As a first timer experiencing the annual Palm Beach Food & Wine Fest, I can honestly say the bar for next year has been set extremely high.
On Thursday evening, the festival kicked off in a few locations around Palm Beach. I found myself at Buccan. There was a bustling crowd, music blaring and servers offering glasses of red and white wine almost as soon as someone stepped in the door.
At about half past seven, everyone was asked to take a seat at their assigned table. I walked over to a small marble four-top by an arched window where two editors from the Palm Beach Post were sitting. We were joined by a fourth guest: Chef Timon Balloo’s wife.
The emcee made brief introductions and noted the title of dinner: “The First Bite.” It gave me pause. I’ve never been to a dinner that has a title. But I appreciated the literary value and sentiment it added to the evening—asking guests to stop for a moment rather than diving into the meal—just as one does with a book or magazine.
The first course began as a celebration: Mirabelle Brut Rosé and three small plates served family style. They were: Chef Timon Balloo’s Kombu-Marinated Cobia, Chef Clay Conley’s Maine Lobster Ceviche and Chef Mike Lata’s Carne Cruda. Chef Balloo’s cobia was light and delicate, accompanied by pickled grapes, charred onions and finished with micro greens. The flavors were bright and blended seamlessly. Chef Conley’s ceviche was an entirely different delicious: large chunks of lobster, hints of lime, coconut and habanero served on guacamole and topped with some kind of salty crunchy shavings (possibly potato). Last, but certainly not least, was Chef Lata’s cruda. Evenly diced bits of carne were mixed with celery and an anchovy vinaigrette and topped with shavings of white truffle. The carne was so smooth and naturally flavorful that it barely needed additional seasoning. By far, the cobia and the cruda were the top favorites at my table.
As the chefs and their staff prepared the second course, the DJ alternated between classic jazz anthems and electronic mashups. Buccan’s open kitchen concept gave diners an opportunity to watch their food as it was prepared.
A few minutes later, the second course began. Our server poured a toasty 2013 chardonnay from Pine Ridge in Napa Valley. The first pasta dish was Spaghetti a la Bottarga from Chef Lata. Thin noodles imparted an extremely buttery flavor without the heaviness or grease. Stone crab bites were hidden throughout the dish along with fresh herbs, a bit of melted white cheese, and of course, the bottarga (salted, cured fish roe). The four of us sat back happily, wondering how things could possibly get any better.
Then, we were presented with Chef Conley’s Caramelized Cauliflower Agnolotti. Small, al dente pasta pillows were filled with creamy, velvety goodness, topped with tender, perfectly done scallops, caramelized cauliflower bites, brown butter, fresh herbs and Perigord truffle. The combination of ingredients, expertly prepared, made my tastebuds sing, and it was by far my favorite dish.
The main course had four offerings paired with a 2012 Burgess merlot from Napa Valley. Chef Balloo prepared a Filipino Adobo Goat and Jal Muri. The presentation was beautiful, and the aroma of exotic spices filled the room in a pleasant way. The goat was seasoned perfectly and melted in my mouth. Its pairing with the Jal Muri— puffed rice, golden raisins, eggplant and chickpeas—was on point.
Chef Lata’s Moroccan-braised greens weren’t nearly as great as his previous dishes, but maybe that was just me. They were tossed in mint (which seemed a bit heavy-handed) and coriander and topped with chopped toasted peanuts. However, the rest of my table seemed to enjoy it.
Finally, Chef Conley’s Spiced Beef Strip Loin was served. Five slices of mostly pink beef were plated beside a generous helping of local cherry tomatoes tossed in a white yogurt. I took a bite of the beef, and it was superb. Its outsides had been either rubbed or smoked in something amazing, which gave off a smoky flavor. This paired well with the sweet, juicy tomatoes and their yogurt, with its consistency similar to a light dressing and accented by fresh herbs.
For dessert, The Regional’s pastry chef Sarah Sipe wrapped up the evening with an excellent Apple & Pear Crostada with whipped creme fraiche and a hint of rosemary. The pastry itself was flaky and golden on the outside, slightly sweet and spongy on the inside. The apple and pear filling balanced the pastry, and the buttery whipped creme fraiche brought things full circle. It was a perfect ending to one of the most incredible meals I’ve ever had.