There's something artistic cooking up in West Palm Beach where you'll find EmKo, the new creative artists' enclave just south of the city's downtown district. Here, they're melding food, drink, and art unlike any establishment north of the Miami-Dade line.
Over the past few years, Palm Beach County denizens have watched, patiently, for the EmKo compound to open its doors. The historic 1920's building — once home to Ragtops Antique Motorcar Museum — was shaping up to be a novel space. For months, people slowed to a crawl as they drove past 2119 S. Dixie Hwy., keeping an eye on the transformation taking over the El Cid neighborhood spot.
Three years ago, the property's owner and self-taught artist, Leo Koel, had a vision: he wanted to create a space that would serve as a platform for local artists. The resulting creation he called EmKo: a three-story, 6,000-square-foot, multidisciplinary art space that would serve to promote and nurture South Florida's visual, performing, and culinary-minded creatives.
Today, it's hard to miss the looming white stucco building from it's perch at the corner of Dixie and Claremore Drive, be it the baroquely-manicured trees and shrubs, colorful exterior sculpture installments, or the thought-provoking phrases scrawled across walls and parking lot pavement. Inside, the mystique continues, as if you've stepped through the looking glass and into an alternate universe. The space's oddball elegance is an ode to Koel's contemporary eye for art, an open space that meanders from one room — and theme — to the next.
It begins with the Untitled Coffee & Juice Bar, where pressed juices, coffee, tea, and pastries baked daily on-premise are served from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. A few steps away, a black and white checkered floor marks the boundary to The Market. Here, flourescent-lit shelves display all things artisanal: bags of handmade nettle pasta; Tahitian vanilla bean-spiked maple syrup; bars of edamame spiked dark chocolate; and mason jars of hot sauce made in-house by EmKo's chef.
Overlooking the dining room, a second-story loft offers the use of two private dining event spaces, rooms that will also serve as a reception space for art shows, and pop-up dinners hosted by guest chefs. One floor up, the building's third level is home to the Artist Independent Republic — or AIR — and the heart of EmKo: a gallery and studio space where emerging artists can gain exposure through exhibits, performances, and special events.
In March, EmKo unveiled its most provocative concept, Jereve — French for "I dream." More than just a restaurant, it's known to EmKo-ites as a culinary studio, open for lunch and dinner. For the restaurant, an elegant dining room has been carved into the center of the EmKo building, a dim-lit space that sits beneath a yawning wood-beamed ceiling. A small lounge area and bar gives way to three neat rows mixing tables and booths, hemmed by The Market to the left and a geometric-patterned wall to the right.
With no doors or windows to hedge it from the other concepts, diners sit and eat or drink as EmKo customers and staff meander past. Beautiful — in that modern, deconstructed sort of way — it can take some getting used to, especially if the room is mostly empty, when even the quietest of conversations can feel exposed and obtrusive.
Beyond the dining room a shallow hallway leads to the outdoor patio at back. Here, you'll also find Jereve's glass-enclosed kitchen, helmed by young executive chef Nick Martinkovic, a New York native and 2004 graduate of Johnson & Whales. During the early part of his career, Martinkovic spent several years abroad, developing a classical technique under the tutelage of Etienne Signe in France, and later working under Graham Tinsley at Castle Hotel in Wales.
Stateside, the now 35-year-old chef made a name for himself at Roberta's, a New York Times-praised farm to table restaurant in Bushwick, where he teamed with Carlo Mirarchi — named one of Food & Wine's Best New Chefs of 2011 — who taught him the importance of procuring the very best ingredients. From there, Martinkovic relocated to St. Louis where he worked as head chef for the 10,000-square-foot food hall, Central Table, and later the members-only restaurant, Blood & Sand.
At Jereve, Martinkovic's focus on seasonal produce and small-batch, artisinally-sourced ingredients appears to be a perfect fit for this dream-like destination — as does his edgy, modern, and artful plates.
"The move to South Florida has been an exciting one for me," says Martinkovic. "Being here has been an eye-opening experience, and I'm looking forward to being able to do big things through the various platforms available at EmKo."
At first glance, Jereve's menu — with bluntly titled menu sections and abbreviated dish descriptions — leaves room for imagination. It starts with "for the table" a category featuring house-cured meats and a selection of cheese. Unless you ask your server, you'd never guess such a plate would feature rare artisan cheeses served with a fresh-baked baguette, whipped raw honey, toasted Marcona almonds, and a dry-aged butter.
Next, "small plates" offers up a number of seemingly standard picks: octopus, fried oysters, and a beet salad. Under "main" the chef presents more substantial portions with a wagyu skirt steak; blue crab-stuffed spinach pierogies; chicken roulade with squash, homemade ricotta cheese, and salsa verde; and market fresh fish or vegetable pasta.
As straightforward as many of these menu items might appear, the most recent execution of the menu — launched this month and available through the summer — was anything but. Plated like tiny works of art, Martinkovic produced a series of sublime dishes, each one demanding a halting glance before it felt acceptable to dig in.
Some were so beautiful, it seemed a shame to eat them at all.
Our meal begins with the market crudo, a selection that changes according to the fresh catch of the day. During our visit, the sashimi plate was akamatsu — or rosy sea bass — delivered beneath a small, dome-shaped glass lid where a writhing fog of smoke swirled beneath. Placing it on the table, the server waits a few moments before removing the cover, releasing a roiling plume of cherrywood-scented vapor, revealing smoke-kissed food beneath: a few thin slices of opaque fish served with plump slices of lychee, each dotted with a single dried lavender bud, crunchy shards of Maldon sea salt, and a lime-infused finishing oil.
Eager to procure the best of seasonal ingredients and treat the food with respect, Martinkovic is strict about using local produce whenever possible. This season, he's designated an entire plate to a locally-grown tomato, and even named the dish for the heirloom varietals' Lake Worth farmer, Walt. For this dish thick, juicy wedges of red and yellow tomatoes are filed into a neat row alongside alternating dollops of rich, runny burrata cheese. The line is decorated with the buds of edible flowers, bright green micro herbs, and thin slices of fried green onion ring so small, they look as though they could be fairy halos.
Equally simple and even more colorful, the palm heart salad leaves much of the food Martinkovic sources in its natural state. Crispy breadcrumb-frosted palm heart slivers pair up nicely alongside tender cuts of raw, locally-grown kohlrabi, a half-moon portion of each perched along the edge of pristine white ceramic bowl. At the center, a few tablespoon's worth of smooth mango puree brings an added pop of color and texture to the dish, made from fruit sourced from a nearby tree.
For meat, Martinkovic delivers a sous-vide lamb breast, cooked and reshaped into small bricks — single slices of lamb fused together in such a way that they resemble small stacks of pork belly. The gamey meat is sharp but tender, its rich flavor condensed into just a few bites that are best mellowed with a touch of Martinkovic's clear mint jelly, or a spoonful of smooth lemon-infused yogurt. Crunchy beads of English snap peas dot the plate, and pop in your mouth, a mildly sweet pairing for the savory dish.
"I want this food to be push the boundaries, to be creative and fun," says Martinkovic. "The name of the restaurant is 'I dream' — and that is exactly what I plan to do. I want to push people outside their comfort zone, to try something new and different."
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By the end of our meal, Martinkovic's dreamy-eyed ardor remains our only concern. With such elegant and entertaining fare, set in an off-the-beaten-path location, success appears to be at the mercy of the area's bread and butter: the seasonal flux of Palm Beach proper patrons. It's a mixed crowd: an older clientele that has grown accustomed to dining at places that offer traditional, comfortable, and familiar food — and a younger generation that might not be ready for such flamboyant fare.
The question remains: will they dig it? If Martinkovic can manage to lure patrons with whispers of food so beautiful you almost don't want to eat it, he'll have the staying power EmKo needs to put itself on the map as one of Palm Beach County's newest creative culinary destinations. Que sera, sera.
Jereve is located at 2119 S Dixie Hwy, West Palm Beach. Call 561-227-3511, or visit emkopb.com. The restaurant is open for dinner Monday through Saturday from 5 to 10 p.m., with lunch service from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday. The Untitled Juice Bar and The Market are open from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. You can also visit EmKo for its social happy hour, held Monday through Saturday from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., during which time guests can receive complimentary snacks and half-priced bottles of wine or wine by the glass.
Nicole Danna is a food writer covering Broward and Palm Beach counties. To get the latest in food and drink news in South Florida, follow her @SoFloNicole or find her latest food pics on the BPB New Times Food & Drink Instagram.