Food News

Fuku in West Palm Beach: "Angry Lobster" and a Food Network Star

Nicole Danna
Spiced angry lobster, one of Fuku's signature dishes.

It used to be that you couldn't find a descent Asian-themed restaurant anywhere near downtown West Palm Beach. That was until about six months ago, when several Asian-themed establishments showed up. Among them Fuku (pronounced foo-koo), a bold new lounge-like pan-Asian concept that opened this August on the far east end of Clematis Street. With dining-room décor that could be featured in the next issue of Architectural Digest and sexy takes on sushi created by a former Food Network Star competitor, Fuku offers a dining experience unlike any other downtown.

Fuku, which means "good fortune" in Japanese, is the creation of veteran restaurateur Paul Ardaji, founder of Cabo Flats in Palm Beach Gardens and former owner of West Palm's Sforza and My Martini Grille, both of which he sold in 1996. During a recent interview with Clean Plate Charlie, Ardaji said he wanted to open Fuku in West Palm Beach because of the area's robust mix of business, commerce, and residents.

"This is the most vibrant downtown area in Palm Beach County," said Ardaji, who left West Palm in the late '90s to become the managing partner for a Japanese restaurant concept, Morimoto, with locations in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. "I believe in downtown West Palm Beach, and Fuku is a sort of homecoming for me."

Despite its controversial name (one little hyphen and it could become a swear word), food is the real focus at Fuku. The menu brings the culture of China, Vietnam, Japan, Korea, and Thailand together for a series of hand-picked dishes that combine authentic flavors and artful plating for contemporary takes on traditional dishes.

To man the kitchen, Ardaji assembled a team of chefs, Sean Kaplan and Josh Lyons, who met while attending culinary school in Palm Beach County. Together they've developed a menu that covers a range of cuisines yet has plenty of personal touches. The goal: "To offer a superior downtown dining experience for an affordable price," Kaplan told Clean Plate Charlie.

"There aren't going to be any spider rolls or familiar dishes here," Lyons warned. Instead, signature rolls are named for major global cities like "Milan," "Tokyo," and "Los Angeles," -- each a sort of deconstruction of popular, quintessential dishes emblematic of that area. For example, the Philadelphia roll -- what is really a steak and cheese in bite-size pieces -- has no rice, wrapped in fresh-baked brioche bread instead.

Entrées will range from $12 to $27 and fall under two categories: "Chinatown Traditions," which include Mongolian beef and General Fuku's chicken, and "Fuku Signature Plates," like the angry lobster, one of Kaplan's own dishes that pairs whole Maine lobster with a spicy tomato-based sauce. Appetizers and smaller sharing plates will range from $6 to $12, while sushi rolls remain priced at about $12, with the exception of the Palm Beach roll, a combination of wagyu beef and lobster that goes for $24.

Where Kaplan is responsible for the bulk of the menu's small plates, entrées, and specialty touches, Lyons -- a former finalist on the eighth season of Food Network Star -- has created several innovative sushi rolls you "won't find anywhere else." Lyons is known for his rock-star personality both in and out of the kitchen -- he's been a member of the alt-rock band Fell on Deaf Ears for the past 16 years and continues to perform locally.

Fuku also takes décor seriously. Before opening, Ardaji spent close to a year renovating the 4,500-square-foot space, spending about $1.5 million and resulting in a "Zen-like" ambiance from a Japanese river rock water wall and 500-gallon jellyfish aquarium, to an eight-foot custom-built golden Buddha statue, and reclaimed wood accents from an Amish church.

The expansive bar at the entrance and a second-floor lounge complete with an open DJ booth will sate the late-night crowd. Both feature a full bar stocked with a healthy selection of sake, wine, Asian beers, and a signature cocktail menu developed by mixologist Josh Gates.

Another highlight: the communal dining table, an illuminated onyx table that seats 20 for larger parties looking for a unique dining experience. "We expect this to be a popular feature, and it will be a signature of the Fuku experience," said Ardaji.

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Nicole Danna is a Palm Beach County-based reporter who began covering the South Florida food scene for New Times in 2011. She also loves drinking beer and writing about the area's growing craft beer community.
Contact: Nicole Danna