Don't feel bad if you're gently nudged out of your seat at the end of your meal at Kitchen in West Palm Beach. I know I was. There are just 36 seats inside Aliza and Matthew Byrne's stylishly homey American brasserie and they allow each table two hours.
It's plenty of time, but there's something about the space that makes you want to stay.
It could be Aliza Byrne's warm welcome, and efficient and sometimes whirling poise. It might be the dimly lighted dining room itself, with its dark wooden floors and long banquettes upholstered in black and white striped ticking. Each table is set with a salt cellar, a bottle of Crystal hot sauce and a stubby candle inside a Mason jar.
And then there's Matthew Byrne's ingredient-focused menu, full of fresh and familiar flavors that will tempt you back again and again. Until he opened Kitchen nine months ago,chef Byrne's claim to fame was being Tiger Woods' personal chef and property manager for seven years. The restaurant has earned him much-deserved wider fame.
Consider Byrne's take on "bacon, eggs and toast" ($13), an appetizer of asparagus, crispy prosciutto, creamy chevre and a gently poached egg. The toasted bread crumbs on the bottom of the serving dish fill in for toast. It's what happens when a chef riffs on diner fare.
His take on an ahi tuna appetizer ($17) is a whole other wonder. Byrne adds Florida mango, avocado and a soy dressing that packs a nice bit of heat. A layered eggplant-portobello "lasagna" ($10) features thin slices of the veggies with arugula, tomato ragout and a lacey cheese crisp. Fans of a well-prepared crab cake ($16) will like this version with charred corn, served with tomato-avocado relish. It might have needed just a bit more cooking time to remove the pocket of cold in the center.
There are nine entrée choices, and if they aren't plated with interesting vegetable preparations, they come with a choice of two side dishes, which are served beautifully in shallow white ramekins on a rectangular plate. There's dill roasted cauliflower; sautéed parmesan broccoli rabe; roasted Brussels sprouts and grape tomatoes; parsley fries; beets, dill and sweet onions; and butternut squash with truffle oil and goat cheese. They're all excellent, although the sprouts were just a bit overcooked and contained a few too many tomatoes for our liking.
Chicken schnitzel ($26), described as the chef's favorite dish, starts with a breaded and fried chicken cutlet that's then topped with arugula, sweet onion, thinly sliced radish and mushrooms. A fried egg adds a nice touch. If a chef is only as good as his roasted chicken, then Simple chicken ($24) makes Byrne a star in my book. Crispy skinned and every-bite-moist, it's served with truffle smashed potatoes and garlic spinach.
Grilled fish will keep me going back to Kitchen. The other night, it was cobia ($29) simply prepared with olive oil, salt and parsley and served alongside charred lemon halves. A special of whole branzino ($30) was similarly prepared and similarly delicious. While the head and tail were removed, neither the kitchen nor the wait staff will fillet the fish.
The Byrnes obviously understand that wait staff set the tone of a restaurant because our waitress one night was a combination of sturdy professionalism and discerning next door neighbor.
Desserts, like the savory side of the menu, are familiar, but not quite as innovative. The dessert sampler ($15), for instance, contained strawberry shortcake, chocolate pie and berry crisp. All of them were nice, but I wanted just a bit more innovation. The coconut cake ($9) tasted like something off the cover of Southern Living, circa 1955.
While Kitchen has just 10 tables inside and seating for another 16 outside, there's also a hidden private room, big enough for 12, where diners pay $60 per person for a special chef's tasting. It's booked weeks in advance.
That's part of the reason why Kitchen is expanding. The Byrnes will take over an adjoining 700-squre-foot tailor shop and reopen a 20-seat wine bar tentatively called the Den in October. They'll even serve a few light bites. I can't wait. It will give diners a place to retreat when their two hour time limit is up.
319 Belvedere Road, West Palm Beach
Hours: Dinner Wednesday-Saturday; Monday-Saturday in season (Kitchen will be closed July 13-July 22)
Reservations: Strongly suggested
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Beer and wine; $30 corkage fee
Sound level: Quietly conversational
Outside smoking: No
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Free lots