By Jan Norris
Editor, Florida Food and Farm
Julien Gremaud was closing in on the finishing touches of his new downtown West Palm Beach restaurant, Avocado Grill. He was hiring in preparation for the opening two weeks away.
We caught up with the former executive chef of Pistache, now out on his own, during construction to talk about the new venture.
I stepped around tools, building materials and workers on ladders to get a tour of the large room.
“We’re improving the space throughout,” he said. An open kitchen still remains from the days of previous restaurants, but the bar, which swooped into the dining room, is smaller to allow tables and more dining seating.
The “casual, sophisticated” restaurant’s theme is avocados, symbolizing fresh Florida foods with a healthy profile.
“They’re a superfood, too, and I just love them – I think they are what a Florida lifestyle is about.”
The location on the waterfront was perfect for his idea, he said. “As soon as I saw this space, we wanted to brighten it. It screams healthy food, great cocktails, wine and sharing plates of food.”
It’s what today’s diners want, he said.
“People want to eat healthier today. And lighter foods – especially in South Florida. When it’s 100 degrees outside, you want something more refreshing.
“It’s how they eat in Italy. It’s all about the climate,” he said. It’s the same in Saint-Tropez, his hometown in coastal France.
Small plates the new format
He sees most restaurants using a new menu format in the near future.
“I strongly believe we will lose the traditional concept of appetizer, main dish and dessert as a meal,” he said. “Small plates are the way it is going to be in the future. The great thing about them is you get to taste different creations all in one meal and discover new flavors.”
It also plays off the social aspect of sharing a meal with friends and talking to one another – slowing down and actually having conversations, he said. A large table in the bar area is for communal seating.
“Everything we do comes in coquottes (small casserole containers), and individual ramekins set in the middle of the table.”
Flavors for the dishes will be drawn from other sun-drenched countries around the Mediterranean, Asia and South America, he said.
He stops to peel back a sheet of thick plastic to show off a communal table for the bar area, made of recycled ship’s wood. Gremaud is overseeing all aspects of the décor.
“It’s part of a hulk of a Balinese ship – over 100 years old. The wood is so beautiful.” A faint layer of paint still shows through – put on to protect the wood, he said. “I love the old wood and iron,” he said. “It has history.”
That’s also a form of recycling, he figures, which fits into his theme of earth-friendly foods.
A stainless steel raw bar will be next to the drinks area. “We’ll have fresh oysters, but we’ll shuck them in the back. It’s a beautiful open kitchen so you can see it all right there.”
Grimaud scoured antique shops, flea markets and stores to find décor and serving pieces.
He smiles broadly telling of his recent trip to his native France, where he took time off to get engaged – all while shopping for the restaurant.
Hand-molded tile for the bar was another quest. “It’s everywhere in Europe, but you don’t find it here.”
He located only one man doing them in Miami – and he’s eight months out in orders, Gremaud said. Though he could have bought them off the Internet, he chose to go with the local artisan as part of his commitment to buying local whenever possible.
Local artisans and food producers will be a large part of the restaurant, he said.
“I’ll buy bread from a local bakery and try to support the local community. But, if you do only farm-to-table, you will have a very limited menu. You can’t get certain things here in summer and some things not at all.”
Artichokes aren’t grown in Florida, yet he wants crispy artichoke hearts on his menu.
He’s partnering with local produce buyer Joe Scalisi to create the seasonally inspired menu and source products in season found on local farms.
“He’ll juggle the information and see who has what. I want to eventually build up relationships with the farmers,” Grenaud said.
The sources of the ingredients will be listed on the menu whenever possible.
The menu is divided into eight categories – avocado, salads, vegetables, land, sea, pasta, sushi and large plates.
Sushi will be only rolls, and not the usual, he said.
While there will be vegetable plates on the menu, and some gluten-free foods, “I will not be focused on vegan dishes,” he said. “There will be a wide list of vegetables to choose, and of course, six or seven preparations with avocadoes.”
Beverages get their own craft treatment – cocktails made with infusions made in-house, and fresh juices for drinks like a kiwi-basil margarita. “We’ll be using things like coconut milk and yuzu in some.”
He’s hoping it all catches quickly.
“I’ve had plenty of time to prepare. It will be approachable and I think people will like it,” he said. “I hope they do.”
Avocado Grill, 125 Datura St., West Palm Beach, FL; 561-623-0822; avocadogrill.com – Open for dinner daily.