Chef Meghan O'Neal Cooks New Year's Eve Dinner at the Grove

Delray Beach is known throughout South Florida as a foodie destination, and with good reason. Some of the best restaurants around are found up and down Atlantic Avenue. Whether you are looking for fine French cuisine, traditional cheese steaks, or a perfectly prepared rare steak, you can find it here.

The logical next step in this culinary evolution is the move to haute cuisine, even though we're pretty sure that's not how the Grove even wants to be labeled. But, when you have kitchen with a resume any Zagat reviewer would be impressed by, it's hard to avoid such label.

Michael Haycook and Paul Strike own the small restaurant, handling back and front of the house respectively. Rounding out the crew is Meghan O'Neal and she brings with her an eclectic cooking history.

"I went to the Culinary Institute of America, graduated May '05," she says. "Then I got my bachelors degree at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas -- a bachelor's in hotel restaurant administration.

"While attending university, I worked at Bouchon, Las Vegas. Then, after I went to Europe, I went back to Boston and worked at o ya. Then I went to Alinea in Chicago for a year and a half, ending as a chef de partie. Then opened Next in Chicago, worked there for two menus - 6 months - as chef de tournant. Then I baked bread for Paul Khan in Chicago at Publican Quality Meats, his newest butcher shop/bakery. Then came to Delray Beach!"

O'Neal experiences took her from the front end of the house as a hostess to the kitchen and even out of the restaurant to the sources of the ingredients themselves. In between many of those jobs, she returned to her native New England and worked on Island Creek Oyster farm. During her time in Europe, O'Neal worked with WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), a program that pairs volunteers with organic farms in exchange for food, living accommodations, and a real world farming education. 

"You just kind of travel around and stay with people," says O'Neal. "That's where I fell in love with bread."

O'Neal describes a massive oven that could fit 150 loaves at a time. If you have been lucky enough to taste the homemade bread at the Grove, than you already know O'Neal's tutelage under baker Paul Khan was time well spent.

"Baking bread," she says, "is a very slow process and coming from a place like Alinea as someone who works very fast-paced, I'm still working on my patience  But I loved it so much there, so every chance I get to make something with bread here, I do."

linea and Next are both high concept restaurants that border on dinner theater. Which makes one wonder what other specific aspects of her experience O'Neal will bring to the Grove kitchen. Alinea is famous for owner/chef Grant Achatz molecular gastronomy techniques and inventive, one-of-a-kind dishes. At Next, you have to purchase a ticket to dine there. There are limited seatings and you eat what is served during the seating you attend. 

But O'Neal seems almost a bit tired of questions about molecular gastronomy, the scientific method of cooking practiced at Alinea. Kind of like cooking with physics, molecular gastronomy explores scientific techniques and even ingredients. A steak might be slow-cooked for days in a vacuum sealed bag in warm water, then seared with a torch before being plated. There are even websites of molecular recipes and kits on Amazon of tools for molecular cooking. Diners and critics alike latch onto the "gimmick" of Alinea, but O'Neal explains that isn't what the restaurant was about at all. 

"Alinea is more just about having the utmost integrity in everything you make. I's just based around doing everything you do, the best you can. It's about being different and new and pushing yourself to do the best."

So, no, the menu at the Grove will not be full of foams and exotic chemicals or dishes so complicated they require 86 ingredients. Instead, the menu will be small and nimble. She and Haycook constitute the entire cooking staff -- "just us and the dishwashers" -- and everything will be made in house. The seating at the Grove is traditional and casual, make a reservation or just show up. It's a cozy neighborhood spot. 

"A pretty dish is a pretty dish, but when you add aspects that are too foreign to a dish, it can make people uncomfortable," says O'Neal. "We are going to fully change [the menu] every two weeks. Basically what we do is split up the menu - I'll do entrees and he'll do apps and deserts and then next week we switch. Its a small restaurant so we can have fun. A lot of restaurants will buy bread and buy ice cream but we won't do that and I think that's something people appreciate. I like to do that kind of stuff cause that's fun but at the same time there's not really a huge place for that here yet."

There will certainly be more creative dishes than you might find elsewhere. For their New Year's Eve dinner they will be serving by scallop crudo with radishes and oscetra caviar; ricotta gnocchi with black winter truffle and hazelnut; lobster with parsnip, black trumpet mushrooms, a chestnuts or prime spinella steak with seared foie gras, sunchoke, and smoked horseradish emulsion; and finally Araguani chocolat cremuex with praline, pear sorbet, and ginger. There will be two four seatings at 5:30, 6, 8:30, and 9 p.m. The prix fixe menu $115 per person and the menu is subject to change as Haycook and O'Neal fine tune it over the next couple weeks.

It's fine dining, but with an emphasis on comfort and enjoyment and a total avoidance of pretension.

"We want to be more casual, more comfortable, and make people happy and if we can throw in something cool, whether it's an amuse or a palate cleanser - a little explosion flavor in your mouth - we'll do that. We definitely just want people to come in and hopefully they enjoy their meal and let us know how they liked it."

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Rebecca McBane is the arts and culture/food editor for New Times Broward-Palm Beach. She began her journalism career at the Sun Sentinel's community newspaper offshoot, Forum Publishing Group, where she worked as the editorial assistant and wrote monthly features as well as the weekly library and literature column, "Shelf Life." After a brief stint bumming around London's East End (for no conceivable reason, according to her poor mother), she returned to real life and South Florida to start at New Times as the editorial assistant in 2009. A native Floridian, Rebecca avoids the sun and beach at all costs and can most often be found in a well-air-conditioned space with the glow of a laptop on her face.
Contact: Rebecca McBane