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Restaurant Reviews

East Is Eden

He's a star, Nick Morfogen. And I love him the way I love Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet: purely, deeply, from afar. I have Dennis Max and Burt Rapoport to thank for bringing Nick into my range; that Unique Restaurant Concepts power couple, throwing open contemporary California-style bistros with fanatical determination, lured Morfogen to South Florida in 1998. This bright lad had scooped up one of Food and Wine's "Top 10 Best New Chefs in America" awards while at Ajax Tavern in Aspen. He was in his early thirties then, studly as hell, and with an excellent pedigree — the kind of guy you might pick out of a book of sperm donors and think: He's the one.

Morfogen's fine genetic inheritance included a father and uncle well entrenched in the New York restaurant biz. He was smart, with a degree from the Culinary Institute of America. Plenty of ambition: He'd held jobs in some of the most prestigious kitchens in America, working with Boulud at Le Cirque, Rachou at La Côte Basque, LeCoze at Le Bernardin. Swoon! Morfogen came to Florida to partner in Nick & Max's, in the old Boca Raton Maxaluna space. It turned out to be the one bad call of his career — Nick & Max's tanked within a year. The partnership dissolved in bitterness and lawsuits. When Morfogen went to work at 32 East in Delray Beach soon after, his old partner Dennis Max, like a heartbroken suitor, used to stalk him, sneaking in for dinner regularly and sitting with his back to the kitchen — until finally at the end of his rope one night, Morfogen lost his cool and refused to serve him. That may be the only juicy story you'll ever hear about a man who's managed to keep his temper and a low profile ever since.

Morfogen's kitchen is a destination. I've been eating there for years, but in deference to our relationship, I've never written about 32 East until now. Feeling about him as I do, how could I be objective? And did I really want to share him? In reputation and regard Morfogen holds his own with the likes of Militello (Mark's), Vinczencz (Johnny V), and Des Marais (Four Seasons). He's racked up a wall full of Golden Spoon Awards; he's cooked at the James Beard House. At 32 he was a babe; at 41 he's got a bit of a paunch and a trace of a jowl — but I say now there's just more of him to love.

With or without the paunch, Morfogen's talents go beyond what he can do with black grouper and black truffles. We'll never see the day of desperation, I hope, when he introduces a line of sauces (Nick's Hibiscus Aioli), pens a biography (Verjus! A Success Story), or opens a chain of celeb-chef eateries (32 West, 32 North, etc.). I can live without a Morfogen cookbook too — will I ever yearn to whip up a plate of foie gras with pineapple coulis and yucca chips? Why? When I have him to do it for me? He's held out so far against cultural pressures to become a Brand, to set up Morfogen kiosks in shopping malls and to fill up the last 30 minutes available on the Food Network between Paula Dean and Sandra Lee. Not that you wouldn't find me glued to the screen. The way he squeezes those key limes is so dreamy.

No, he just goes along doing what he does, in the semi-open kitchen at 32 East, like a man of integrity. He changes his menu every night. He buys local produce (zucchini and tomatoes from Green Cay and frilly cilantro from Swank Farms) and sources the most excellent pork (Prairie Grove and Nueske Bacon); grains (Anson Mills polenta); Florida seafood (mahi, black grouper, snapper); chicken (Belle and Evans); and tropical fruit (grapefruit, honeybells, tangerines, kumquats).

Last time I dropped in... well, you don't really "drop in" at 32 East. You make reservations, even for a latish Monday dinner. Last time I made reservations and scored us a booth in the main dining room, the menu included gems like "oak fired Parma proscuitto-wrapped d'Anjou pear in thousand flower honey glaze with Sonoma goat cheese and 25 year old balsamic." Imagine dictating that mouthful. Period, end quote, new paragraph.

If you think thousand-flowered menu descriptions like this are just trendy, pretentious, and silly, you don't understand my Nick. This is a guy who thinks the distinctions in terroir — regional differences mean unique growing cultures, which affect appearance and taste — are vital. Morfogen has said, modestly, that the food is more important than the chef — in other words, that if you start with excellent ingredients, you've practically won the game. He wants to know where his bacon comes from and what the pig was fed — what the pig thought about while it was eating. He thinks small local farms provide better tasting vegetables, if for no other reason than the trip from plot to kitchen is a lot shorter. He's right.

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Gail Shepherd
Contact: Gail Shepherd

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