Last week’s media dinner at the new Ben hotel on the West Palm Beach waterfront started off on a literal high note—from the skyscraping perch of its rooftop pool and bar at sunset, cucumber martinis in hand, overlooking the Palm Harbor Marina and, just across the Intracoastal, the monolithic Breakers. The weather was a little nippy for a dip in the water, whose sleek en-pool chairs sat empty, but with an atmosphere this idyllic, nobody seemed to mind. Everybody on the roof was either on vacation or about to consume a four-course, wine-paired meal on the house, so complaining about a moderate chill was strictly verboten.
Following this refreshing aperitif, hotel staff guided us back down to the first floor to The Ben’s restaurant, Proper Grit, a chef-driven spot accessible to all, not just hotel guests. Along the way, we received a taste of the hotel’s distinctive décor, which the sales director described to us as “the grittiness of Old World Florida with the properness of Palm Beach.” (The Ben Hotel is named after “Ben Trovato,” an 1892-vintage home in West Palm Beach, whose owners, the Deweys, included noted author and bon vivant Byrd Spilman Dewey.)
To that end, designer Malcolm Berg mixed concrete with delightfully anachronistic neon. In a lobby/reading area leading to the restaurant, a dark-wood fireplace, chess set and towering shelf of antique books suggest a leather-bound library from the Arthur Conan Doyle era, but take a second look at that bookshelf: It’s also a work of modern art, with a person’s face sprayed across the bindings.
The menu endeavors for a similar combination of classicism and irreverence, pairing traditional flavor profiles with novel additions. Like any hip waterfront restaurant worth its (sea) salt, it is both boat-to-table and farm-to-table, sourcing its seafood locally and its vegetables from Swank and Kai Kai Farms. A starter dish, an excellent smoked local fish dip, radiated freshness, served with crispy flatbread crackers that, even naked, are plenty flavorful.
The seasonal beet and goat cheese salad arrived next, and it’s a great example of subtly innovating a classic: Its two main ingredients go together like a hit “Grease” tune, but it’s the nuanced details—cilantro and lemon crème fraiche and toasted walnuts—that lift it over the top, creating an off-“beet” salad that is both bold and light on its feet.
Since I’m averse to most seafood, the chef substituted my slated second course of salmon with a sliced pork and mushroom dish. The pork, thin-sliced and tender, was fine enough, but the side dishes bested the entrée. It’s the perfectly cooked mushrooms, sourced from Swank Farm, that I’ll most remember from this dish.
For the final savory dish, chef Andre Sattler admitted we were his “guinea pigs” for his experimental truffle-stuffed quail, a dish perhaps too expensive and niche for a hotel restaurant. When considering the cost-benefit analysis of serving quail, I’m not convinced it’s worth it, because it wasn’t the outstanding delicacy it sounds like on the menu: As with the previous course, the accompaniments outpaced the main dish, namely a truly addictive cheddar polenta that would enhance any menu item it’s lucky enough to share a plate with. Mascarpone, natural chicken jus, and baby vegetables—broccolini, most notably—added to the dish, and it could have used more of them.
Whatever you order at your visit to the Ben, it’s worth leaving space for the Key lime pie tumbler, a deconstruction of the perennial Florida dessert. Creamy on top, but not all heavy to consume, and artfully decorated with fresh strawberries, it’s a perfect pucker of a closer.
Proper Grit at the Ben is at the Ben Hotel, 251 N. Narcissus Ave., West Palm Beach. It opens at 8:30 a.m. daily, with service all day, and dinner service beginning at 4 p.m. For reservations, call 561/655-4001.
Want more food news?
Sign up for our Dish e-newsletter, where you’ll get the latest food and drink news delivered directly to your inbox.