It's 5:55 p.m. on a balmy Friday night in mid-August, and the first few guests are beginning to arrive at Kitchen in West Palm Beach, a bohemian-chic eatery nestled into the corner of an unsuspecting shopping plaza at the corner of Belvedere Road and South Dixie Highway.
There's a young couple dressed to the nines, seated next to a pair of Palm Beachers, while a few feet away a husband and wife take a table with their well-mannered teen. This early in the evening the dining room is mostly quiet save for the lull of soft music, what will inevitably give way to the vibrant hum of many conversations in just a few minutes as the dining room — dim-lit by delicate white sconces and simple black and white banquettes, and perfumed by flickering lavender scented candles — fills with the night's reservations.
There is eating, and there is dining: At Kitchen, husband and wife team Aliza and Matthew Byrne aim to show you the difference.
"This is a true neighborhood bistro, not fine dining."
It begins with the reservation. You won't get into Kitchen without one. During the winter months the modern American brasserie located in the city's El Cid neighborhood is often booked, groups of patrons arriving in timed waves. The early birds show up just before 6 p.m., followed by the patrons with 6:15 and 6:30 p.m. seatings. Dinner lasts approximately two hours, at which time the tables will turn and the staff will clear white linen clad tables for the next round. They too arrive in incremental stanzas, starting at 8, 8:15, and the last seating at 8:30 p.m. Around 10 p.m. the restaurant will clear, and the last of the plates and glasses are gone by 11 p.m.
Even in the summer slump, all 15 tables — 10 inside, another five out — fill up quickly. At the height of season the wait for an available one can extend out several weeks, the 800-square-foot kitchen churning out plates for as many as 140 guests each night. But Aliza — Matthew's wife, but also the restaurant's well-appointed hostess and orchestrator of this intricate shuffle — will let you in on a little secret: their sixth-month-old auxiliary wine room known as The Den is available on a first-come, first-serve basis. No reservation? Hurry up and get there early, and you might get lucky.
So what's all the fuss at Kitchen about? The answer is simple, which also happens to be Kitchen's motto.
"Here, we call it K-I-S-S, short for 'keep it simple stupid'," says Matthew. "We buy the freshest ingredients, and do as little to them as possible. We don't take ourselves too seriously."
That philosophy has been with Matthew, a private chef hailing from Pennsylvania, for a long time. Before he cooked in private homes — most recently for Tiger Woods — he worked in some of Philadelphia's most lauded fine dining establishments, including French landmark Le Bec Fin. Still, he's not afraid to admit his first job was at a local deli, and the first dish he learned to make was onion rings.
"When I was growing up, being a chef wasn't cool, and restaurants weren't as chef-driven as they are today," says Matthew. "It was — as it still is — a lot of hard work. To this day, I'm not against peeling potatoes and carrots, and doing the leg work."
That work ethic paid off when, during his time with Patrice Rames at Philadelphia's Bistro St. Tropez, a couple asked him to give up his job to cook for them. At the time, 25-year-old Matthew agreed, deciding that after a few years he'd leave and open his own establishment. For many years after he and Aliza traveled from his clients' estate in Pennsylvania to their Palm Beach residence, preparing swanky meals for many of South Florida's wealthiest denizens.
Fourteen years later, and after his final private gig as Tiger Woods' property manager and personal chef, Matthew decided to make good on his vision, settling his family not on Palm Beach Island, but instead the quiet neighborhood just north of the Southern Boulevard bridge in West Palm Beach. When the former Vagabondi space became available, he jumped at the quaint locale, and named their restaurant Kitchen in hopes the experience would be akin to sharing a home cooked meal with them.
An average day for the Byrnes is spent preparing for the night ahead. Aliza will follow up on confirming reservations and handling the minutia of day-to-day operations. Matthew will source ingredients, picking up fresh cuts of beef, pork, and chicken from nearby Bush Brothers Provision Co., the fresh catch of the day at Independent Seafoods, micro greens from Loxahatchee-based Micanopy Micros, and sometime tomatoes from a Lake Worth farmer that's known for cultivating the most exquisite heirloom varietals. Come evening, they transform into chef and hostess, Aliza greeting guests as they arrive while Matthew begins the routine of preparing dishes a la minute beside a staff of eight.
The menu at Kitchen will change — although not entirely — every few months. Some dishes have stood the test of time, regulars refusing to let them swap out their favorite plate for a more new-fangled creation. Others appear according to what's available and fresh, while still more are created on a whim. They are best paired with a fine bottle of win, but you won't find any beer or liquor.
Kitchen staff will tell you to start with the bacon, eggs, and toast appetizer, the Byrne's spin on breakfast for dinner. It's presented in the form of blanched asparagus, tender stalks bundled together like a mini green haystack, a thick sheet of prosciutto tied at the center. It's plated atop a thin layer of toasted olive oil-, salt-, and pepper-sautéed panko bread crumbs, then a dollop of goat cheese and a soft poached egg. Break open the yolk, cut away a bite of asparagus, cheese, and prosciutto, and swirl the fork in those breadcrumbs. At the end, it doesn't quite taste like bacon, eggs, and toast — but that won't matter. It's still good.
A simpler dish is found in the beets, fat discs of tender garnet-hued taproot layered between alternating tufts of whipped blue cheese. It's a unique pairing, the Maytag's briny pungency softened with a touch of sour cream, walnut oil, and sherry vinegar.
It's followed by a special for the night: braised oxtail in a rich tomato ragu with dense, gummy bites of gnocchi the size of Sour Patch Kids. As the weather cools, expect to find a similar dish made with homemade pappardelle, says Matthew, who admits the pasta will be less time-consuming, especially when 15 orders come in and each plate is made-to-order.
For the main course, Matthew's signature entree is not the Maple Leaf Farm duck, simple grilled fish, or seared diver scallops, but instead — of all things — chicken schnitzel. The chef will tell you it's his favorite meal to cook at home, and one his wife would make for him when they first began dating. Today, his version is a whopping Murray's whole chicken breast, pounded flat until it's wide enough to take up every available inch on your plate. From there it's given the simple egg and breadcrumb batter and fried to such a crisp it's no wonder the meat is still moist inside. If you desire some sauce, you won't find any — rather, you'll get a lightly-dressed salad with slivers of radish, and a single fried egg for an added pop of color and texture.
After a few dishes have come and gone, you can't leave without sampling one of Byrne's homemade desserts. And while the bread pudding of the day, grandma's chocolate pudding pie, and strawberry short cake are all classic takes, it's the from-scratch lemon coconut cake that will have you devising ways to make it back to Kitchen for another slice for days to come.
That slice is monstrous. It's enough to feed the entire table — or a single calorie unconscious individual — a dense vanilla cake married with a mildly sweet, coconut-encrusted lemon curd icing. Originally, it wasn't even on the menu; Matthew made it for Aliza's birthday a few years ago, and the staff loved it so much, they begged him to keep it a part of the rotation. Today, the couple sells dozens of slices a night, and still more to-go cakes every week.
"This is a true neighborhood bistro, not fine dining," says Aliza. "Sure, we have five-star service and Zagat-rated food, but it's a unique thing we have going on here. And definitely an experience you won't find anywhere else."
Kitchen is open Tuesday through Saturday from 6 to 10 p.m. The restaurant is located at 319 Belvedere Rd., West Palm Beach. Call 561-249-2281, or visit kitchenpb.com
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.