On a recent trip to Palm Beach, my friend Kathy suggested that I visit Buccan for a meal. She has impeccable taste, plus the restaurant was within walking distance from my hotel, so I figured that I would give it a try.
Buccan is a small plates restaurant by James Beard nominee Clay Conley. It focuses on dishes and flavors that he loves, and the only rule is that the dish must be delicious. From the moment that the diner enters the restaurant, (s)he realizes that this is not an everyday dining experience. There is no “feel” or “vibe” of the restaurant. Rather, it is a collection of eclectic furniture, open cooking stations, and exotic aromas that is at once exciting and familiar. It feels like your wealthy aunt’s home – a little weird, a little fancy, and totally comforting.
A light and punchy start to the meal. The hamachi is buttery and very mild; its lush texture punctuated by the small fiery chiles and pickled onions. The yuzu vinaigrette is mouth puckeringly tart and a little sweet, and the lotus adds a pleasant crunch. This is simple but well balanced – savory, sweet, spicy, and sour.
The only thing better than traditional steak tartare is steak tartare with a deep fried egg yolk. This steak is coarsely cut with a bit of chew, as if it is hand cut. Mixed with capers, diced onions,and bracing mustard, the crowning glory is the deep fried egg yolk. The fork breaks through the crust to release the golden egg yolk that enriches and binds the meat. Spread it onto the accompanying toast if you must, but I ate most of this right off of my fork.
There is no reason that I should have loved this dish as much as I did. It is just a classic Italian dish, served in the traditional manner. Clearly, though, this is a favorite of Conley’s – it was just made with so much love. The burrata was silky and creamy, as if it had been formed only moments before melting on my tongue. The tomatoes were impossibly sweet, carefully sliced so they were the perfect thickness to pair with the rich cheese. And the pesto and salad greens were fragrant and full of spicy, aromatic, garlicky notes. It really reminded me how many sub-par Caprese salads are out there. This was just delicious, and an unexpected standout.
Hands down, my favorite dish of the night. I have never had such delicious conch, even in Bermuda. It was cut into strips that looked like linguine, then cooked gently until the strips were tender and absorbed the garlicky, salty pasta sauce. Tomatoes were sweet and juicy, soaking into the housemade sausage, filled with aromatic fennel and spicy red pepper flakes. The browning touch was the pasta, toothsome and perfectly formed to catch the broth. The marriage fo the meaty pork and tender conch was sensational. This was a unique and well made dish – truly a must-order.
Lamb “Albondigas” with feta, mint, yogurt, and spicy tomatoes
The only miss of the night. Though the sauce was wonderful, filled with tomatoes, salty feta, mint, and cinnamon, the meatballs themselves fell flat. They were a bit too dense and spongy – a situation that could be easily remedied by more breadcrumbs in the mixture. It was really too bad, because the sauce was so very tasty.
The filling here is so rich, so thick, and so concentrated in sugary peanut flavor that it manages to make the (excellent) milk chocolate topping seem an afterthought. As your fork glides through the sweet and salty filling to the buttery graham cracker crust, be sure to get some of the fresh cream, whipped to soft peaks. It cuts though the intense flavor of the pie and manages to make it seem lighter…why does full-fat cream make things taste lighter?
And why is this restaurant so addictive? It is partially the attentive service, partially the well priced wine list (though be aware that a meal for 2 will run you upwards for 100), and mostly the fantastic food. Conley manages to bring all of his favorite flavors and dishes together in a cohesive restaurant. It only works because he obviously loves everything about this restaurant, from the bread oven in the middle of the floor to the tiny stockpots in which several dishes are served. He bucks the Palm Beach steakhouse history and is paving the way for upscale, seasonal small plates.
Even if you aren’t staying within walking distance, this restaurant is a must visit in Palm beach