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Wasn’t planning to post while on vacation visiting my beloved mom, but dinner Wednesday night deserves a mention.  My mom, Carole, was all atwitter over the restaurant she’d gotten reservations to, telling us since it was written up in People magazine it was difficult to get in to.  "People magazine, how about that," I said.  The  local papers had said it was hottest new restaurant in West Palm Beach.  Whatever.  I was more concerned about sitting through the symphony Carole had tickets for afterward.

When we arrived at the restaurant Carole told us was called Forte, on Clematis St., the central strip of West Palm Beach, I was disoriented by the "modern chic" decor and the strange vibe in the nearly empty room (we had a very early rez, owing to the symphony).  Carole, never shy, had apparently made it clear to the restaurant that her enormously influential son would be joining her.  The six of us were brought to a central table and I was still trying to suss out the buzz here when the co-owner and operator arrived to say hello. He looked familiar but I couldn’t place him–what with mom and the kids and vacation and the odd decor.  "What’s with this People magazine business.  And Top Chef thing?" I asked him.

"That was me," he said.  Bing!   Of course!  The elevated do, the double Windsor knot of his tie, Stephen Asprinio, the wine dude on the first season of Top Chef who was so fun to dislike.  "The restaurant has just been open two weeks he said," he said, looking a little dazed.

This was a surprise, and fun.  I said, "I’d love to get a sense of the scope of the menu, but we have these damned symphony tickets."  Stephen couldn’t have been more charming or self-assured (the guy is only eight years out of high school).  We were seated and got a very quick tasting that even impressed my 12-year-old daughter.  Looking around the "modern chic" decor, she said, "It’s like eating inside a lava lamp."  Then she said, "Awesome."

The food is progressive Italian and a plate of three tasting portions arrived.  The nods to Thomas Keller and Grant Achatz were evident in the baby rabbit rack and the cube of foie gras bobbing on the "antenna" serving device created at Achatz’s Alinea, and later in the meal, its anti-plate.  We went on to have a superb variety of pastas (rabbit ragu with papperadelle, pumpkin ravioli, beef cheek ravioli, a carbonara made with guanciale) followed by a tasting of entrees, red snapper, hanger steak, berskshire pork, duck breast, before reluctantly rushing off, to the Kravitz Center.

The food by chef de cuisine Mark Liberman was executed perfectly, the dishes were intelligent and delicious, and service was attentive, prices reasonable (my generous mom picked up the tab–thanks Mom!).  The kitchen even sent out a fantastic grilled cheese on  brioche toast for my picky eight-year-old.  I’ll leave an adequate appraisal of the diverse wine list to someone with an expertise in wine–but judging from our pairings it’s well worth that appraisal and reasonably priced.

Anyone who’s read my book House will know I applaud people who return to their home town (Asprinio is from nearby Wellington), which is what he’s done.  You may have loved hating him on Top Chef, but he’s off to a good and likable start here.  Definitely worth checking out if you’re in the West Palm Beach area.  Now, back to the beach.

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38 Wonderful responses to “Top Chef Surprise”

  • Tyler

    If anyone lives in or near West Palm Beach, you may know what an eyesore this restaurant is. The “walls” are made of sheer white fabric with pink and purple lights focused on them. The bar tables are designed to look like giant screws (why?), and the chairs are made of ikea-ish plastic and aluminum. Being from Wellington myself, I am happy to see a fellow native producing good food, I just wish I didn’t feel like I was stuck in a bad trip while I’m eating dinner.

  • Tyler

    If anyone lives in or near West Palm Beach, you may know what an eyesore this restaurant is. The “walls” are made of sheer white fabric with pink and purple lights focused on them. The bar tables are designed to look like giant screws (why?), and the chairs are made of ikea-ish plastic and aluminum. Being from Wellington myself, I am happy to see a fellow native producing good food, I just wish I didn’t feel like I was stuck in a bad trip while I’m eating dinner.

  • Claudia

    Insert the word “give” after “didn’t”. Oy. I need more cappuccino. High octane.

  • amber

    good for him! i agree with the previous commentor that when he did a guest appearance on an episode last season(?) he seemed like he had toned everything down a bit. nice to hear he is doing well.

  • Claudia

    I second Sara and Pookha – Steven came across as a pretentious, self-important twit (although extremely knowledgeable about wine), but if can deliver the goods – well, best of luck, I say. It was good of the kitchen to whip up a fancy “grilled cheese” for your 8 year-old (James, of sweatshirt- over-the-head fame?) And at least he didn’t talk you to death about wine characterists and pairings until your children started crying convulsively and bleeding from the eyeballs. Sounds like Steve is learning (!)

    PS: Mom didn’t you another set of oven mitts, did she? Or don’t we talk about those? (!!)

  • Matt

    Carri – We ate at that Cheesecake Factory in December…I’d never been to one before. We showed up really early and were lucky to get a table, but by the time we left I could not BELIEVE the wall of people outside! So…many…people.

    I have to say, though, that they have really good food there, reasonably priced, and big portions. We didn’t leave there disappointed. Waikiki or otherwise, I suggest you go sometime. Definitely NOT worth waiting in line for 2 1/2 hours though.

    If you’re still there and have the chance, go to Eggs ‘n Things for breakfast. It’s my happy place.

  • HappyHoarfrost

    Two things of supreme interest to me in this (other than the food!):
    1. Your mother still happily goes on-the-record to you as “atwitter” about a restaurant (impressive! The “lemon-potential” and pressure would be akin to suggesting a travel destination to Anthony Bourdain) at this point in your career.
    and
    2. You listen to your mother. My children, fortunately members of the non-picky-eating set (provided foods are their favorite colors,green and orange–which for the most part gives me the mighty sword of nutrition to weild) aren’t so much in the listening department.

    How will they ever grow up to write books and entertaining, foodcentric blogs?

    I don’t want to see green and orange foie gras, but we’ll definitely give Forte and Asprinio a whirl if we get the chance.
    Thanks for the inside look!

  • carri

    We decided to spend the last few days of our Hawaiin vacation here at Waikiki…what a crazy scene! Last night, looking for a place to eat with our 3 kids we walked past the Cheesecake Factory…my ultra picky 8 year old really wanted to eat there…not because he’s been to one before, he just thought he would get to have cheesecake for dinner! The crowd outside was thick and the wait? 2 and 1/2 HOURS! Needless to say we found a perfectly delightful pizza joint…waited only 20 minutes, and stopped for ice cream on the way back to the hotel…all before we ever would have sat down to cheesecake! Really, what’s the attraction? We just didn’t get it…and we weren’t willing to wait that long to find out!

  • DrBehavior

    It’s about time that WPB got a restaurant with the steak instead of the sizzle alone, which usually tends to be the case. Your experience must have been a great combo of ambience, congeniality, and food for you to take time-out from your vacation to laud the man and his place. It’s very kind of you to do this piece – I’m sure that coming from you Mr. Ruhlman it’ll more than make the chef’s day.
    A caveat – don’t you always just love these dudes or dudettes that say something like – “your loaded – so you owe me – so take me next time”. Whatever happened to decorum and simple civility?

  • Bett

    It’s just too bad that the cuisine included pet animals. I’ve learned not to ask people to eat traditionally eaten animals like cows, chickens, fish and pigs, but rabbits? Where are the puppies and kittens?

  • DMcG

    Hope you were at the beach during the Duke game today. It was ugly.

  • ntsc

    Rabbits are an animal commonly used for food in European cuisines as well as the derivative American ones. So is squirrel, although I don’t know of a store around here that sells squirrel, I can buy fresh and frozen rabbit and have.

    Ducklings and chicks are also common pets this time of year.

  • Kitt

    What a nice surprise! And I’ll bet your mom was pleased to have picked a winner for your visit. How was the symphony?

  • Ms. Glaze

    Sometimes I wish I was a picky 8 year old – they get all the good stuff – grilled cheese brioche sandwiches sounds much better to me than bobbing for foie gras. :-) Bises, Ms. Glaze

  • romine

    Stephen drove me NUTS on Top Chef not because of his arrogant behavior—most chefs are pretty full of themselves and that is probably one of the elements that makes them succesful. However, he seemed too good to partake in the “down and dirty” work that the restaurant business requires.

    Since opening a restaurant takes a lot of hard work, dedication and drive—I guess I was wrong about Stephen. I would love to go to his place out of curiosity.

  • suzysf

    Enjoy that Florida sun. I awoke this morning to another winter wonderland. Not as bad as two Saturdays ago but pretty close. I love the fact that you even ventured into a restaurant like that with an 8 year old. My parents never hesitated and neither did we as our kids were growing up. It makes for well rounded children. As to the symphony and People Magazine, as my sister and I like to say, “if it’s not one thing, it’s your mother”. Hope you’re at least there through the holiday, otherwise you’re gonna have to shovel.

  • Dot

    Thats great to hear!! A year ago I emailed Stephen to ask him of his favorite wine places to go when in Europe because my husband and I were headed there for the first time…his response was very gracious, informative and quick to email me back.
    A few years back we were at a culinary event at the Vegetable Inst, in Milan, Ohio and he was much more approachable than Top Chef Winner Harold who had big dark sunglasses on and never smiled (borderline looking pissed off).
    Best Wishes to you Stephen, you deserve it!!!

  • Vincent

    Well…

    Obviously, he is NOT a tool and a douchebag.

    Good to hear he is well.

  • Pookha

    I agree with Sara, above. Stephen annoyed the dickens out of me, but I knew he had good chops. I’d love to try his restaurant.

    Thanks for the review.

  • Shannon

    I can’t believe he’s only 26! He acts so middle aged.

    I think it’s cool that he is serving good food.

    I always root for the underdog. He’s quirky, but I liked him.

  • jonfoxx

    Best of luck to Stephen, I really liked him on Top Chef and glad that he is doing well.

  • Chris

    …prices reasonable.

    For a complete food noob like me (I realized about a year ago that Chili’s kind of sucks…) what exactly should I expect to pay for a meal for two (sans-wine) at a “reasonably priced” gourmet restaurant like this one? How about an exorbitantly priced one?

  • iron stef

    He had a guest appearance on the last season in which he seemed like much less of an a-hole. I’m glad to hear he’s doing well…

    the beach? color me jealous. enjoy!

  • Natalie Sztern

    Since my girlfirend’s husband has opened a new restaurant in Montreal, I give kudos to anyone in the restaurant business…especially if a 12 year old likes it….this was a nice read

    ps stay out of the sun unless you want a gordon ramsay look!

  • Sara

    FISHHOOK! (For the Television Without Pity readers out there…)

    Good to hear Stephen has toned down the ego and has put together a tasty restaurant. He seemed like a talented dude on the show, though his pretensiousness made me want to beat his head in, constantly.

  • JoP in Omaha

    Ummm…I take this back: “I’m paying particular attention to the two chefs who ….”

    Let’s call ‘em “competitors” instead (’cause I’m not sure they currently qualify for the title of chef).

  • JoP in Omaha

    How fun! What a kick to come upon Stephen’s restaurant unwittingly.

    BTW, this gives me an opportunity to say that so far, I think the new season of Top Chef rocks. The caliber of the cooks seems for the most part excellent, and the challenges (especially the elimation challenges) have been interesting. I’m lovin’ it! I’m paying particular attention to the two chefs who have ties to Keller.

  • JD

    I think that the best part of the story is how much your 12-year-old enjoyed such a “fancy” dinner.

  • katy

    i always thought he was kind of funny on top chef. i bet you had some good wine! hope there was no dozing off at the symphony…