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 Provenale, 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.
Table 42
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.
Darrel & Oliver's Cafe Maxx
Photo courtesy of Cafe Maxx
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.
Johnny's New York Pizza
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.
32 East
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.
Pizza Fusion
Tabatha Mudra
Started in 2006 by two Fort Lauderdale school buddies, Vaughn Lazar and Michael Gordon, Pizza Fusion opened in Deerfield purveying organic pizza. But the guys pushed their concept right to the cutting edge: delivering those organic pizzas in Prius hybrids, powering their website with wind, printing their menus and boxes on recycled paper, using biodegradable flatware, and even taking your order with pens made of recycled cardboard. Their oblong, thin-crust pies — baked with organic white, whole grain, or gluten-free crusts and topped with combinations like Key West shrimp and pesto (yummy) or chopped plum tomatoes, red onions, fresh basil, and balsamic vinegar and olive oil (fantastic) — are damned well worth picking up the phone for. All their vegetables, chicken, tomato sauces, and oils (and even most of their beer and wine) are 100 percent organic. Prices start at $13 for a medium and $16 for a large, ranging up to a $48 surf and turf topped with organic strip steak, shrimp, and lobster. A second store opened in Fort Lauderdale in March, and the boys have already begun to take the concept on the road. They say they're "saving the Earth, one pizza at a time," but they may well save our stomachs and our consciences too.
Fran's Chicken Haven
Christina Mendenhall
Trying to tell the difference between one fried chicken or another is as tough as trying to tell one live chicken from another. Can you really discern if your leg came from Publix or KFC? At Fran's, the difference is noticeable and tasteable. Fran's opened in 1964 in a depressing Boca Raton strip mall as a takeout joint. When Stacey Fuentes bought Fran's in 2003, she inherited the cooking style, which involves scalding the birds to rid them of the yellowish fat, then frying them in vegetable oil. What emerges is golden and crisp on the outside and meaty and sweet on the inside. The pieces are huge, and Fuentes is credited with bringing in homemade collard greens, mashed potatoes, candied yams, rice, and black-eyed peas. As it says on the wall: "The rooster may crow, but the hen delivers the goods."
Cafe Sapori
Housed in an old bank building at the foot of the Southern Boulevard Bridge, Sapori exerts a gentle magnetism upon Palm Beach island's "smart set," though judging from the placidly banal conversation of these sartorially challenged plutocrats, the smart set could use some reeducation. Owner and Chef Francesco Blanco and Fabrizio Giorgi fled Worth Avenue's Bice to strike out on their own this year, and while Sapori is as pricey and its clientele equally annoying, they've clearly and successfully avoided Bice's creeping mediocrity and built themselves a restaurant far lovelier and more pleasing, thanks in part to their gracious, well-trained staff. A huge menu of tapas, Italian specialties, and — weirdly — sushi (perhaps as a sop to those size-0 socialites) is outstanding, from warm chickpea cake with goat cheese and sautéed mushrooms to mini rice balls stuffed with mozzarella and meat, from baby spare ribs in apricot sauce to homemade white pizza. The kitchen's attention to detail is so exacting that even a simple roast chicken almost outshines a perfectly composed plate of osso buco. Don't be put off by the Maseratis at the valet station; sitting amid flickering candles on the outdoor patio, forking up hand-rolled ricotta cavatelli, you'll feel like you could buy and sell every one of those assholes three times over.
Chops Lobster Bar
Michele Sandberg
You're not the type to take undue advantage of your expense account, but corporate is flying in to evaluate your department, and you'd like to take the CEO somewhere she'll feel very, very comfortable. You and the boss will slide into Chops the way a chunk of flash-fried Australian lobster tail (market price) slides into a bowl of drawn butter — with barely a ripple. The first foray of this Atlanta steak and seafood mainstay into South Florida territory is already a frantic hit with the kinds of people who want to impress somebody else. Here, deals are sealed (be it a marriage proposal or a merger), seductions are furthered, and excellent impressions are made over a dozen coldwater oysters from two coasts ($24), an iced shellfish tower ($56 for a whole main lobster, gulf shrimp, Alaska red king crab, and oysters of your choice), tenderloin steak tartare prepared tableside ($14), prime aged bone-in steaks ($38 for a 22-ounce rib eye, $48 for a porterhouse for two), and a surf and turf of eight ounces of filet mignon with a quarter pound of king crab meat ($45). The signature Gold Digger cocktail ($11) seems particularly apropos of this Boca location: vodka, creme de cassis, lemon juice, and Grand Marnier-soaked raspberries finished with a splash of champagne. A tiled, barrel-vaulted back room reminiscent of Grand Central and rose-red leather banquettes in the bar make this a setting worthy of a hefty salary raise. Don't spend it all in one place.

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