Restaurant Reviews

Buccan Restaurant in Palm Beach: An Upscale Eatery Where Even the Riffraff Can Nibble

The rabble have invaded Palm Beach.

They're nice enough rabble, I guess. Earnest, polite, well-spoken. It's just that, you know... They're not one of us. I mean, really. Those clothes! That cheap little Japanese car! That tacky house in one of those loathsome "bedroom communities"! They never vacation in Gstaad or Mustique or St. Bart's, have never been to a dinner party with the Donald or had a drink with Rush. They probably think annuities are flowers and Manolo Blahnik is a Brazilian soccer player.

OK... so maybe I am overdoing it with the stereotype of the rich. Or maybe not. Because if you've spent much time in restaurants on "The Island," you know many of them are the gastronomic equivalent of that snotty, snobby college fraternity that wouldn't let anybody in unless they grew up on the "right" side of town and knew all the "right" people and thought all the "right" thoughts.

Oh, these eateries will serve you food and take your money and keep a stiff upper lip about it. But you get the vibe that if you weren't born with an American Express Centurion card in your mouth and Mumsy's photo in the society pages, you can take your off-the-rack suit and $20 haircut and sensible shoes and haul your commie/socialist/Obama-loving ass back across the Intracoastal where you belong.

Then there's Buccan.

Named after the wooden grill used to cook food over an open fire in the Caribbean, it's the culinary vision of chef/partner Clay Conley, who surely learned a few things about dealing with South Florida's rich, famous, and famously entitled during his years as exec chef at überluxe Azul at Miami's posh Mandarin Oriental. His success in that position can be measured simply by how quickly he made local diners and other people of food forget about his predecessor, the comely and talented Michelle Bernstein.

At Buccan, however, neither the look of the restaurant nor the food on its plates owes much to the opulent essence of Azul, except perhaps its well-thought-out design and the care and precise technique displayed by its kitchen.

The restaurant proper is a textbook on the smart use of space, with six defined areas. At one side of the entrance is a short bar with a few high tables, at the other a small lounge arranged with comfy sofas and chairs. Beyond that is a large, wooden communal table, and beyond that is the main dining room, which offers a view of the burgundy-and-gray-tiled exhibition kitchen from virtually every seat. Off to the right, between the salad station and glassed-in wine room, is an alcove that allows for more-intimate dining. And if you really want to get up close and personal with a few thousand food-searing BTUs, a pair of eight-seat "chef's tables" jut out like little peninsulas from the bustling kitchen "line."

Conley's food is the kind of casual-yet-sophisticated, chef- and ingredient-driven cuisine you'd expect to find in New York or Chicago or San Francisco... not so much in Palm Beach. Yet here it is, mostly small plates, many of which can be bulked up to heftier portion, as well as a half-dozen or so more typical entrées. More surprising still is that even the priciest dishes are within reach of the middle class, with large plates in the mid to high-20s and nibbles and small plates ranging from $3 to $15.

All this is accomplishment enough, yet not the least of the successes of Conley and partners Piper Quinn and Sam Slattery is to have created a restaurant that is in Palm Beach but not of it. So while you can feel hideously underdressed and sadly underenhanced amid the profusion of pastel designer sweaters and pin-striped shirts and silicone tits and lips that appear to have been pumped full of helium, you will also just as likely have a good meal and a good time. Truly, the lion breaks artisan bread with the lamb. It's a miracle!

And while we're on the subject of miracles, Conley's rendition of the venerable steak tartar is right up there with that story about loaves and fishes. It's not just the deep, lusty flavor of the immaculately fresh, hand-chopped top round, judiciously mixed with Cornichons, capers, shallots, and parsley and graced with a black truffle vinaigrette or the exceedingly generous portion of same for an exceedingly reasonable $13. No, what puts it up there in biblical territory is its garnish of "crispy egg yolk," the best part of the egg, jacketed with panko, partially frozen, and then deep-fried until piercing its crispy-crunchy crust causes a small river of golden goodness to spill all over the plate.

There are other crispy treats too, like a stack of zucchini blossoms in an ethereal tempura-style batter ($13), lightly dusted with Parmesan and set in a pool of creamy-dreamy tomato fondue. There is also quite possibly the best thing to happen to pasta since the invention of the tomato: squid ink orecchiette ($12/$24), cute "little ears" dyed midnight black, sparingly napped with a tangy white wine-butter sauce that incorporates both basil and chilies and is speckled with nubbins of pork sausage and shards of tender conch.

There's no question that Conley is the best thing to happen to Brussels sprouts since the invention of, well... Brussels sprouts, a proletarian species of cabbage with roughly the same reputation in the vegetable kingdom as a blood-rare hunk of freshly butchered cow. Here he diddles the compact little heads with a vinegary dashi broth gilded with green apple and big chunks of gloriously fatty-flavorful pork belly ($10) for a dish that benefits sprout and pig alike.

Colorado lamb chops "scottadito" (literally, "finger burning") get their heat from a marinade in house-made harissa before being grilled and paired with a chocolaty red-wine demi and dollop of raita, an elaborate preparation that nonetheless seemed both underwhelming and, at $14 a chop, overpriced. So chop the chops and go instead for a black-tie-and-tails take on the numbingly ubiquitous shrimp scampi ($8 each), on Conley's planet a giant, heads-on crustacean as sweet as ocean-going candy swimming in a tart, garlicky sauce you could drink like a martini.

Then there's the burger. In this Year of Our Lord of Giant Hockey Pucks of Designer Beef, there is always a burger. And Buccan's ($14) is a good one: a fat slab of massively savory prime beef, grilled a spot-on medium-rare, laid into a pillowy brioche bun, topped with cheddar cheese and presented with a vial of Thousand Island-ish sauce. And, of course, fries. Not the skinny, glass-brittle Potato Sticks of the Gods but thicker, meatier, laced with sprigs of fresh thyme and dusted with Parmesan.

Desserts, at this point, are brought in from the Sugar Monkey in the manifestly un-Palm Beachy confines of West Palm and, like a perfectly acceptable chocolate tart ($7), are adequate to the task of providing postprandial sustenance for aching sweet teeth. Frankly, we rabble think that food as good as Conley's, a restaurant as good as Buccan, deserves something better, but we're already hauling our commie/socialist/Obama-loving asses back across the Intracoastal.

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Bill Citara