The past 12 months was a good time to dine out in Palm Beach County. Despite a stumbling economy that caused several well-known restaurants (and many not so well known) to go under, new restaurants that pushed our culinary bar ever higher kept opening. I gladly consumed many memorable dishes in many memorable meals, but these six restaurants stood out for their consistent quality and refusal to bound by culinary clichés.
Buccan (350 S. County Rd., Palm Beach, 561/833-3450). Clay Conley’s hip, exciting small-plates restaurant nails it on all counts: precisely executed and inventive food, suavely professional service, and a thoughtful design that combines the best of chic and comfort. It’s the hottest dining ticket in the county, and one taste of his stellar truffled steak tartare with “crispy egg yolk” is all the reason you need.
Buddha Sky Bar (217 E. Atlantic Ave., Delray Beach, 5”1/450-7557). While the ground-floor restaurant of this downtown building floundered, three stories up its wickedly stylish dim sum-sushi house neighbor was kicking serious dining booty. It could have been another “too cool for you” South Beach wannabe, but dishes from a simple veggie fried rice to the ridiculously elaborate dessert bento box say it’s just right.
Café Boulud (301 Australian Ave., Palm Beach, 561/655-6060). Always a paragon of effortless style and sophistication, this elegant retreat for the One Percenters now has a bolder, sharper, more adventurous and consistent culinary edge, thanks to recently arrived chef Jim Leiken. Though the menu changes with the seasons, his “lamb duo Tournesol” was one of the best things I put in my mouth all year.
Max’s Harvest (169 NE 2nd Ave., Delray Beach, 561/381-9970). Max is back, and local taste buds couldn’t be happier. That would be Dennis Max, who’d retreated from the local dining scene after helping birth the modern South Florida restaurant. In chef Chris Miracolo’s hands, “farm to table” is another way of saying “fresh, seasonal and delicious,” like his maple-glazed heritage pork belly with peaches and mustard greens.
Pangea Bistro (10140 Forest Hill Blvd., Wellington, 561/793-9394). Artfully melding Latin and tropical flavors in a smartly designed space that registers more hip urban than horsey suburb, this effort by a trio of chefs from the Four Seasons Palm Beach dishes food with enough big-city flair to make your palate sit up and take notice. Of, say, house-made beef and manchego empanadas with a pair of sprightly sauces.
Scuola Vecchia (522 E. Atlantic Ave., Delray Beach, 561/865-5923). No, you can’t have it your way at this chic, contemporary, blue and white downtown pizzeria. You’ll have your pies the way they’ve been made in Naples, the birthplace of pizza, for centuries. And you will like them very much, their perfect crisp-chewy crusts and impeccably fresh, common sensible toppings applied with a judicious hand. Now, that’sItalian.