For years, whenever someone has asked me where to eat along Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach, my answer has been 32 East. It is both the name and address of a restaurant that opened in 1996 and spurred the development of a dining and entertainment corridor that has become one of the region’s most vibrant. After a recent meal that restored my flagging faith in restaurants, I’m happy to report my answer will not change. Despite the departure of longtime chef Nick Morfogen last year, 32 East remains one of the best places not only in Delray Beach, but in South Florida.
New executive chef John Thomas, 35, a homegrown talent who started working for Morfogen when he was 20 and who has worked on and off at the restaurant ever since, has the kitchen in top shape. Thomas took over last September and he has been tweaking menu items and putting his stamp on dishes, with lighter preparations favoring fresh herbs and locally sourced vegetables instead of butter and heavy sauces. For example, Iberico pork pluma ($30), tender grilled strips from the shoulder of prized Spanish acorn-fed pigs, has replaced the hefty pork chop. The pork, crunchy and charred on the outside and melt-in-your-mouth inside, was accompanied by pickled red onions and sauteed Swiss chard and topped by a lovely bed of spring garlic, cilantro and golden wisps of strawlike corn shoots. It was light, delicious and perfect.
“It’s still all about the food” is the motto plastered on 32 East’s business cards and feedback forms, but that is not entirely correct. The service, cocktails and wine program are all top-notch. The front bar and patio are lively, the dining room with open kitchen along the back is comfortable, and the place has the feel of a well-worn sweater. The decor hasn’t changed much, with low lighting and wooden shutters, wooden tables and wood-trimmed booths lining the room.
“It’s very brown,” my fashionista friend noted.
Who cares? If you are looking for the latest in tropical design, 32 East isn’t the place. This is a sophisticated restaurant for grownups and food lovers, not a shiny new toy for the hip and trendy chasing the chic room du jour. There is something to be said for staid dependability. 32 East has benefited from stable ownership and management since opening, and that helps to explain why Thomas’ transition has gone so smoothly.
Owner Butch Johnson bought the building and built the restaurant in 1996. General manager John Bates, who oversees the wine program with passion and dedication, has run the front of the house since 1999. Bates and Morfogen arrived together, with Morfogen taking over from original chef Wayne Alcaide, who now owns a restaurant in Apex, N.C.
Last summer, Morfogen gave notice after 17 years. With a growing family and tiring of endless long nights, Morfogen took a job with saner hours at a Boca Raton country club. In stepped Thomas, who was head chef at Johnson’s now-shuttered Tryst and spent 13 years in a variety of posts at 32 East.
“I know I have big shoes to fill, but this place feels like home to me,” Thomas says.
He has lived in Boynton Beach and Delray Beach nearly his whole life (his family moved from New Jersey when he was an infant), and he graduated from Atlantic High and the Florida Culinary School. He has cultivated relationships with budding local farmers, including Swank Produce of Loxahatchee, Natural Nomad Farm of Boynton Beach and Ital Habitat Farm of Boynton Beach, which provides fresh eggs used to top the grilled asparagus appetizer ($12).
I’ve always liked 32 East, because it’s not overly fancy or fussy with its food, allowing quality ingredients to shine with solid preparation. In that tradition, Thomas doesn’t get crazy or try to push the envelope with his plates. Everything tasted fresh and was cooked properly. This is an underrated quality, particularly when it comes to fish. The pompano ($33) featured crisp skin and delicate, moist meat, served over oyster mushrooms, ramps, lemon spaetzle and a subtle tomato broth. The oak-roasted grouper ($34) was likewise perfectly cooked, served with thin slices of spicy sausage, yellow tomatoes and fingerling potatoes. The duck confit appetizer ($14) also had crisp skin and moist meat, served with sweet and vinegary onion agrodolce, crushed pistachio puree, greens and nasturtium, an edible plant with flowers.
The mixed Swank greens ($8) with snap peas and radishes, was lightly dressed with lemon mint vinaigrette. The rigatoncini pasta appetizer ($14) with shredded braised lamb ragu and shaved pecorino had equal parts meat and pasta, a good thing. The filet-mignon pizza ($18), with blue cheese, caramelized onions, crispy potato sticks and horseradish cream, had a charred crust kissed with oak that was a perfect blend of chewy and crunchy. And the burger ($19), a longtime favorite blended from chuck, brisket and short rib and topped with brie, mushrooms, truffle-Dijon aioli and a Champagne-battered onion ring, was a knockout.
On the Saturday night I dined at 32 East, 12 appetizers and 10 entrees were on the menu. Overall, there were no bad bites, just touches that seemed superfluous. The masa dumplings accompanying the Iberico pork were heavy and bland, livened by swiping through a green mole with pistachio. The sliced avocado that came with the grouper dish didn’t add much except for color.
We arrived a bit early for our reservation, and enjoyed the scene at the bar, where manager John Fitzpatrick’s crew is getting creative with cocktails. After we were seated, our server offered a warm bread basket with two types of butter. Service was alert and attentive throughout, with plates quickly cleared and water glasses constantly refilled. When I had questions about a wine pairing, our server summoned Bates, who doubles as sommelier.
Bates is a man who clearly loves wine and wants others to catch the grape bug, too. The wine list features many half bottles and numerous offbeat varietals and blends. The list is fairly priced, designed to encourage high-end experimentation with markup that’s less than double retail price. As someone who has to pay for my own wine on these expeditions (my employer covers the rest), that is appreciated. Bates recommended a 2012 Law Estate Sagacious, a blend of Mourvedre, Syrah and Grenache from Paso Robles, Calif. It was offered at $125 (online it goes for $70) and served in Nachtmann stemware. Bates told the wine junkies at my table about the app that’s all the rage among top growers and oenophiles, Delectable, a way to track one’s wine consumption.
All the little touches are right at 32 East. Servers ask if you want to box uneaten food. Every dish was seasoned properly, but a salt-and-pepper grinder sits on each table just in case. A cheese plate is the first thing listed on the dessert menu. Bates poured a smooth Dow’s Tawny Port for the cheese eater at our table. Other desserts were fine, including a flourless chocolate cake with housemade mint-chip ice cream and Maker’s Mark sauce. Earlier this month, pastry chef Lee Mazor departed, and the restaurant is using past pastry chef Max Canter temporarily until Mazor’s replacement is hired.
No matter who comes and goes at 32 East, patrons always seem to come first. That’s exactly as it should be at a dining destination that has endured.
32 E. Atlantic Ave., Delray Beach
561-276-7868, or 32East.com
Cost: Expensive. Appetizers cost $8 to $18, mains $19 to $49, sides $9, desserts $8 to $10, cheese plate $19
Hours: 5:30-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5:30-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full bar with craft cocktails and diverse, fairly priced wine list, with many half bottles
Sound level: Conversational in dining room, louder in bar, street commotion on patio
Wheelchair access: Restaurant on ground level, bathrooms on second floor accessible by elevator
Parking: $7 valet with validation