Peter Morales is counting on the West Palm Beach scene heating up. The former Miami resident is so bullish on the area that he decided to take up residence in West Palm Beach and accept an offer to head up the kitchen at Barrel & Grain.
The gastropub, which opened this past spring, needed a revamp of its menu, and Morales, an alum of some of Miami's hottest restaurants, like Michael's Genuine Food & Drink, Yardbird Southern Table & Bar, and Swine Southern Table & Bar, saw a golden opportunity to put his stamp on the project.
The talented chef, who specializes in good, old-fashioned comfort food with a modern twist, reworked the restaurant's slightly schizo bar menu that featured "upscale food truck fare with a multicultural twist" and gave the offerings more cohesiveness -- gone are the fried cheese sticks, and the bahn mi tacos are replaced with pulled pork tacos with watermelon radish ($12).
The menu now features Southern favorites like catfish and grits ($16), a half-chicken with house-made tasso ham and cornbread stuffing ($18), and slow and low braised pork shoulder with black-eyed pea succotash ($16).
Bar snacks and appetizers meant to go with the restaurant's extensive beer selection includes deviled eggs with bacon bits ($5); black-eyed pea fritters ($6); and jo-jo's ($6).
We spoke with chef Morales, who told us why he made the move from Miami to West Palm Beach and what plans he has for Barrel & Grain:
Clean Plate Charlie: What made you make the change from Miami to West Palm Beach?
Peter Morales: My wife got a great job up here, and I decided to make the move. We're now in downtown West Palm Beach. I think that West Palm Beach has a lot of room to grow, but it's on its way. Chefs are migrating in this direction for many reasons. We're closer to farms, which means fresh ingredients. And it's easier to make an impact here. There used to be a handful of restaurants in Miami that were good; now there are a ton of them. Chefs here can really cater to people that are willing to appreciate fresher, finer ingredients.
Do think West Palm Beach's restaurant scene is on the upswing? Can it be another Delray Beach?
Delray's got a large concentration of fantastic restaurants for its size, but I'd like to think that we're catching up. I really believe that, which is why I'm here. West Palm beach is also a bigger city, and there are so many places for restaurants to thrive. It's a matter of time.
Barrel & Grain is fairly new, and yet it's already had a chef turnover. When did you take over, and why do you think it happened?
I started as executive chef last Monday. The chef before wasn't hitting the mark. The owners came to me through a friend and said they wanted to change things up and make the food more appealing to the West Palm crowd. I wanted to bring good bar food here -- gastropubby but with some Southern sensibilities. I looked around, and I didn't see Southern food represented. We've added fried green tomatoes, a pulled pork taco, catfish and grits.
Why did you turn to Southern-inspired dishes?
When it comes down to it, Southern comfort food is unfussy and fairly inexpensive. And people like it.
Are you from the South?
I'm originally from Seattle, and I've been in south Florida for about a dozen years now. It sounds funny, but we made a lot of Southern food in Seattle. That soulful style of cooking really spoke to us, and restaurants embraced Southern food. I will say that growing up in Seattle, I have a huge appreciation for quality ingredients and the craftsmanship that goes into a really good plate of food.
What else do you have planned for Barrel & Grain going forward?
The sky's the limit. I would love to start bringing in people in for a four- or five-course beer pairing menu. We're working on beer batters right now and playing around with incorporating the beers into the dishes as well as making food that plays on the beers. I'm making an Abita root beer jerky, and we're using beer in our catfish and grits dish just to give it a certain heartiness that comes from the flavors of the beer.
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