Had you asked Palm Beach chef and restaurateur Clay Conley several years ago if he planned to open three Palm Beach County establishments, he might have laughed in your face. That's almost the reaction you get when you ask him this question now, on the heels of his most recent restaurant opening, Grato, in West Palm Beach.
"I've always cooked Italian food, so this restaurant felt like a natural progression for me as a chef," says Conley. "But ask me if I ever thought I'd have three restaurants. I'd never even been in Palm Beach five years ago."
Conley's appreciation of fresh ingredients and seasonality are born of his rural Maine upbringing; his mastery of technique and flavor are from decades of experience in kitchens around the world. A Todd English protégé, he served as the celebrity chef's director of culinary operations for the Olives Group, overseeing 17 restaurants, including the opening of Olives in Tokyo, a lengthy stint that lasted eight years.
The chef would eventually partner with Piper Quinn to open a restaurant of his own. After searching Miami for the right location, the pair decided to take a trip to Palm Beach Island.
"At the time, we felt there was a definite need for a more casual, fun place on the Island. No one had been able to make anything work there, so the price was right," says Conley, who has since garnered two James Beard nominations and numerous accolades with his Palm Beach restaurants: Buccan; Imoto, the Asian-inspired eatery next door; and the Buccan Sandwich Shop, now 2 years old.
At Grato — which opened in early January in West Palm Beach — Conley and the rest of Buccan Group are going rustic Italian for the first time in a free-standing restaurant located just a few miles south of the Royal Park Bridge that leads to the Island, not far from the Norton Museum of Art. Conley calls the area "an underserved market."
"There are a few good places to eat in the area," he says, "but I always felt like there could be more."
Grato is already attracting huge crowds. Outside, at the corner of South Dixie Highway and Kanuga Drive, a troupe of valets helps manage the flood of patrons who swarm for happy hour. Dinner service is no less hectic; at one point, it looked as though all of Palm Beach Island had shown up for dinner and drinks, the industrial-sized room packed wall to wall with a handsome crowd of guests, young and old. Already the likes of Caroline Hirsch and Lisa and Richard Perry have been spotted.
As the most casual of Conley's restaurants, it's not an intimate setting. The roar of many conversations bouncing from the exposed Dade County-pine-covered ceilings 40 feet above, the only vestige of the historic building's former life as a light-fixture business, makes for a loud night. The establishment's new focal point, however, is the open, wood-fueled oven its owners have painted a bright Ferrari red. Patrons can choose to sit at the kitchen bar for a front-row seat to the action, watching as Conley himself shuffles pies in and out of the oven from open to close.
To execute the menu while overseeing his other Palm Beach establishments, Conley enlisted executive chef Jeremy Shelton and chef de cuisine Mike Chavez. Together, the three men dreamed up much of the Grato menu, which is divided into six parts ranging from crostini starters to pizza, handmade artisan pasta, and wood-fired meats and seafood.
I would suggest leading with Conley's four crostinis, delivered on a wooden plank that holds each of your selections, intricately piled pieces of toast that can be cut and shared among the table. The flavors are bright and acidic and make for a fun, casual starter.
Starters continue with fried calamari, meatballs, or roasted clams and a tuna crudo. Of the nine antipasti, I fell in love with the mushroom ragu and look forward to our reunion one day. Served in a small pot, the hearty mushroom gravy can trick you into believing there's meat in there, though there isn't. It's the right balance to a creamy polenta, dotted with molten cheese.
Further down on the menu, wood-roasted main courses are straightforward and simple, belying nothing of Conley's creativity with a somewhat-boring free-range organic chicken in a rosemary-lemon jus, wood-grilled hanger steak, or swordfish in a caper lemon sauce. Don't linger here. Grato works best with its two heavy-hitters: pasta and pies.
Before opening, restaurants will release a series of photographs, typically focusing on one striking, drool-worthy dish. It's like a band releasing what they think will be the new hit single off their latest album, a way to reel you in and hook you just before the drop date. At Grato, that hit dish was paccheri, large tubular pasta piled under a bright red, pork-riddled Sunday gravy.
But when we sit down for dinner, it's the bucatini carbonara that gets the Grammy. When you don't order it and spot it at someone else's table, you'll end up wishing you had. At its most base execution, the dish is nothing more than a combination of bacon (or more traditionally, pancetta or guanciale), eggs, Parmesan, and pasta — but like most things with few ingredients, it's Conley's technique that binds them together into a crave-worthy feast, fat strings of pasta coated in a pasty-thick carbonara sauce seasoned with a heavy dose of fresh-cracked black pepper, a runny, golden yellow egg yolk at its center.
That bucatini is one of several extruded pastas — made by forcing a dry semolina-and-water dough through a die — that Conley has been perfecting over the past year. Rotini, fusilli, penne, and paccheri are all examples of extruded pasta, and finding a restaurant that makes this many fresh is rare. These are hand-processed in bulk and frozen before being cooked to order and in an array of flavors and colors, from squid ink and saffron gemelli to herbed penne.
While the pasta is addictive, when it comes to Conley's pizza, I would suggest approaching them with a Buddha-like sense of detachment. You'll find the high-gluten, organic crust is made from locally-milled flour; it's full of flavor, partially thanks to an overnight fermenting process, yielding a wet dough that chars up with just the right amount of chew.
If $17 seems high for a Hawaiian pizza, note that the pineapple and pork in question are spit-roasted, wood-fired, and married with house pickled jalapeños. Like almost all of Conley's fare, each pizza is beautifully cooked, a mild insinuation of smoke layered between chewy-crusty dough and a sweet-tangy red sauce.
Conley's hope is for his newest endeavor to become a true neighborhood restaurant, but with Grato all the rage right now, it can be hard to feel like you're the local at this supposedly local joint, instead of just another number on the waiting list. It also makes for service that can feel a bit distracted, especially on nights when the kitchen has orders filing in back to back and there's barely enough room to walk from the bar to the bathroom.
Of course, Conley is grateful for such quick success. The name, it seems, perhaps a harbinger for what he saw ahead.
"We've been looking to open a place [like Grato] for a long time, trying to find the right spot," says Conley. "In the end, we felt this part of West Palm Beach is on the verge of becoming a new up-and-coming area, and we wanted to get in on the beginning of something big. I live in this community and really wanted to create the kind of place I would bring my family and friends."
1901 S. Dixie Highway, West Palm Beach. Hours are 4:30 p.m. to midnight daily. Call 561-404-1334, or visit gratowpb.com.
- Crostini (4) $16
- Mushroom ragu $11
- Bucatini carbonara $18.50
- Hawaiian pizza $17