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My date and I had resolved to eat light at Jimmy's Bistro in downtown Delray Beach. We vowed to order just one appetizer and split it and to skip dessert. But choosing just one starter was proving harder than we thought. After debating the various benefits of lobster ravioli and pork- and shrimp-filled shumai dumplings, we settled on mussels cooked in tomatoes and white wine. The waitress had barely pivoted away from the table before I yelped, "Miss! On second thought, could you add the blue cheese and pear salad?" My companion shot me a sly glance. "It's just a salad," I said through a guilty smile.
I blame the chalkboard. On it, the menu was handwritten in two-toned chalk with equally colorful descriptions, making it feel as though every dish were some special treat devised by the chef just for me. Which is exactly the effect chef/owner Jimmy Mills is going for with his boutique, six-table restaurant off Atlantic Avenue. He told me his original vision for the bistro, opened a year ago, was to be "a gluttonous feast every night with no rules and people spilling wine all over the place."
Sounds like my kind of party.
Jimmy's Bistro is hardly the restaurant version of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, but Mills' food — bistro classics with Italian and Asian elements — is so honest and heartfelt that diners will want to eat everything. Jimmy's skillfully strikes a balance between fine dining and casual eatery. For example, Mills is smart enough to offer white tablecloth service to his mostly older clientele but confident enough to serve them messy poor boys to eat on top of it. At Jimmy's, I've seen dudes in ratty tank tops chug Buds at the bar while finely coifed ladies sip wine just a few feet away. All in relative harmony, no less. It takes one hell of a restaurant to pull that off.
And one hell of a personality too. Behind Mills' gentle looks and easygoing eyes is an energy that fuels his bistro. A country boy from West Virginia, Mills says the formative points in his life came while drinking goat milk and eating homemade breads and fresh berries from the farm where he grew up. After attending culinary school in New Jersey, he landed jobs at well-regarded restaurants Le Chantilly and Aureole in New York City and leveraged that into gigs at trendy boîtes in Paris. By the time he landed in South Florida a couple of years ago (he initially came to help a relative), he had traveled the world and cooked his way through much of it. He then worked up the courage to open Jimmy's Bistro, his first restaurant, during the height of the recession. "The economy allowed me to get in on a shoestring," he says with a grin.
Mills has stretched that shoestring pretty far. His restaurant is modest but attractive, with hand-painted high chairs that scoot up to the ebony bar. The chalkboard on which the menu is written takes up an entire wall, and on the opposite end of the room is a series of paintings from local artists. Mills runs the ship from there along with right-hand man Aldo Lazano, a young chef whom he describes as "talented, mature, and intelligent."
As the pair cook at a deliberate pace, the whole restaurant watches, and Mills' charisma makes it something of a stage show. Every so often, he'll duck out from behind the kitchen walls to make an announcement, and all the customers turn to listen. "Uh-oh," he quipped once, "what's going to happen now?" He danced around the chalkboard for a moment before scrawling a little "86" next to the braised short ribs (meaning it had sold out) and whistling his way back into the kitchen.
That chalkboard menu accounts for at least half the charm at Jimmy's, making clear the fact that nearly everything is cooked from scratch. Mills crafts all his own pastas, like the tagliatelle he pairs with shreds of bright summer squash and fresh tomatoes ($21). He hand-churns mozzarella daily for a fragrant Caprese salad and turns the leftovers into creamy mozzarella fondue. His seafood, like delicate hog snapper, is local and fresh. And even his wine list is boutique, with each of his half-dozen or so bottles hailing from small batch wineries (most priced around $9 a glass).
Mills' early days on the farm seem to have imparted a reverence for ingredients. That was evident in the blue cheese and pear salad ($9) that I had ninja-ordered to go along with my mussels. In it, crisp, sweet pear was scattered around a bed of lightly dressed arugula. Crowning it was the slickest wedge of French triple-cream blue cheese from Saint Agur that was so smooth and rich, it oozed like a slice of whipped silk. I swiped it up with the fantastic French bread Mills sources daily at local bakery First Harvest. I'm in love with that bread too, either served warm from the oven or as a vessel for Mills' lunchtime poor boy sandwiches ($9). The latter would make any NOLA boy proud, especially the version stuffed with thick slices of marinated, grilled hanger steak and slathered with Mills' homemade chipotle-garlic aioli.
Mills also knows the value of presentation. When an order of tomato bisque soup ($9) leaves the kitchen, its white bowl capped by a glowing orb of Parmesan-speckled puff pastry, it demands attention. And once the pastry is pricked with a fork, it pops like a balloon, filling the restaurant with tomato-basil scented steam. People tend to order the soup in droves after seeing that. Beyond the extravagant presentation is a soup worth raving about. There's the gentle coaxing of vine-ripe tomatoes with wine, shallots, and garlic. It's clear, simple, and damned near perfect.
Other dishes turn heads at Jimmy's too. The seafood paella ($26), which I mourned not trying, caught adulterous glances at every table it landed on. I had opted instead for the local hog snapper ($30), which was nearly as striking. Pan-seared and plated with a lively sauté of julienned squash, the fillet sported a beautiful golden crust on one side hiding a swath of snowy white flesh underneath. I only wished the plain Basmati rice it was served on had been better thought out. The fish was local and well-executed — shouldn't it be paired with something more elegant, especially at $30 a plate?
Still, I supposed that plating does strangely jibe in a restaurant that serves poor boys on white linen. Regardless, Jimmy's is the kind of place where you'll want to stuff yourself silly.