By Jan Norris
A recovery is taking hold along Delray Beach’s Atlantic Avenue, where restaurants are bustling again and new ones have opened to fill empty spaces quickly.
One reason is the season: North-easterners have flocked south to escape extreme cold and heavy snow, and used the relaxed safety rules for COVID-19 in South Florida as an excuse to get out of lockdown mentality.
Then there’s the vaccine, which has reached more than 3 million doses in Palm Beach County. With careful optimism, some of the older adults who had stayed away from crowds are venturing out once more and helping to fill the outdoor seating at restaurants on the avenue.
Elizabeth Grace, of the Buzz Agency public relations, said she saw a boisterous group of seniors partying at one restaurant in late January. Asked what they were celebrating, they said, “We got the vaccine.”
Newcomers like Lionfish and the reborn Johnnie Brown’s continue to fill seats. Taru at Sundy House brought back diners with a social hour at its bar and a Sunday brunch.
Despite delays brought about by the pandemic, the Delray Marketplace is nearing completion, and scheduled to be open by April with a variety of vendors and food choices.
Nicolas Kurban has seen the surge at his new restaurant, Amar. The Lebanese bistro opened in January in the former Scuola Vecchia, and he has hosted a variety of diners, with a full house most nights.
“We don’t take reservations for the outside tables — we’re too small. If they arrive and there’s a table, great. Otherwise, they can sit indoors, and some do, saying they’ve been vaccinated and feel comfortable doing so. Others say they’ll wait till they get the vaccine,” he said.
The new Mediterranean restaurant already has a buzz, with word-of-mouth touting its unique cuisine. “We are offering something different on the avenue, something they can’t get anywhere else,” Kurban said.
It’s what drove him to open a place with his native cuisine.
“My wife and I would go out to eat, but there was nothing new on the avenue. Dozens of Italian, some good, some mediocre. Mexican, Asian. I wanted to do something different.”
Kurban has more than 20 years of experience opening restaurants for others in the United States, mostly A-list chefs such as Wolfgang Puck and Thomas Keller with their expansions into Las Vegas, California and Chicago. He also worked several years for the Wynn Resorts, opening hotels, casinos and dozens of restaurants for the successful group.
A more recent move to the Kimpton Group brought him to the East Coast, opening hotels and restaurants along the coast, into the Caribbean and on to Europe.
He was able to work remotely, so moved to Delray Beach to be near the ocean with his spouse and business partner, Susanna.
He had been looking for the right spot to open a restaurant of his own, to share his favorite foods from his father’s restaurant and his mother’s kitchen.
“My family owned famous restaurants in Lebanon. I want to share that food with South Florida,” Kurban said.
The menu has both traditional favorites and regional Lebanese dishes that may be unfamiliar to some diners.
“My menu is a little of both. You’ll find the traditional mezze — tabouli, grape leaves, hummus and baba ganouj, falafel. You’ll find the grilled kebabs, fattoush — all that, which is what people really like, because they don’t get it everywhere.
“But in addition to that, there’s also some stuff on the menu that no one is familiar with. So one dish I took from my childhood, which is sheikh mahshi, which is eggplant. So you take a baby eggplant and cook it, and eventually stuff it with ground beef, onions and pine nuts, and serve it with tomato sauce next to a rice with vermicelli. This is very home cooking.”
He offers a vegan version of the dish, made with chickpeas and spinach, as a nod to his wife and daughters — all vegans. At least 30% of the menu is vegan.
Susanna is the mastermind behind the plant-based desserts.
“My wife is an amazing baker, and makes a chocolate cake with tahini sauce and a semolina cake that is vegan. We thought of everyone. You go to a restaurant and eat vegan and get to dessert: There’s nothing for you. Half our desserts are vegan.
“They’re so good, especially the chocolate cake, if I didn’t tell you it was vegan, you’d never know,” Kurban said.
A curated wine list includes his favorite California wines, with an international eclectic group that includes a few Lebanese wines. Those are so popular with guests that he’s ordering others.
He says he’s a month or two away from adding specials, but wants to eventually offer dishes that rotate to keep the menu exciting for frequent diners.
Diners can leave it all in the chef’s hands, however, with the multicourse “Taste of Amar” menu, a chef’s tasting menu to share among a group.
Takeout and catering are also available.
Amar Mediterranean Bistro, 522 E. Atlantic Ave., Delray Beach. Phone 561-865-5653; www.amardelray.com. Open for dinner at 5 p.m.; closed Tuesdays.
Also new on the avenue is a New York import, Avalon Steak and Seafood. Created by Host Restaurant Group, the parent of well-known Campagnola, Scarpetta, American Cut Steakhouse and several others in the Northeast, Avalon opened in mid-February with a complete new build-out at 110 E. Atlantic.
The restaurant meshed the former Italian restaurant Casa L’Acqua with a cigar bar. In a total redo, the coastal-themed steakhouse transformed a dining room and bar into an indoor-outdoor, bilevel space, closing in a corner entrance and moving it to the center of the dual spaces.
The bar opens to the patio with stools inside and out. The wraparound covered patio offers socially distanced tables with a unique atmosphere.
The restaurant’s design is described as “Montauk flair and Nantucket panache” — approachable but sophisticated coastal. Wraparound windows add natural light, while white-paneled walls, cool cream leatherette and modern fixtures speak comfort and entice guests to linger. Music is throwback 1970s and ’80s pop and rock at a level diners can still talk around. Service is paced with no rush.
“Dinner was made to savor,” said Curt Huegel, Host Restaurant president.
A modified menu kicked off a soft opening, but represented the planned main offerings. The starters are mostly seafood such as lump crab cocktail and a traditional shrimp cocktail with house-made sauce. The “angry lobster” is a large bowlful of cracked lobster, with house-made Sriracha, ginger and large Pullman toast points.
Popular as a vegetarian entree, a roasted cauliflower is presented as a charred half-head of the vegetable, served with tahini and an herb vinaigrette. Another unique side is the lobster kimchi fried rice.
“Lobster mac and cheese is so ’90s. We wanted to do something different, lighter,” said Antonello Paganuzzi, managing partner and director of operations. He comes from a pedigree of hospitality that includes Le Cirque and other top dining venues in New York, Las Vegas, Miami and London.
He described the lengthy and exact aging process for the Midwestern beef that becomes the prime steaks at Avalon. “No injections, nothing extra. The meat is cut to our order, and boom! Immediately into the box, aged exactly at temperature to our specification.”
A choice of dry aging or wet aging is offered with cuts such as bone-in or boneless ribeye, petite filet mignon, and the Kansas City cut New York bone-in steaks. A 36-ounce, dry-aged tomahawk, aged 30 days, is a signature cut.
Seafoods include crudo starters of hamachi and tuna.
Charred octopus tentacle is served with cannellini beans and diced pancetta, cherry tomatoes and drizzled with chimichurri.
As an entree, a Maine halibut fillet is served with tri-cauliflower, with a flavor mix of pine nuts, capers and currants, sauced with citrus brown butter.
Also unique to the menu: 28-ounce dry-aged, bone-in tuna “ribeye.” For plating, it is sliced into long “ribs” perfectly seared with end bone attached.
Salad dressings, steak sauces and bread are made in-house.
“It’s all about quality,” Paganuzzi said, “and hospitality.”
Servers go through a training and testing regimen before working on the floor.
Those details will set Avalon apart from others, Paganuzzi said.
Avalon Steak and Seafood, 110 E. Atlantic Ave., Delray Beach. www.avalondelray.com. Open for dinner daily.
The old ice cream and burger stand Doc’s All American closed last month after withstanding years of development around it. The diner, which operated since 1951 at the corner of Swinton and Atlantic avenues, was sold to a developer who has posted plans to open Swinton Station, a mixed-use project.
A lawyer for the developer says it is in the process of applying for a historic designation for the site. The City Commission must weigh in before that happens. The closing took commissioners by surprise. Published reports suggest there may be plans to reopen the restaurant in the future.
We were unable to reach Doc’s owners for comment.
Chez Andrea, a French restaurant that opened in Boynton Beach’s downtown a few weeks before the pandemic, has closed. An effort to pivot to takeout was unsuccessful.
Jan Norris is a food writer who can be reached at email@example.com