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Best Restaurants 2011

Orchids at Palm Court

It is a Saturday night, and even above the rhythms of the live jazz trio at Orchids I can hear the OMGs. At the table directly across from us, it’s in wide-eyed response to two plates that have just been ceremoniously delivered by vested servers. From a couple seated behind us, the benediction is proclaimed in concert. At our table, one of my companions is two bites into Chef Todd Kelly’s signature Maine lobster salad appetizer: a molded disc of chilled lobster, warm poached egg, a halo of fried tempura batter, and caviar cream. She whispers: “Oh. My. God.” In the cathedral-like opulence of the French Art Deco dining room, an organ postlude would punctuate the moment nicely.

Boca

Since stepping fearlessly into the fine dining arena nearly 10 years ago, Boca has maintained a relentless dance floor throwdown of food, service, and ambiance. Directed with bracing energy and unbridled ambition by Chef/Owner David Falk and Executive Chef Jono Fries (who oversee the kitchen run by Chef de Cuisine Chase Blowers), diners are seduced by bewitching truffle-laced pastas or chubby pork shanks braised into submission; by the hip-forward strut of artisan ham tastings (including the current darling of pigs, the palate massaging Mangalitsa), or by the modest-but-never-humble preparations of branzino (a.k.a. loup de mer or European sea bass, paired with braised mussels and baby bok choy when we last had it).

Nicola’s Ristorante

I’ve tried to replicate the moody sensuality of Nicola’s carnaroli risotto—a spellbinding dream of short-grained Italian rice, grilled lobster, and cauliflower ringed by a moat of cacciucco sauce (seafood, tomatoes, and red wine). So far I’ve been met with little more than a confirmation that great chefs have a gene that I&r

The Palace Restaurant

To describe the food that emerges from Chef Jose Salazar’s kitchen as simple is not to suggest that it is insubstantial. Far from it.

Bouquet Restaurant and Wine Bar

Truth be told, Bouquet surprised us all. When I first reviewed it in April 2010, I found the lo-fi vibe of this 42-seat bistro charming, the good heartland cuisine from Chef/Owner Stephen Williams promising, but the service inconsistent. By the time we returned in the fall, things had clearly changed.

Cumin

Chef Owen Maass creates cover-girl food. His sous vide venison was the prettiest dish placed before me all year, his pecan raisin bread salad the second. Picture this: A white rectangular plate with a rich mahogany stripe of juniper-infused venison reduction. At either end are two blackened poblano peppers onto which are stacked thin juliennes of pale celery root, tiny half rounds of roasted yellow and red baby beets, and plump slices of venison deeply purpled from a current-cumin glaze. In the center are batons of magenta prickly pear. Tiny emerald micro greens are scattered across it all. It’s simply stunning.

Via Vite

As local chefs go, Cristian Pietoso is one of my superheroes. When he arrived in 2004 from Florence, Italy, the conversation changed. After marching Nicola’s Ristorante into the dining Promised Land, he and father Nick turned their attention to building Via Vite into an urban community crossroads with an approachable menu of truly remarkable Italian recipes, both rustic and voluptuous.

Nectar

You may be fed up to your heirloom tomatoes with the constant chatter about restaurants practicing locavorism and sustainability. But Nectar’s entire identity hinges on the idea that it’s possible to nourish both the diner and the environment. Hormone-free meats and fish and chemical-free produce weave through Chef/Owner Julie Francis’s minimalist but imaginative menu, which lists local farms and growers. In some establishments this comes off as pretentious, but when you consider the unspangled simplicity of the room and the quiet, earthy dishes, it’s evident this is a fiercely personal choice.

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