As I listen to a late-night voicemail message from Victor Matthews, Black Bear master chef, Paragon Culinary School dean and Palapa's Surfside visionary, I can't help but hear the first notes of the Star Trek theme in my head. Matthews' passionate account of his inherently ironic, independent-business-minded franchise model "We're trying to break new ground and do big things ... " jibes perfectly with "To boldly go where no man has gone before."
A later talk with Palapa's CEO Kevin McCarthy confirms that Matthews was neither kidding nor tipsy from one too many of his new restaurant's custom, island-inspired cocktails.
"We're going to Denver first," McCarthy says. "No doubt."
Though no contracts are yet signed, McCarthy says he's also fielded early queries from Boston and Nashville to Los Angeles. Restaurateurs are at least sampling the Palapa's bait.
And it is delicious.
Palapa's, the new, independent concept restaurant brave enough to challenge the corporate chains of Powers Boulevard, just may one day grow into Matthews' dream: a series of independent restaurants stocked by creative chefs (with limited freedoms) who "have a stabilized support network that will enable them to survive and thrive."
On recent visits to the elegant, fountain-adorned dining room, "spirit master" Nathan Windham's mixology was the first show horse on display. Servers explained that the former Red Martini bartender is somewhat of an alcohol historian. On one side of the drink menu, he's restored the classic martini and cocktail offerings to their original recipes; on the other, he's incorporated obscure, specialty spirits with wide-ranging fruits to elicit beach yearnings.
All pleasing: The Blueberry Smash ($9) tasted like a mojito; the gin-based Cucumber Melon ($7) refreshed; the Strawberry-Elderflower ($10) bore a sweet herbal quality; and the Key Lime Pie ($9) earned its name, though it didn't touch pastry chef Heidi Cottrill's divine key lime tartlet. (More on that later.)
As for edibles, under chef de cuisine Dan French, Palapa's specializes in "ultra-fresh seafood," flown in daily via high-end distributors like Kanaloa Seafood and Prince Felix Salm. We opted for Palapa's daily three-course, prix fixe menu ($40 each) the first visit, which allows for one entre and either a starter and dessert, or two starters. The second visit we ordered la carte (starters $5 to $15, entres $18 to $50, desserts $7 ), spending roughly the same no small stack of clams, admittedly.
Appetizers proved generally small in terms of portion, but bountiful in flavor, and with excellent presentation. Halibut comprised our cilantro-rich ceviche du jour (fish "cooked" in lime), served over a dazzling dry ice fog with two dried plantain wedges reaching skyward from the fish pileup. A surf-and-turf satay brought masterful chili-marinated scallops and beef tenderloin over a tomato-horseradish risotto cake garnished with a lively mango tarragon coulis. A chicken chowder surpassed typical too-heavy chowders with full flavor, while the clever Thai-inspired Sriracha Caesar salad presented a pleasant, mildly spicy afterbite.
Only one dish, a lobster salad over baby greens served with avocado slices and a papaya seed vinaigrette, failed to gel into anything more spectacular than the individual flavors of its components. But served next to a brilliant ahi tuna tartare trio (French Dijon caper, Hong Kong soy honey and Thai spicy chili and cilantro), we didn't much care.
Entres arrived with generous portions and, again, imaginative presentations. My grilled escolar over bok choy-wrapped sushi rice, sweet and spicy lobster salad and spiced carrot sauce may vie for entre of the year. A ginger-coconut sauce on the black cod made the dish and married the fish and accompanying squash slivers beautifully. The jerk chicken, half a spiced-rum-butter-moistened organic free-range chicken atop red bean cakes, captured to perfection the history-enriched island soul food. Lastly, the handpicked diver "Scallops of Love," wrapped in fatty, brown-sugar bacon, presented buttery scallop bliss.
Palapa's dessert courses completed each visit by matching the meals' excellence. The guava sorbet's presentation stayed our spoons long enough to absorb the beauty of a hand-drawn chocolate and raspberry coulis flower stem leading to a sorbet-filled tuile cookie cup. The macadamia nut-crusted ricotta cheesecake and mandarin orange Panna Cotta Bombe each offered unique takes on sweet standards, but Cottrill's key lime tartlet deserves highest acclaim of all.
Under textbook-fluffy meringue, the lime filling awaited in a delicate bowl of walnut-lime shortdough, creating the best key lime anything I've ever eaten. It's the taste all diners should leave Palapa's with. And on the whole, it matches the dining experience.