Lemon St. Germain cake

Lemon St. Germain cake (Robert Duyos / Sun Sentinel / March 4, 2014)

★★★★

You want to sit in the first-floor dining room at 32 East. There are no tablecloths on the wooden tables. The floors are tiled checkerboard-style. On busy weekend nights, it can be so loud that conversation is only possible when everyone leans in to the center of the table.

32 East is one of the best restaurants in South Florida.

It opened its doors in 1996, and I've been eating here for at least a dozen years. It consistently exceeds my expectations. On a Friday or Saturday night at this time of year, 32 East often has 400 reservations. That's any restaurateur's dream.


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Eat here, and you'll see why.

Where to start? One night in February, it was a pizza. Hot from the wood-fired oven, the crispy pie was topped with veal flank steak and hedgehog mushrooms, black truffle, fresh mozzarella and tangy Robiola cheese. No need to seek out one of the new pizza parlors when chef and owner Nick Morfogen is in the kitchen

Morfogen's cooking is a marvel. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, he worked at some of Manhattan's finest restaurants, including Le Bernadin and Le Cirque. After a stint out West when he was called one of the country's best new chefs by Food & Wine," he landed in South Florida.

At 32 East, he reinvents much of the menu every day, depending on what's fresh or what inspires him. He was farm-to-table before it was declared a culinary movement. A fisherman hand-delivers the hogfish he spears. He buys much of his produce from local farms.

While 32 East is about as far from Le Bernadin as you can get, every dish Morfogen puts out is imbued with an impeccable sense of flavor and elegance. Black-truffle-sweet-potato soup with Madeira, cream, prosciutto stock and Parmesan frico ($9) was neither too sweet, too creamy or too dependent on that stock. The heirloom tomatoes in a buffalo mozzarella salad ($16) are from Green Cay Farms in Boynton Beach. Balsamic and arugula pesto flavor the dish. Boynton's Pontano Farms is the source for the greens in the arugula-treviso salad ($15), with lemony dressing, beefsteak tomatoes and Vacche Rosse Reggiano.

An outrageously delicious pasta starter ($23) combines linguine, Meyer lemon and leek cream sauce with spiny lobster, Gulf shrimp, scallops, tarragon and shaved Brussels sprouts. The citrus seems to pop the seafood flavors.

Morfogen, who likes to say his cooking style is a combination of his Greek heritage and his Italian and French training, has never met a flavor that doesn't intrigue him. Pastrami-spiced halibut ($35), for instance, brings the woodsy flavor of smoked meat to this densely textured finfish. He combines it with broccoli, bacon, almonds, raisins, wilted greens and a touch of warm chicken-stock vinaigrette. Sautéed Gulf snapper ($34) is accompanied by wood-fired winter vegetables, fingerling potatoes, butternut-squash puree and red-verjus butter sauce.

The menu can go from classic saucy French to Asian, Spanish and Morfogen's version of barbecue. Delightful seared sea scallops ($38), for instance, are served on red-curry-coconut creamed corn with crispy rice noodle and cilantro salad.

With a dozen apps and a dozen entrees on each day's menu, a daily diner would never get bored. One night in February, the menu included oak-fired cumin-chile-spiced grouper ($34), mixed grill of venison and wild-board sausage ($44) and a grilled, dry-aged strip steak ($45).

The restaurant's longtime pastry chef, Ana Rivera, creates sweets that mesh into Morfogen's comfortable classicism. Lemon St. Germain cake ($10), for example, is accompanied with crème fraiche, ginger syrup and an amazing piece of crispy macadamia tuile. Warm apple-cranberry crisp ($10) comes with salted-caramel ice cream and cinnamon sugar pecans.

Restaurants are about much more than food. And from hostesses to servers, 32 East is imbued with a strong sense of friendly hospitality. Our waiter one night was also a trained sommelier. The wine list is outstanding, with bottles at every price point. Better beer would be good.

Butch Johnson, majority owner of 32 East along with wife Barbara Straub, likes to say that his restaurant offers white-tablecloth service without the tablecloths. (Tables on the quieter second floor and patio do get white linens.) The wait staff is a little older than at many Atlantic Avenue restaurants. They're career servers, not doing a job until the next thing comes along.

32 East has been updated over the years. New booths were added a few years ago. A second-floor balcony got put in to the tune of $300,000. But the restaurant preserves its vintage-tavern charm.

Johnson, the de facto face of the front-of-the-house, recalls taking a chance on opening a restaurant in downtown Delray Beach 18 years ago. Little did he know the stampede of development and restaurants that would follow.

His team is about to do it again in an area he's calling downtown Pompano Beach. Hearth on First, at First Avenue and First Street in Pompano, will feature many dishes cooked on said hearth. Wayne Alcaide, who opened 32 East before taking a job cooking in Italy, will be the new restaurant's chef. Look for it to open by the end of the year.

We took some leftovers home from 32 East one night and didn't notice what was printed on the brown paper bag until we got home: "It's still all about the food."