Best Of :: Food & Drink
Everyone knows necessity is the mother of invention. It's also the mother of Big Al's Steaks, a recently opened Philly cheese-steak joint that gives a damned good reason to visit otherwise lame Coconut Creek. Big Al Costillo and his son Adam migrated from Philly to South Florida expecting to find some place that compared to their favorite local cheese-steak shop, Geno's. But they didn't. So they opened one in a little space (and by little, we mean ten people fit, at most) in a depressing strip mall between State Road 7 and the Sawgrass Expressway. It really didn't look like much your typical little sandwich shop with a couple of TVs, some barstools, and white walls adorned with Flyers and Eagles paraphernalia. But then we watched the assembly of our sandwich behind the plate-glass window. The thinly sliced rib eye searing on the flat-top grill. The American cheese whiz dripping from the ladle. The even distribution of fried onions. Our saliva was practically gushing when we finally took a bite, chewed, and entered cheese-steak heaven. Then we found out that our Philly roll had actually been in Philly earlier in the day. Big Al wasn't about to compromise on fluffy Philly bread. Now we just wish he'd throw some good brews on the menu. Coming soon: Big Al's expansion into Delray Beach.
Psychologist Marla Reis gave up her practice last year to open Café Emunah in Fort Lauderdale with a friend and kindred spirit Rabbi Moishe Meir Lipszyc. With hip, calming décor and a rule that "only positivity is allowed," Emunah is a place where the pair hoped to offer "an experience for the senses and an oasis for the mind, body and soul." That, and really killer sushi.
New Times: Is it true that one of the menu items at Café Emunah is "a side of conversation"?
Reis: A side of table talk. It's offered in 15-minute increments. I sit tableside with guests, and if they have questions or issues as far as bringing about a greater consciousness, we could discuss it in an informal way. It's very flexible and tailored to individual needs, or we can do a group conversation.
What kind of discussions do you have?
People might ask, How can I find a husband?' or I want to increase spirituality in my life -- what can I do to increase awareness?' or I'm having a hard time getting along with my best friend what do I do?' It's a little less imposing than traditional therapy. Almost like a tune-up to help people continue in their lives. I'll have hours where I can be scheduled. I recommend making a reservation. It's $20 per 15 minutes -- much less expensive than a regular therapy session.
Speaking of people who need consciousness-raising, there's the man who sometimes carries his Walther PPK in a hollowed-out Bible. Got any favorite James Bond locations?
Well, I have investors I've spoken to about bringing the café into Manhattan! The only real James Bond locale would almost have to be the café, because it's a very modern, hip atmosphere. Oh, and my townhouse in Victoria Park.
Aiyee. If we're ever invited, we'll wear a kevlar vest.
Jean-Pierre Brehier's mother was a Cordon Bleu chef, so by the time he was five years old, the French-born chef/cooking school maestro could make a cake from scratch. At 12 he began his professional career, first learning to trim zee lambchops in a butcher shop, then braiding dough in a bread shop, and finally apprenticing in a restaurant. Before opening the Chef Jean-Pierre's Cooking School in Fort Lauderdale, he had been the proprietor for 20 years of Left Bank, one of South Florida's prime dispensers of delectable wine sauces and pouffe pastry.Jean-Pierre still has the outrageous French accent and attitude, as well as the unpredictable sense of humor that makes every class a laugh session. There was this bit of wisdom for Jean-Pierre's charges recently: "Dose people at the Bennigan-again-agains they do not love you they do not caramelize de on-yon."
New Times: Do you think you could you teach a kitchen-challenged dufus like me to cook French delicacies?
Jean-Pierre: I just believe that anybody is capable of becoming a phenomenal chef. There is only one way to slice an onion.
What's the big secret?
There are only 40 or 50 ingredients you use on a regular basis; if you learn how to handle those then you know how to cook!
Are there any exotic destinations that you would like to see that you haven't gone to yet?
I would love to go Australia. Of course, it's very English influenced and that's the problem. I don't know how good the food is going to be.
What's the coolest spy tool in your kitchen arsenal?
I have the coolest toy! It's a digital thermometer that shoots a ray of light, and it bounces back and gives the proper temperature. It is very, very cool. So you are now sure the temperature is 375 degrees by shooting this laser beam into your oil. It even looks like a gun.
We remained stoic through the mad cow scare. We refused to buckle to e. coli hysteria, and we snickered through Super Size Me. We'd never turn our back on the hamburger, our comfort food through many a dark night of the soul. But when the $100 burger arrived in South Florida (at the Boca Raton Resort), we knew we were in the End of Times. The people's snack that had evolved from chopped, salted beef favored by 19th-century German sailors into Macburger for the masses had suddenly taken a very scary turn: into pretentious Kobe beef and Argentine grass-fed steak territory. It's definitely time to get back to basics, and Prime 707's chopped beef on a bun doesn't pretend to be anything but what it is: an addictive, soothing mouthful of meat, best slathered with mayo and a shake or two from a bottle of Heinz. This is not, at $12 for ten ounces, the cheapest burger on the market. But it's made from prime, well-marbled sirloin tips and filet mignon scraps that chef/owner Tony Acinapura says are ground daily in the kitchen, then charbroiled and set inside a pillowy bun made at Le Petit Pain French bakery (twice a New Times "best of" winner). The smoky, fatty juices tend to dribble down your chin when you bite into the burger, and it comes with a mountain of perfectly respectable salted shoestring fries. In short, it thoroughly restores the good name of a sandwich that has lately been much abused and maligned.
In an era when it takes a cool couple of mil to open a restaurant with any hope of success what with the obligatory solid-gold threads in the throw pillows, the de rigueur kryptonite flooring, and the water walls take comfort that a little candlelit closet in Hollywood is flourishing without pretensions or spectacle. The only circus act at the cozy, year-old Boulevard American Bistro comes at the end of your delicious meal, when co-owner Jean-Paul Varona sets your rum-laced guava bread pudding alight. But don't rush things. Truffle-oil-laced fries scattered with pecorino and provolone are meant to be savored, along with Chef Jorge Varona's terrific New Orleans-style grilled andouille with creole mustard and spectacular artisinal bread, or his pan-seared blue crab cakes with fruit salsa and a dash of chipotle. Generous servings of fat-loaded braised short ribs, big plates of grilled marinated hanger steak with crisp red pepper and polenta fries it all looks like the people's food, but it's so beautifully conceived and executed that you'd almost think the people had done something to deserve it. For once, the best restaurant in South Broward is a place you can afford to go back to, week after week.
The downtown lunch crowd packs the tiny parking lot on weekday afternoons like a parched pack of bison at a watering hole, randomly wedging their oversized SUVs between yellow lines and racing in to place orders. A few Windy City-themed hot dog joints flourish in Florida, but Michael's is the lone local franchise of an actual Chicagoland institution. So what you'll find here are the same staples you'd encounter amid the gum-splattered sidewalks around Wrigley Field: Polish sausage, char dogs, chili cheese dogs, and, of course, the perennially awesome Chicago dog, top-loaded with pickles, relish, and peppers. The Sears Tower of hot dogs, this time-tested tubesteak is truly a tastier-than-thou, top-of-the-line victual item. And that soppy, drippy masterpiece, the Italian roast beef sandwich which Michael's deifies with beef juice, giardinera (pickled carrots, celery, cauliflower, and peppers), and cheese if you want is so hot and yummy you'll swear it just arrived on a first-class flight from O'Hare. Eat one with your eyes closed and a Cubs game on and you might think you're standing on the corner of Addison and Clark outside the stadium. Best of all, the counter kids here are so damned sweet and friendly, you'd think they were on an Up With People tour stop. If you're nice enough, they'll even remember your name and what you want and if you call ahead, you can beat that long-ass lunchtime line. Also available: Italian sausage.
This modest little restaurant is probably not the kind of place you'd stumble into accidentally. What looks like a sullen strip mall transforms, as you walk through the door at Josef's, into a full-blown fantasy of a quaint, alpine inn. Nor does it resemble in form or spirit the grand eateries that tend to gobble up all the "Best" awards year after year. It's run not by a celebrity chef but by a taciturn, practically anonymous bear of an Austrian named Josef Schibanetz and his American wife, Beth, who've been quietly going about the business of making Plantation gourmets ecstatic for four years. Their menu is distinguished by its devotion to the Friuli-Venezia-Giulia region of Italy and its major city, Trieste, where a hybrid Austrian-Italian cuisine has developed over the years, incorporating influences from Spain and France. Thus, a casserole of shrimp with grappa and Edam sits comfortably next to garlic-sautéed frog legs Provenale, and a venison loin with pomegranate sauce and roasted pear might appear at the same table as crispy soft-shelled crab with fennel salad and yellow pepper aioli. These luscious European dishes are served with no pretensions, just hospitable warmth and perhaps a glass of good, fruity Friuli wine. Dessert appears as homemade strudel with a jaunty paper-thin hat of pastry and a complimentary plate of chocolate-dipped strawberries.
The South Florida pizza wars are hereby declared officially over, and to the victor chef/owner Demetrio "Big Dog" Zavala go the spoils. Kudos are due any tomato pie emporium that not only fires up a coal oven every day (you really can't get those charred bubbles in your crust without one) but puts together combinations of toppings like smoked salmon/sour cream/tomato/red onions/preserved lemons or wild mushrooms/pesto/fontina/mozzarella/crispy leeks, along with less outré meatballs and ricotta or a classic tomato-basil-mozz. To say nothing of a white or black truffle pie with roasted garlic, black pepper, and parmesan (market price). And Zavala leads yet another charge from the Big Apple: no trans fats.
All good things don't come to an end. After 21 years as the restaurant that put South Florida regional cuisine on the map, Café Maxx has finally, like some respectable old dowager acquiring a facelift and an iPod, got itself a liquor license and a bit of interior renovation. Thus does the Maxx slough off any lingering stale whiffs of its mid-'80s origins and take a sprightly step into the 21st Century, balancing a ginger-cucumber martini in one hand while keeping a firm grip on what has always made the place great: the seasonally inspired menu, the subtle and creative use of local ingredients, an unrivaled wine list, and a sophisticated vibe. Chef Oliver Saucy and Darrel Broek are a foodie's dream team, a partnership that has lasted longer than most marriages and never gone stale. Ever the innovator, Saucy turns out dishes like honey-and-lavender-glazed duck breasts with baby carrots, peach cornbread, and peach salsa, along with swordfish fillet rubbed with ancho chilies and served alongside conch fritters with succotash and lime butter. Broek's wine list, chosen to complement Saucy's palate, includes hundreds of personally selected French, Italian, and American bottles guaranteed to taste marvelous with those giant shrimp sautéed in Pernod and lamb chops crusted with wasabi peas.
Sometimes you just need a piece of pizza. Not a deep dish Sicilian or something coal-fired with broccoli rabe. Just a good, old-fashioned, thin-crust New York-style slice. In such times of need, there's Johnny's, where $2.25 gets you a plain wedge of heaven and 50 cents more sweetens the deal with toppings like salami, pineapple, jalapeños, or (regular, thank God) broccoli. Johnny's is generous with the cheese, and when you order a Dr. Brown's root beer or a Heineken to wash the goodness down, they bring it to your table with a frosted mug a plastic one, thank you very much.
Is there an inverse ratio of pretension to quality? Because judging from the décor (casually handsome, if a bit dated), the service (unreservedly nice), and the food (inspired but never showy), you'd never guess that 32 East, wedged in among the hubbub and scuffle of other fine restaurants on Delray's Atlantic Avenue, was the cream of that decidedly excellent crop. Chef Nick Morfogen has been quietly cooking away, changing his menu daily and sourcing local, sustainable, and organic ingredients along with locally caught fish, black truffles, and foie gras for nearly a decade now. Against all odds, he has become a fixture more interested in challenging his own and his customers' palates than becoming a brand. You'll find Morfogen's menu reassuringly familiar: There are the short ribs, only served as a ragu under homemade ceppo with truffles and porcini. There's the filet mignon, but with sauteed chanterelles and Neuske's bacon. And although the kitchen's hand may occasionally slip with the salt shaker or a piece of fish may arrive just shy of dry, Morfogen will never bore you. If you could marry a restaurant smart, good-looking, modest, creative, and destined to age gracefully this one would be the love of your life.
Paula Palakawong and Ravin Nakjaroen have their finger on our collective, turn-of-the-century pulse. They take Thai food, upscale it, and purify their menu with organic meats and locally farmed produce and seafood. Then they create from them gastronomic works of art and set the whole caboodle in a space with all the attributes of the most luscious spa imaginable, so that eating becomes an intensified, transcendent experience. What could be more au courant? Raised ponds, geometric rows of lotus flowers, Thai poems written in bas relief, and a menu featuring American products like Niman Ranch pork and Maine lobster cooked with Thai accent and spirit make eating at Four Rivers a thoroughly voluptuous experience. This young couple, who have never run a restaurant before, have managed to outclass the most experienced and well-capitalized restaurateurs in town with an effortless grace that comes from doing exactly the right thing at exactly the right moment. You've been waiting your whole life for sweet chili-glazed foie gras with spiced lychee and pineapple compote. You just didn't know it.