Congratulations to chef Clay Conley and his business partners, Piper Quinn and Sam Slattery. Not just for creating the exceptional Imoto, but for building a sophisticated restaurant scene for the next generation of Palm Beach.
So many of the island's restaurants tend toward overdecorated dining rooms, tuxedoed waiters and classic French and Italian cuisine. They practice a kind of clubby familiarity that's comfortable to the Palm Beach swells. Imoto probably doesn't suit the folks who love the fusty Café L'Europe down the street.
Conley gave up a successful corporate gig at Miami's Mandarin Oriental to open Buccan in 2011 and Imoto one year later.
Like Buccan, Imoto is all about sharing small plates. The restaurants even share a kitchen. While Buccan's inspiration is international, Imoto focuses on the flavors of Asia. Conley lived in Tokyo and traveled extensively throughout the region.
We started dinner with decidedly un-Japanese Peking duck tacos ($17.50), each shell overstuffed with boneless chicken plum sauce and carrots. It's messy and goes perfectly with a Yuzu Collins ($13), which is like a combination of an old-fashioned Tom Collins and a mojito — Asian style. (There's also a nice sake menu and a reasonably priced wine list.) Spicy rock-shrimp tempura ($17) with "spicy" aioli and slaw doesn't live up to its spicy billing, but it was so lightly breaded and flash-fried that it was hard to discern that it was actually cooked in oil. Very nice.
Tuna sashimi ($14) was elegantly presented with a bit of avocado puree, jalapeno, citrus soy and yucca. Rolls were just as good. Spicy salmon ($14) gets avocado, cucumber and red tobiko. Special rainbow ($20), the restaurant's most popular roll, is a mixture of avocado, crab, cucumber, seared tuna, salmon, kampachi, hamachi, ponzu and crispy onion. These aren't the oversize Americanized rolls of so many sushi joints. This is Palm Beach, after all, where less food is more.
The wood-fried section offers several delights, including tuna and foie gras sliders ($13) with mango salsa. The foie gras assists, but doesn't take over. The buttery roll delivers. U7 Shrimp "scampi" ($8 per oversize piece) is Conley's play on the popular classic. His features Thai basil and heirloom tomato.
One of the two most expensive menu items — wagyu beef short rib with kimchi fried rice ($30) — was also the most disappointing. The ribs were grisly and tough. We might have returned them had we not done such an efficient job of eating every morsel of kimchi fried rice.
There are a few difficult-to-share items on the menu, including a prime beef burger ($16) with pork belly, pickled cucumber and spicy aioli on toasted brioche. It's tough to cut a burger into four. There's also a 10-ounce hangar steak ($30) with brown butter, yuzu and mushrooms. The chef finds a way to add a bit of Asia to everything. Everything but dessert.
White-chocolate brioche bread pudding ($10) with Grand Marnier-macerated berries and dark-chocolate brownie ($10) with dulce de leche, bruleed bananas and banana ice cream were decadently non-Asian. But they were delicious.
Imoto's decor is more sushi bar than fine dining. There's a small bar up front. The intimate, 34-seat dining room is decorated with photographs and line drawings of fish. Long, benchlike upholstered banquettes run along both walls of the narrow room. Wait staff wear blue jeans, which suit the casually efficient tone of service.
What I like best about Buccan was seeing the place fill up as we left at about 9 p.m. The kitchen closes at midnight on weekends. Conley et al. have succeeded at creating a Palm Beach version of a Japanese izakaya — a place to drink, eat, share and socialize.
350 S. County Road, Palm Beach
Hours: Dinner Tuesday-Saturday, daily in season
Reservations: Strongly suggested
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full service
Sound level: Moderate
Outside smoking: No
For kids: Highchairs
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Free valet