When chef Clay Conley arrived in South Florida seven years ago to run the kitchen at Azul at the Mandarin Oriental, Miami, little did we know what he would bring to dining in this part of the world.
Some may say it culminated in this year's best chef in the South nomination from the James Beard Foundation. But I suspect there's much more to come. Much, much more.
Conley grew up in rural Maine, tending his family's orchard and livestock. He lived in Tokyo and traveled extensively throughout Asia. He was also culinary director for chef Todd English's Boston-based operations. All those influences show up in the menu at what is one of the best restaurants in the region.
With partners Sam Slattery and Piper Quinn, Conley has done for small plates what few restaurants can. Call it sophistication.
These days, I hear small plates, and I inevitably think bar food, rabbit food or some halfhearted attempt at farm-to-table finesse.
Not so at Buccan.
It starts with the restaurant's design. There's just enough Palm Beach tradition — cutout clay candle holders and a comfortably tasteful "living room" near the entrance — to make the well-heeled ladies and gentlemen feel at home. But the copper-topped tables, bistro chairs and exposed ductwork give the room a decidedly saloonlike feel — especially when the place is full.
When isn't it full? And noisy? The volume, however, becomes manageable as your ears adjust.
The crowd on a recent Saturday night ran from hipsters to high-society types, and that's because the menu has wide appeal, with items including a hot dog panini ($12) and a bouillabaisse of P.E.I. mussels ($16). You have to love a menu that divides its offering into categories that include crispy, wood-fired, and flour and water.
From the raw section comes exceptional tuna tartare ($17) with avocado, soy broth, tobiko and crispy, shredded potato instead of toast points. Steak tartare ($14) with black truffle and crispy egg yolk was nicely seasoned, but the texture didn't please everyone. The beef might have been too finely ground.
Where Conley manages to find squash blossoms ($12) in September in South Florida is beyond me. (Buccan buys from local and sustainable farms whenever possible.) The chef stuffs the delicate flowers with a combination of three cheeses and serves them with a tomato fondue. Outstanding.
Who else but Conley can go from tartare and squash blossoms to an exceptional barbecue brisket spring roll ($7) and short rib empanadas ($6 each)? He has fun with Maine lobster and black-truffle corn ravioli ($18 or $36), which is topped with crispy kielbasa. It's fun, but the lobster gets lost and — as much as I like kielbasa — it's just a bit too salty.
The chef is all about big flavors, but they are displayed best in wood-fired choices such as lamb meatballs ($13) with feta, mint yogurt and spicy tomatoes, in which you can taste each ingredient in perfect perspective. Grilled octopus salad ($14) is as much about texture as taste: fennel, red onion, chorizo and white-bean puree.
The half-dozen large plates also can be nicely divided. Conley's steak frites ($40), for example, is a wood-grilled 14-ounce rib-eye with roasted garlic fries, asparagus and chimichurri. It's sliced in the kitchen, skirt-steak-style, for easy sharing. Sea scallops ($32) are jumbos and sushi quality. (This trio also has operates the Asian-focused Imoto next door.) They're perfectly seared and served with cauliflower risotto, lovely grenobloise and almonds.
When you place your order, it's up to your server to make order from what you're about to eat. Our waiter managed that perfectly, bringing dishes out in a sequence that somehow makes sense. The service is outstanding, especially given the kinetic atmosphere.
And then, comes coffee. And coffee is something every great Palm Beach restaurant knows how to serve. Here, the organic brew arrives in beautiful French-press pots, so nice with lemon mousse ($9) and warm blueberry cake with blueberry sorbet, lemon and a dollop of lemon and tarragon cream ($10). The dark-chocolate brownie ($10) gets even richer with dulce de leche and roasted banana ice cream.
If you haven't been to Buccan, put it on the top of your list.
Its menu is uniquely South Florida — a glorious mix of America influenced by the world.