, but you can brush up on your varietals during happy hour every Monday through Friday from 4 to 7 p.m. with half-price "flights" of wine. A flight is a tasting of three wines related to one another by taste, geographic region of origin, or type of varietal grape from which they are vinted. And during happy hour, the staff will supply you with a paper place mat and three different samples of wine for between $3.50 and $8. Each glass is placed in the appropriate circle on the mat, and beneath each circle is a short description of the type of wine found in the glass. So what the heck, why not learn to keep your cabernets and your merlots straight while tying one on after work?
Sure, the tomatoes here are sweet. You can pick 'em up off the salad bar, you can spoon 'em out of your soup, and you can even find the juicy fruit on focaccia bread. But that's not all you can eat at this, well, all-you-can-eat, serve-yourself, prix fixe restaurant. The enormous salad bar -- the first thing you see when you enter the eatery -- offers a tremendous array of choices: Chinese noodle salad, pickled beets, hard-boiled eggs, and chicken tarragon salad, to name just a few. Indeed just wish for a vegetable, sunflower seed, bacon bit, or shredded cheese to garnish your lettuce, and it's there. But salad and its kin aren't the only things at your gluttonous disposal here. How about six different soups daily, plus an assortment of fresh-baked muffins, breads, and desserts like strawberry shortcake? Leave your best intentions at home. Sweet Tomatoes may present plenty of healthy fare from every food group imaginable, but even if you take just one bite of everything you see, you'll still be full for a week.
Proper linens? Formal service? Decorous clientele? It's all under the rainbow at this gorgeously outfitted Chinese restaurant. On the outside the place looks like just another ethnic neighborhood eatery, but indoors the place really is a palace of sorts, with walls glowing with mauve paint and fresh flowers blooming on every table. And the fare served here is reminiscent of the dishes served in the fine hotels of Hong Kong and Singapore. Stir-fried dishes have unusual twists -- combos of mushrooms splashed with sherry, for example -- and are uncommonly delicious. Dumplings may be stuffed with pork or bursting with lobster. In fact just about everything is refined here except for the appetites inspired by the finely tuned fare, which are nothing short of voracious.
We've tried to find a better sub than one from Laspada's. Really. We've had a year to do it, and we've scoured Broward and Palm Beach counties. But now we have to admit we've failed. So once again we're awarding this minichain the blue ribbon in this category. But trust us, it's not our fault. Blame instead the folks who whip together these overstuffed sandwiches faster than Superman can change into his cape and tights: fresh-baked rolls, layered with deli meats or, say, chicken salad. The garnishes: sweet peppers, hot peppers, pickles, onions, tomatoes. The splash of oil/vinegar/oregano, plus a swipe of mayo and a seal of provolone cheese. See? It's irresistible. OK, we admit the staff isn't always the politest -- hesitate a bit too long in your decision-making process and you're likely to lose your turn -- but then, we're not giving them the award for Best Service.
What could be more satisfying than the burrito loco, a tortilla stuffed with your choice of beef, chicken, or beans, then topped with cheddar cheese, sour cream, taco sauce, chopped onions, shredded lettuce, guacamole, tomatoes, refried beans, Mexican rice, and -- whew -- jalapeños? Two of them, of course -- if you can handle them. Frankly we dare you to try. We know you'll be tempted. The burritos here tend to make one forget all about dropping the chalupa, or whatever the nonsense of the week is at that ubiquitous Mexican fast-food chain. But our advice for here is: savor. Such burrito brilliance is best enjoyed singly, and besides, it'll leave room for you to try the signature guaco loco taco.
Though it originated in Mexico, the caesar salad is one of those beloved foods that have jumped all boundaries, invaded all countries, and brought all chefs to their culinary knees. Or we should say most chefs. Danish chef Per Jacobsen, who is also the proprietor of this classy, crowded bistro, has raised the caesar to exceptionally well-balanced heights. There's not too much Parmesan, not too much anchovy flavor; the salad's not too oily, nor is it unreasonably creamy. And Jacobsen uses ultrafresh romaine and crisp, homemade croutons. Recipe for success? In our eyes, at least, if not those of the envious world.