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.
First, let's define our terms. What, exactly, is a sub? Does it resemble a hoagie, a hero, an Italian sandwich? And is the phrase meatball sub, for example, a contradiction in terms? The submarine sandwich has generated many a lively and plausible origin story in dozens of American cities, so choosing a "best sub" is a rather futile exercise, as the entity "sub" exists only as a continually transforming concept in the collective mind of America. However, it should be noted that the "Italian combo sandwich" — capicola, mortadella, Genoa salami, provolone, lettuce, tomato, and sliced red onion drizzled with oil and vinegar on a crusty Italian roll that's trucked up from Cusano Bakery in Miami — is prepared at the Porta Villa Italian Deli by the skillful hands of Warren and Janet Kart (who opened the place four years ago), and it does indeed resemble the sandwich we commonly call by that name. It's also delicious. And $7.
There are half a million Cubans in South Florida and something like four decent Cuban restaurants. OK, maybe five. Evidently, the ex-pats have far better things to do than to open cafés where everything on the menu costs less than $15 — like manage gargantuan sugar farms, run for office, or study for the Florida bar. Who can blame them? Standing over a hot iron pressing sandwiches all day is no picnic. You Ôd have to, in fact, be a crazy Italian to want to do it, especially to do it twice. But when Sam Mancuso opened a second outlet in Boynton Beach last year (the first Crazy Cuban was in Vero), he answered the prayers of many a hapless local who, when faced with a hearty appetite and the contents of his change jar, thinks inevitably: Cuban sandwich ($5) with extra pickles (free). If the jar runneth over, he might even splurge on a Cuban Special ($6.25), which adds sliced turkey breast to the classic ham, pork, Swiss, pickle, and mustard combo. Both, of course, are served on excellent, deliciously oily pan Cubano — heated, smooshed, and crisped in a sandwich press — so the textures and flavors that have rightly made this neat little meal a staple of penniless hacks everywhere are thereby perfected.
Spice Resto-Lounge
Let's imagine, for once, that your out-of-town guests are under the age of 70 and not living on a pension. Let's fantasize that your guests like to stay out late and drink strong mojitos, that they have their own sporty little coupe and a suitcase full of shimmery minidresses and linen trousers, and that they'll undoubtedly offer to buy the empanadas and capirinhas if you'll just point them in the right direction. A night of their lives is waiting at Spice Resto-Lounge, the Hollywood epicenter of what South Florida might have been had it taken its cues from Havana: lots of booty, rum, and rumba set on a busy, breezy boulevard where the moon seems ever full. The menu here is supper-club Latin-Caribbean, and the floor show is nonstop, from a series of crooners singing Astrid Gilberto hits through the bouncers and cocktail waitresses who'll hop up on raised platforms and dance their asses off at the slightest provocation to a house band that strikes up around 10 p.m. seven nights a week and keeps the place rocking until the very wee hour of 4 a.m. Anybody who fails to have fun here isn't your friend.
There aren't a whole lot of good things you can say for rampant development in South Florida. But one quality-of-life improvement associated with those high-rise condos blocking your view of the beach is the arrival of the upscale corporate eatery. For as surely as the moneyed snowbird flies south, so does the better restaurant chain follow in her updraft. Goodbye, Olive Garden; hello, Seasons 52. Good riddance, Taco Bell; bienvenidos, Rosa Mexicano. Rosa was the first upscale Mexican restaurant in Manhattan, opened by the late Josephina Howard — who invented the tableside-guacamole phenomenon where servers dice and mash onion, tomato, peppers, and avocado into the dip of your dreams. The tables at this Palm Beach Gardens location are filled not only with bowls of guac and warm tortillas but also with pasilla chili soup, zarape de pato (pulled barbecued duck between tortillas), boneless beef short ribs, and baby goat tacos. This ain't one of those frozen-margarita-and-chimichurri palaces that have simultaneously wrecked your waistline and your taste buds.

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