Weighing in at less than two and a half miles, Palm Beach’s South County Road has broad global appeal. The Island’s north/south artery, South County has long been a tony locale of the epi-curious, a land of riches for the gourmand with polished table manners. But the flavors of the island received a jolt of an awakening, a defibrillator to the tongue if you will, when the casual eatery, Buccan, opened its doors in early 2011. Chef Clay Conley hit the culinary scene with a buzz that is still reverberating along the shores of the posh island; a spatula wielding Messiah brought to the land of plenty in order to enliven the taste buds and shake up the established dining scene.
Conley’s tastes are truly cosmopolitan, one can easily spin a globe, throw a dart and there is bound to be something on the menu stemming from whence it landed. Conley, with partners Piper Quinn and Sam Slattery, first dipped a toe into the Palm Beach waters with Buccan, best described as a small plate, contemporary American dining experience. But in February 2012, encouraged by the unyielding support of Buccan, Conley et al. dove in head first with Imoto, a globally influenced tapas restaurant that dabbles heavily in Asian and Japanese cuisine.
This concept of small plates that both Buccan and Imoto adhere to is nothing new, tapas is a way of life in Spain, but it just seems different here. At both restaurants, plates are small, which encourages sharing, which begets conversation, leading to good times. But more than just being a harbinger of good times, this concept encourages diners to try more than just one dish and really experience what the chefs can do.
“I just think the small plate concept is a better way to eat,” says Conley (right), who contends that he rarely, if ever, orders an entrée when out, and if so, it is to share with others in the party. “I like to try as much stuff as I can. Either you can order one plate of food or five small plates and share. It is more of a dining experience for me.”
Imoto, like Buccan, holds true to this ideal with a menu that has just a handful of full-sized plates, and even those are broken into small bites. But where Buccan is centered on fire, Imoto is centered on the sea (with a few forays on land). Ingredient driven, Imoto takes fresh to an entirely different realm, flying fish in from Japan daily and serving it simply, letting the ingredients set the table, both presentational and flavor-wise. Purveyors from Tokyo’s famed Tsukji Fish Market send Conley pictures of the day’s fresh catch and have it on route before most are pouring their morning breakfast. This attention to detail shows in the plates served. For those in the know, Hamachi (yellowfin; below) is one of the best fish for sashimi, but the offerings here are suspect at best; many don’t even know these corporate sushi bars are doing it wrong in the first place. But one bite at Imoto and it is as if your mouth has had an epiphany; the subtle texture and buttery flavor of the fish, often maligned at other restaurants with too many competing flavors and softened with age, gives a depth to raw fish that has otherwise been missing here all these years. This awakening translates throughout the entirety of the menu, where fresh is first and the inventive combinations of flavors and texture set Imoto apart from just about any restaurant in the South.
The menu serves a healthy dose of cold and raw plates, and a handful of rolls for the sushi lovers. But it is in the special sashimis portion that really allows Imoto to unfurl its wings. The flavors are a smattering of global influences, matching tropical and Caribbean sentiments with Southeast Asian undertone; ingredients you didn’t even know you craved until taking that first bite. The sashimi or nigiri (by the bite) menu holds true to Conley’s ideal that small plates equals better eating, offering an array of fresh-from-the-sea bites, all with a point of origin accompanying the name insuring that these ingredients are simply the best found anywhere. For those looking to warm the palate, the hot menu is as inventive as it is savory. The Peking Duck Tacos, a Tex-Mex spin on a Chinese favorite, is a must try for anyone who digs duck, while the tuna and foie gras sliders is a classic east meets west concoction that is as balanced as Yin and Yang.
For drinks, Imoto’s bar is quietly one of the most imaginative places in town. Pulling a consummate from next door, the Buccan tea is always a favorite, but it is in the able hands of Levin Glane, Imoto’s bar manager and lead mixologist, that two Asian-inspired cocktails came to life. The Yuzu Collins (left) is all that Tom Collins is and is not. Supplanting lemonade for yuzu and sugar for ginger sugar, this gin heavy bevvy gets an added dose of Japanese fanfare with a garnish of shiso, giving an aromatic air of spice with each sip. The Cantaloupe is a simple cocktail with a complex flavor profile. Muddled cantaloupe acts as the backbone, but it is the shochu, a Japanese liquor that has a distinct flavor that, depending on its origins (potato, rice or barley), can have a mild sake/vodka aura, that gives the drink a truly unique dynamic. A specialty of Imoto is shochu on the rock, a large, spherical ice ball with shochu poured over, which cools the liquor but melts at a much slower rate, not watering down the delicate flavor of the shochu. While Imoto’s sake menu is a veritable who’s’ who of Japan’s finest. And for the night owls, Imoto, like Buccan, keeps the kitchen open late.
Here, palmbeachillustrated.com spoke with Conley on Palm Beach’s culinary scene, the small plates of Imoto and the art of dining.
pbi.com: Where did the inspiration for Imoto come from?
I lived in Japan, while opening Todd English's restaurant and visited on various trips with Todd and when I was working with Azul in Miami. I really fell in love with the way the Japanese respect ingredients, it is just an amazing food culture over there; everyone is so into food. So respect for the ingredients is what I really took away with from there.
How are these ingredients finding their way to Imoto?
We fly stuff in from Japan in daily. The fish out of Japan is just fresher. As fish ages, the texture and flavor changes; if it is really firm then it is super fresh. So we are bringing stuff in from the Tsukji Fish Market [Tokyo] daily. We have a few purveyors over there, working the markets. So I’ll tell them what I’m looking for or they’ll tell me what just came in, and we can get it here quick.
Why small plates?
I just think the small plate concept is a better way to eat. I usually never order an entrée; I like to try as much stuff as I can. Our menus reflect that. But I knew we would have some more traditional clientele that go with a starter, then a large plate, so we have large plates but we kept them ultra simple and clean, like a roasted half chicken or a piece of sword fish. But we also have lots of small plates, so if someone wants a more traditional meal, fine, or they can come in and have a little fun. To each their own; we want to make everybody happy, show everyone a good time.
Do the seasons affect your menu?
We change the menu all the time over here. We try to use as much local ingredients as possible, so that definitely changes things.
Inspiration comes from all over. We just got a smoker over at Buccan so we’re smoking everything right now, making brisket, taking the yellowtail collars from Imoto and making a really cool, Asian-inspired fish dip. Anything can bring on inspiration: new equipment, new ingredients, whatever.
This being a sashimi heavy restaurant, what’s your favorite fish?
Aji, horse mackerel, is my favorite fish to eat raw. We get it from Tsukji. It isn’t really that different, being in the mackerel family, but has a great texture, great flavor and is pretty small. Its an oily fish so have to eat them within two days, so you don’t see it over here all that much, but when they are fresh it’s just awesome.
What about by land?
I love pork. I would prefer a good pork chop to a steak any day. There is just so much you can do with pork.
What’s key to your dishes?
Texture is a huge part of my dishes. I try to pair certain textures to certain flavor profiles; I try to compliment. I don’t want the dish to be overly complex, but simple and clean. That’s probably the best way to describe my dishes, straightforward and not too complicated.
What’s the Palm Beach culinary scene looking like as of late?
Its really opening up, even within the last year. With Cha Cha’s and PB Catch opening this past year, and BrickTop’s and Del Frisco’s coming, Palm Beach is really starting to evolve. People are starting to try new concepts out here, which is a good thing.
Where do you dine locally?
Café Boulud for brunch, I’m there a lot; Victoria’s [Peruvian Cuisine] down in Lantana, really good Peruvian food; Pizzeria Oceano is always good; Oriental Food Market on Dixie [4919 S. Dixie Hwy., West Palm Beach] is awesome, they have really good Thai food; Darbster on Dixie; Chez Jean Pierre on Palm Beach; the Ranch Water at Rocco's Tacos; and Souvlaki Grill in West Palm, it’s a small place but its really good.