An entirely new kind of South Florida restaurant has opened its doors in Delray Beach.
With just 18 seats inside and another eight on the patio, the Grove is the type of personal, chef-driven restaurant you'd expect to find on a trip to Napa Valley. It measures less than 1,000-square-feet. Almost half of it is kitchen.
The courteous man at the door will be co-owner Paul Strike, the 41-year-old who most recently oversaw the bar at Area 31 in Miami. Through the glass wall of wine that divides that kitchen from dining room, you'll see co-owner Michael Haycock, a 28-year-old whose resume includes gigs at Area 31, db Bistro Modern and Zuma — all in downtown Miami and mostly in operations and wine. The 27-year-old chef de cuisine Meghan O'Neal, went to the Culinary Institute of America with Haycock, and then set out to work with Thomas Keller in Las Vegas and Grant Achatz at Alinea in Chicago.
Haycock lured O'Neal to Delray by telling her that the menu at the Grove would change top to bottom every 14 days. For two weeks, Haycock does appetizers and desserts. O'Neal takes entrees. Then, they switch off. There are typically just five starters and five main plates.
"We wanted to keep it small, because obviously it afforded us some freedoms that big restaurants don't allow," Haycock says. "There are only two of us in the kitchen. In order to keep it exciting and new, we have to keep challenging ourselves."
Every dish is a masterpiece of restraint, buoyed by quality ingredients and flawless but never overly showy technique. Haycock and O'Neal are all about big flavors, and not big fat. Some dishes transform as the two-week menu stretches on, but nothing feels overworked.
Last weekend, dill-flecked brioche rolls with fresh butter came first. We gobbled them up after waiting 45 minutes for our reservation. Complimentary glasses of wine along with sincere apologies were offered for the long delay. And when dinner was served, all was forgiven.
Octopus ($16) was braised and then seared until crisp. It arrived on a slate platter with chorizo, crushed potatoes, sun-dried tapenade and a wonderfully grilled spring onion. Tuna crudo ($16), served on a textured plate made by a Brooklyn potter, showcased the quality of the tuna. It was dressed ever so slightly and served with bit of avocado for texture and perfumed with a pop of lemongrass foam. Panzanella salad ($15) featured fresh tomatoes and burrata tossed with basil pesto and house-made focaccia.
I'm not much for the earthy flavor of beets, but the beet salad ($14) at the Grove may turn me. Lemon juice and oil olive are the simple dressing ingredients. The salad is dotted with blue cheese and compressed apple. Slivers of kumquat and baby basil balance the earthiness of the beets and the richness of the cheese.
Pappardelle ($22) was made in-house and served with slow-cooked, deeply flavored tomato sauce. Ricotta and basil joined the dish. Flank steak ($27) was a play on steak and eggs. It started with roasted Creekstone Farms beef basted with herbs. Potatoes were quickly blanched, and the whole dish came together with a fresh sunny-side-up egg from chickens raised by the owner of the Grove's neighboring restaurant, Casa di Pepe.
Scottish salmon ($29) was accompanied by roasted asparagus and nectarine jam — a nice compliment to the sweet filet. A simple blood-orange beurre blanc added still another element. Duck breast ($29), cooked sous vide, was plated with cauliflower gratin and cranberry. It could have been just a bit crisper. But even simple winter vegetables ($22) were dreamy: herb-roasted acorn squash and grated spaghetti squash with buttery onion soubise and rainbow Swiss chard.
Haycock's and O'Neal's restraint continued with dessert ($8), where classic beignets were served with cappuccino pot de creme and cinnamon whip. Hot chocolate cake was accompanied by banana sorbet and vanilla ice cream. Pineapple was braised with muscovado sugar and served with chai ice cream, coconut sorbet and a tiny citrus bubble.
It's hard to believe the two people in the kitchen are only in their 20s. Haycock says they're both delighted to be cooking at such an intimate level. Neither are interested in high-volume dining. Not right now, at least.
Haycock and Strike signed their lease in December 2011 and then took eight months to design and build the dining room and kitchen to their specifications. They've hired top-notch servers who seem to work as cooperatively as the kitchen.
I even love the way the check is presented in a simple thank-you card.
187 NE Second Ave., Delray Beach
Cuisine: New American
Hours: Dinner Tuesday-Saturday
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Beer and wine
Sound level: Conversational
Outside smoking: Yes
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: $5 valet or street parking