Father's Day weekend this year included a trip to Palm Beach, Florida. While Palm Beach has a fair number of great dining options, I elected to make a first trip to Buccan, a contemporary Palm Beach eatery. Buccan has gained popularity of late since its owner, Chef Clay Conley, became a 2012 nominee for the James Beard Best Chef of the South Award. As most who know me know, any restaurant whose chef garners that type of recognition ultimately winds up on my must-dine list.
Buccan's atmosphere is energetic, not to be unexpected for a Friday evening. The casual seating area and bar situated at the front of the restaurant is primed for the after work crowd. Just past the bar, the dining area is de-marked with a long continuous bench and row of tables that accommodate two person seating. My visit was not only in celebration of Father's day but my 17th wedding anniversary. So, our table at the far end of the bench was appropriate. It was certainly an intimate dinner, although my dining neighbors were a bit too close for my taste. It wasn't that I could hear their every conversation, but navigating from the bench seat to get up, even momentarily, felt a little uncomfortable. This aside, I was happy to be seated at the last table in the row, next to a window, which afforded us a little more space to one side and provided me the sill to place my handbag.
Buccan specializes in small shared plates, "tapas" or "pinchos" for the more well-traveled diner. I personally enjoy the shared plate concept, particularly when dining in groups. It allows the diner to experience different tastes without having to commit to one individual dish. And this particular menu highlights Chef Conley's fusion style cuisine, which clearly includes both Asian and Latin influences. The wait staff suggests 2 to 3 small plates per person. For our meal, however, we shared three small plates (oysters, short rib empanadas and lamb shank rolls) and a simply grilled New York prime rib steak (which is a large plate meant to be more like a traditional entrée) with garlic sautéed spinach and steak fries.
What I loved: The short rib empanada (click the link for a photo) is the one menu item most recommended by all other Internet reviewers and food bloggers. So, of course, you know that I had put it on my order list. Well, there is a really good reason why this is the most talked about dish on the menu. It just really is that good. I love short rib but was a bit unsure about how it would be used in a traditional spanish dish like empanada. My past experience with empanada is from my own Filipino home, where empanadas are traditionally made with ground beef or shredded chicken in a fried pastry wrapper. This upscaled version was definitely a pleasant surprise. The meat was flavorful and moist but not overly spicy (as I was anticipating). The pastry wrapper was nice and buttery, better than the doughy version of my youth. If my memory serves me correctly, the plate provided enough for two empanadas for each of me and my husband. But I could have eaten much more and would have been very happy to have ordered 3 of these plates for MY entire dinner. They are just delicious.
What I didn't love: Hands down, I did not love the lamb shank rolls. In fact, I dare say that I really hated them. My Anna is a lover of lambs so it's not often that we get to eat any lamb at all. In fact, she admonishes us for even thinking about it. So, when she is not dining with us, we sometimes jump at the opportunity to order this old favorite. Buccan's lamb shank rolls look similar to Shanghai style egg rolls (the thin tightly wrapped variety) which I then assumed would be filled with shredded lamb shank. Since the Shanghai style of egg roll is my favorite, I was hopeful I would love this too. I couldn't have been more wrong. One bite into these rolls and I was overcome with an overwhelming taste of cumin that I couldn't shake for the rest of the evening. It was as if the lamb itself had eaten an entire bucket of cumin and taken a bath in it before being sacrificed for the making of the dish. Don't get me wrong. I love spices and use cumin in my own cooking but this was just too much. And, unfortunately, all the dishes afterward (the steak and even my dessert) couldn't erase the memory of the cumin on my taste buds. For the rest of the night I could taste that cumin (or rather the memory of the cumin was that strong) and no amount of sparkling water was washing that away.
How much I spent: ($$$$) For the two of us, we spent $131. We don't order alcohol, but I always order sparkling water. At the end of the meal, I did order dessert while my husband enjoyed coffee.
My overall rating: 2 3/4 spoons. If we were talking about the empanadas alone, this would easily be a 3 1/2 spoon review. They were fantastic. All the other dishes (save the lamb) were good; not overly so, but good. The lamb, however, was such a sour note that I just can't get myself to rate this restaurant higher. Let's hope that it's sister restaurant, iMoto, can redeem Chef Conley and inspire me to give Buccan another try.