Somehow during each year's Best Of search, we find ourselves inexorably drawn by the scents of baking brioche, cardamom coffee cakes, and fruit tartelettes, the mixed berry custard strips, the lovingly handmade baguettes and loaves of country and Vienna and dark sourdough, the chocolate mousse cakes and the cream horns -- as we were saying, we're drawn by a mysterious, magnetic force back to Le Petit Pain, as if someone (perhaps the movie-star-gorgeous, 30-something proprietress, her equally delicious husband, and their adorable baby) had cast a spell on us. And the main ingredient of that wicked spell is quite evidently... butter. There is butter in the soft, rolled crepes, stacked like expensive Cuban cigars and filled with chocolate and raspberry sauce. There's yet more butter in the brioche, which begs to be taken home and dipped in egg, grilled, and showered with powdered sugar. There's butter in the butter cookies. As for the butter croissants, and even the chocolate croissants, which traditionally are composed by rolling a big block of butter between layers of pastry dough, let's just say that they're made in the grand old French tradition -- with lots and lots of butter. The rugalach and the biscottis, the brownies and the Dutch apple pies are also full of it, and so is the princess cake, the Swedish pizza, and the cheesecake. As you slide out the door, don't say we didn't warn you.
Photo by Ben Rusnak courtesy of El Tamarindo Cafe.
Two days after Wilma hit, the power was out everywhere. The streets were a mess. The airport was dark and silent. Taking a walk before curfew as twilight set in, we smelled carne asada. A policeman in a parking lot radioed another patrol: "I'm at Tamarindo. They're open. Come on over." A powerline repair crew sat at a table outside. A waitress came out. They were salvaging what they could from the freezer and cooking with propane: "We've only got carne asada and churrasco with rice and beans." Inside the dark restaurant, flashlights ricocheted around the kitchen. Candles flickered at a few tables and at the counter. Food came out in styrofoam. Even before their stint as the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, El Tamarindo won us over with its nicely charred grilled shrimp and beef, its pupusas encased in handmade-to-order tortillas, its sweet corn tamales and Sunday-morning huevos rancheros, and its "Exotica" salad with apples, queso blanco, and hearts of palm. All served on real plates, in an appealing space, with prices that will make you smile.
When a wealthy Palm Beach matron throws a party -- which she does pretty often -- you can bet you won't find her in her kitchen six hours before the big night rolling hundreds of tiny pigs into hundreds of tiny blankets. More likely, she'll be perusing the flats of refrigerated finger foods in the cooler at C'est Si Bon (mini quiches, fig and cheese flatbreads, Palm Beach cheese balls, bite-sized beef Wellingtons). And when it's the cook's day off and Milady wants a no-fuss lunch -- something like roast tenderloin of beef with horseradish Dijon sauce and potatoes boulangre -- she isn't going to Albertson's deli for her prepared foods. That's why this tiny gourmet shop in the Bradley House Hotel has triumphed through many decades, several changes of management, and the vicissitudes of fortune -- the owners have learned to satisfy a clientele a bit on the demanding (they'd call it "discerning") side. Well, there's no law saying we all can't take picky advantage of lunch specials like jumbo lump crab cakes with remoulade sauce; or red pepper meatloaf with mushrooms, or braised lamb shanks, curried new potatoes, and pea salad; or roulade of turkey, peppers, spinach, and mushrooms. In fact, a trip to C'est Si Bon on a Saturday morning to fill the picnic hamper with cream of watercress soup, maple Dijon-glazed corn beef, dilled chicken salad, and orzo primavera is an ideal first step for a trip to the beach, a pleasantly strollable three blocks up the street.
Now that even Wal-Mart is selling raw fish, you might say the sushi craze has jumped the shark -- or maybe jumped the maguro. But about a year ago, Yoshi Sakata closed the dual sushi place/fish market he'd owned for more than 20 years and moved across the street to reopen as a small Japanese restaurant. That's a loss for locals who needed a good fish market, but it's a boon for the Fort Lauderdale sushi scene, because Sakata is now focused entirely on dishing up the tastiest Japanese delicacies in this vicinity. Drawing on two decades' worth of relationships with fishmongers, Sakata knows how to get his hands on the most interesting seafood from here and abroad. At Wasabi, sushi is always presented in pairs, since the Japanese words for one slice and three slices are puns on the words to kill (obviously unlucky when you're feeding people). At this tiny restaurant, which holds fewer than a dozen tables and a small sushi bar, Sakata might offer flounder usuzukuri, deeply flavorful slabs of yellowtail, exotic thinly sliced swordfish, tangerine-hued mackerel, tuna so fresh it seems to be breathing, uni imported from Japan, a soft, chewy, red clam from Canada, or a beautifully presented dish of tamago, a sweet egg custard as individual as the chef who creates it. Sakata's sushi is beautifully textured, complexly flavored, and elegant enough to restore your faith in the art.
It's a minefield, buying fish these days. Almost daily, headline news trumpets that the seafood we thought we were virtuously buying (our morally incorrupt, farm-raised, Omega 3-loaded friends) is actually radioactive Godzillas simultaneously decimating the entire food chain and wrecking our immune systems, giving our unborn babies brain damage, and, yes -- killing dolphins! And all you wanted to do was put together a simple little fish stew -- maybe with a crusty loaf of bread. That's good reason to put yourself between the capable fins of the owners of Fish Peddler East (long since severed from Fish Peddler West). Because even if every single fish they carry isn't entirely baggage-free (the swordfish, the grouper, the sea bass), it looks so vibrantly, glisteningly fresh, you simply can't believe it could possibly be bad for you. As for the beautiful pink Key West shrimp in all different sizes, the fresh Florida blue, stone, king, snow, and dungeness crab in season, the fist-sized to fingernail-sized clams, the Florida and Maine lobsters, the flounder, lemon and gray sole, hybrid striped bass and rainbow trout from North Carolina, you can stuff yourself silly and still get to heaven. Fish Peddler also carries a fantastic array of bottled, frozen, and prepared foods, including yummy pickled vegetables, frozen squid rings, conch, tobiko, crawfish, smoked eel and salmon, fish dips, and jumbo squid steaks -- enough to keep that fish-eating grin on your face for a long, long time.
Scruffy single types, guys in suits, and a local chef or two are bellied up to the bar here at odd hours, like old barflies with the DTs. But it's the wahoo, not the whiskey, they're hankering for, and they'll have it straight, no chaser. Sushi Bon is a secret we'd really rather not share; this place tucked into a corner on sleepy Ocean Avenue has a total of four tables inside and a handful out -- it can't handle the masses. So if it's California and J.B. rolls you're after, please, go elsewhere. Serious sushi junkies turn up almost exclusively for the blackboard specials, fresh locally caught stuff and the pricey imports. You might find triggerfish sashimi, wild salmon roll, fresh toro, tilefish grilled with miso, grilled hog snapper, or that same hog stuffed into a fried tempura roll with mayonnaise -- the Japanese take on the Florida fish sandwich, priced from $7.50 to $13.95. The chef here also makes a beautiful tamago, a big, sweet slab of dense egg custard, and, occasionally, a hearty beef miso soup laden with exotic vegetables. Keep your eye on the board as you stake out your personal stool. This is going to be a tough habit to shake.
Yeah, yeah, the only way to buy fresh fish is to get it whole, take it home, and fillet it yourself. Or better yet, put a worm on a hook, cast the hook in the water, blah blah blah. Here's another idea: Find a fishmonger you trust and let him deal with the smelly fish guts. Then you won't have to mess up your pretty party dress. At Palm Beach Fish Market, the pompano and the dolphin have likely been made decent before you get there, the mussels debearded, the shrimp peeled and deveined. But because you trust that big burly hunk behind the counter (he's one of the owners) and because this market is attached to a hopping local seafood restaurant, no fish ever gets past its prime. The selection isn't vast, but it's convincing: enough Florida and local catch, like Florida hog, spiny lobster, stone crabs, and Key West shrimp, to keep home cooks happy. Also bay and sea scallops, clams, oysters, triple tail, flounder, and daily specials. If your recipe calls for something hard to find or you need your fish whole, just call in your order ahead of time -- you can manage that, can't you, Princess? PB Fish Market also makes entertaining easy with a selection of good wines, condiments, caviar, homemade crab cakes, conch salad, remoulade sauce, and a cheese-crumb crust for pan frying.
Those Spaniards really know how to work a room. Their idea of a good meal is something you can carry with you, all the better for movers and shakers who like to make contact -- or need to make a quick exit. At Paella, the tapas are a little hard to manage one-handed, but Wednesday night's flamenco floor show will keep you glued to your chair anyway. Dig into a Peruvian ceviche of marinated octopus, shrimp, tilapia, and mussels; tortillas espanol; omelets with potatoes and Galician sausage; paprika-spiced octopus in tomato sauce; spicy and soothing garbanzo frito with Serrano ham and Spanish sausage; grilled octopus; button mushrooms steamed in wine and olive oil; bacalao croquetas; and loaves of warm, crusty bread. You'll just have to set down your fork between bites to clap and shout ÁOlé!
Candace West
Many people can catch a conch -- after all, these shellfish don't move so quick -- but rare is the soul who can cook one. At Calypso, the kitchen staff takes what looks like a shred of blown tire (the ones you're always swerving to avoid on I-95) and turns it into something not only edible but unforgettable. Here, you can have your conch grilled (seasoned and lightly charred) or cracked (pounded and fried) or marinated and tossed in a salad or spiced up and served in a stew -- but for an old-fashioned Florida treat, there's nothing like having it frittered. Frittering is an individual art, but anybody who's ever had the bread-heavy, greasy, conchless Ping-Pong balls that pass for the real thing in most joints will be agreeably confounded by Calypso's version. They come to the table hot and crisp, not oily, with a soft, pudding-like, melt-in-the-mouth interior that tells you you're getting the real deal -- studded with minutely minced green onion, red pepper, and carrot, and, of course, toothsome, bite-sized pieces of the giant sea slug you've learned to love at last.
Liz Dzuro
Eaten enough pad thai to add extra padding to your thail? Now that tom yum has become the ubiquitous Asian equivalent of spaghetti with red sauce, Thai-aholics desperate for a little novelty will really appreciate the menu at Tamarind, where a skewer of grilled quail eggs yakitori is enough to file the edge off creeping Thai-dium. A plate of sweet boniato Thai fries breathes new life into the standard greasy chip: Sizzling and crisp, they're perfectly paired with the spicy peanut dipping sauce that comes with. A green papaya salad is tart and tangy enough to wake up jaded appetites. And while nobody will divulge the recipe for any of it, the Thai dumplings are a secret worth keeping -- ground chicken and shrimp with a fresh mélange of lime and garlic. Purists will also appreciate the fresh tamarind pods for dessert and a luscious nursery-style pudding of sweet sticky rice and black beans.

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