Mizner Park is flanked by towering, majestic palms, trunks wrapped in thousands of twinkling lights. They frame a road that leads to Truluck's, Capital Grille, Tommy Bahama, and Banana Republic. Even if you've never been here, you've visited this island before.
Inside, Kapow! Noodle Bar is a respite from the consumer refrain. Like a Japanese izakaya, the bar dominates this slip, a concrete slab framed by wood-backed stools, reminiscent of classroom chairs. An open breezeway offers seating across the plank, so patrons face each other to watch the bartender's show. Mismatched wood texturizes the floor, and a mural parallels the bar, a swirl of a geisha sipping soup, a snow-capped Mt. Fuji in the distance. A thread to the anime restaurant name, cartoon robots and Loch Ness monsters swim in the painted ocean. A tiny open kitchen overtakes a corner, accessorized with a chalkboard overhang announcing the specials. Cozy and inviting, it's the kind of place I'd like to park on a barstool for hours.
On this night, the personable Thomas Cornally from Ireland works the bar. He's gracious yet antsy, considering there's not much of an audience. An inked couple that rode up on a Vespa spread helmets and bags over empty stools. A pair of silver-bobbed women in shawls, capris, and kitten heels gossip at an end. Cornally is new here, having moved from Atlanta just a few weeks ago. Like the bar itself, he's waiting for action.
"What a choice," he says of a first plate I've ordered: $13 grilled beef tongue presented as thin, meaty petals on a square white plate, garnished with scallions, served with a mustard momiji oroshi, a condiment that weds daikon and hot chili peppers. It's a witty plate for Boca, an area with a sizable Jewish population that's familiar with tongue. A stylish dish across the country, beef tongue is not so prevalent here outside Jewish delis. The cut is tougher than the same I've had elsewhere this season, yet the marinade of soy, garlic, ginger, vinegar, and honey is a classic palate pleaser. Despite its offal origin, it's a simple, beautiful dish.
This respite from standard suburban dressings might seem out of place in Mizner Park. Yet challenging convention in a conservative location is a signature of three partners: Rodney Mayo, founder of Respectable Street, Howley's Diner, and Longboards; Scott Frielich, of Dada and Tryst; and Vaughan Lazar of Pizza Fusion. Here, the concept was simple: to create a restaurant that's chef-driven.
Having lassoed a celebrated chef helps. Roy Villacrusis, formerly of Dirty Martini and the acclaimed Kubo in West Palm, helms the kitchen. With his stellar reputation and a 2011 New Times "Best Restaurant in Palm Beach County" award, he's the only chef to have won the Grand Chef Throwdown at the Palm Beach Food and Wine Festival two years in a row.
Villacrusis and partners are taking advantage of a nationwide trend that's slow to reach South Florida: Asian-inspired small plates and noodle houses. They're banking on Boca's moneyed, food-literate population to scarf up some greatest hits, including pork belly steamed buns, udon noodles, tempura, and pho. Compared to the ubiquity of sliders and flatbreads at so many restaurants nowadays, this tightly edited menu is a relief.
Back at the bar, Cornally tells the story of how he arrived in Boca, as a favor to friends who needed a manager. "The weather's nice," he acknowledges, though he misses living in a city. He muddles a yuzu caipirinha as he talks of his old bar in Buckhead and a girlfriend he misses.
The cocktails he's making are moneymakers, included on a lengthy list of inventive drinks. They tend toward sweet, such as the $12 "prickly pear margarita" with Don Julio Reposado, agave nectar, lime, and orange liqueur. Or there's the "Saigon apple," with Absolut Orient, ginger liqueur, cider, strawberry, and simple syrup. Savory fans will appreciate the "spicy lover" with Partida Reposado, cucumber, green Tabasco, cilantro, agave, and lime. Sweet doesn't suit me, I tell Thomas, so he makes a savory off-menu concoction, and I'm grateful.
As we chat, he recommends sishitou peppers, a handful of which play like roulette. Though most of them offer sweet heat, every so often you'll get a hot one with an extra dose of capsaicin. Villacrusis dresses them with a light panko tempura, stuffed with mascarpone, layered with a hint of crab. The website Eater National listed sishitou peppers as one of the most popular plates of the year. Done up like this, or served grilled with olive oil, it's easy to see why. They're a dish I've craved, my calling answered.
"Will you take that to go?" asks Thomas when it appears I've only drunk my ramen broth. The popularity of ramen has been expedited by the ubiquitous David Chang, whose Momofuku cookbook based on his New York restaurants came out a year ago. This isn't the instant stuff you had in college. It's a complex broth flavored with bacon, chicken, and dashi, served with thin, salted alkaline noodles, a handful of hair. Good ramen, like pizza, presents with a litany of toppings: fried egg, chiffonaded seaweed, paillard of duck, or slices of pork belly. Kapow!'s $8 ramen resembles Momofuku's to the letter, complete with Chang's slow-poached egg, cut in half, a solid white cradling runny yolk. The broth is earthy and primal, seasoned with mushrooms, soy, and mirin. It's a soulful bowl that grows as it unravels, noodles absorbing the broth's smoky flavor.
I crave an acid to brighten things, which was probably available as a condiment somewhere, though I don't recall seeing it at the bar — no surprise since the lighting is so dim. Skip the $14 udon and $15 pho and order a bowl of ramen, but be sure to ask for the vinegars, fish or chili sauces that should be standard in any noodle house.
The steamed buns are less engaging, an open tongue of sticky bread, layered with pork belly, pickled cucumbers, and mustard hoisin. Though the guts are intriguing — who doesn't like pork belly? — it's the bread that's too evocative of fast food, half-baked and lifeless. Still, if you're a sandwich fiend, Kapow! offers a handful of these inexpensive steamed buns stuffed with mushrooms, crispy duck confit, or bay scallop terrine.
If you like sake even just a little, depart from the cocktails for a sake adventure, a curated rice wine selection assembled by Villacrusis. An opaque, unfiltered sake that smells like tapioca is a pleasingly sweet sip to cap a meal that has taken me far from South Florida, a varietal I would not have known to order had Cornally not suggested it.
As delightful as this first foray into chef-driven concepts may be, the question remains: Will Kapow! Noodle Bar survive? With a winning chef, a progressive concept capitalizing on a nationwide trend, a team of known restaurateurs, and the financial backing of its sibling restaurants, it should. Yet I would not be surprised if partners go the way of Banana Republic, by introducing Asian-inspired flatbreads or soy-garnished sliders. Here's hoping Villacrusis can lead our palates on an adventure rather than resigning to the common denominator.