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New restaurant: Chef Todd English is in love with West Palm – and plans to stay

Chef Todd English (middle), Tom Prakas (Far Right). Grand opening of Wild Olives in 2009. Boca Raton, FL

In addition to opening Todd’s on Dixie Highway, the celebrity chef hopes to open one of his national concepts in south county.

Todd English walks into his new West Palm Beach restaurant through a rear door on a recent Monday. The restaurant, tucked into the enigmatic EmKo building on South Dixie Highway, is closed and empty on this day. But the space hasn’t looked better in years. Light streams in to catch stylish new furnishings. Pops of deep turquoise velvet, shimmers of white marble and gold are revealed in the once dark, cavernous space that seemed more like an odd mountain lodge than a restaurant.

Light also has been shed on what had been a kind of mystery building. Was it a gallery, a restaurant, a sometimes club? When was it open? Now there are big window signs that read “Todd’s” and “Restaurant and Bar,” and they seem to call out to Dixie Highway, “Hey, someone’s here!” Someone as in a celebrity chef that’s known across the planet.

At night, there are cars pulling up with diners ready for their reservations. Some of them know English from his restaurants and former restaurants in Boston and Nantucket.

English has come to raise up the profile of the place is remarkable. He’s a celebrity chef who has endured his share of controversies, from shuttered concepts to a variety of lawsuits. He’s also the most decorated chef in West Palm Beach at the moment, having earned four James Beard Awards.

As a culinary figure, English may be more brand than working chef these days, thanks to a host of national restaurants, a cookware line and the kind of Blue-Steel charisma the camera loves. But English is also the chef with Culinary Institute of America-earned skills, a coveted spot on the James Beard Foundation’s “Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America” list and, perhaps most importantly, the respect of fellow chefs.

“I worked for Todd for the better part of ten years so there is no one who has influenced me more,” says chef Clay Conley of the restaurant group that owns Buccan, Grato and Imoto.

“Very exciting for the Dixie corridor to have someone of his talents on it, and great for us to have him almost next door,” says Conley. “Talk about full circle!”

Conley’s Grato sits just three blocks north of Todd’s on South Dixie Highway. Both spots are spacious and buzzy. Both serve pizza and pasta inspired by travels. But like the chefs themselves, the restaurants could not be more different. While Grato and Conley’s other concepts are focused on dishes and ingredients, Todd’s presents these elements in a frame that’s very Todd. References to English, or “T. E.,” are all over the menu, and maybe that’s the attraction for those who flock to the celebrity chef’s restaurants.

Then again, “T. E.” is not just the guy who turned on the lights here — he’s the guy who brought to life a full-on restaurant and bar concept that includes a fancy new pizza oven, an Argentinian wood grill for alfresco grilling, a back-alley taco stand, weekend wee-hours of house-music chill, and a sense of purpose to just about every sleek and lounge-y corner of this 25,000-square-foot complex.

Delray dream

Yes, that amounts to quite a commitment for English. But the chef/restaurateur says he is not just here to open Todd’s. He’s here to make a new home in Palm Beach County. He’s looking for a residence in West Palm Beach. He’s playing at PGA National with his golf buddies. And he’s eyeing some locations for a new restaurant in Delray Beach, where he hopes to bring “some incarnation” of his Figs bistro brand.

“It would be casual, fun, everyday kind of stuff,” says English, who is drawn to Delray’s lively energy. “Every restaurant I’ve been to down there (Delray) is just rocking.”

He says he hopes to open the Delray spot at the end of this year or in early 2020.

Figs, if you’ll recall, operated a cozy location at The Gardens Mall. But despite those dreamy asparagus frites, the place closed in 2016 after a seven-year run. Another one of English’s concepts, Wild Olives, met the same fate. It opened in Boca Raton in 2009 and closed two years later. A Wild Olives location in the former CityPlace had a year’s run after opening in 2010.

“I had done a not-so-great relationship with the franchise at CityPlace. It wasn’t the right timing for that. Sometimes things work out. Sometimes they don’t,” says English.

He opened Todd’s by Todd English, a new concept for his restaurant group, in mid-January. A mutual friend had introduced him to local artist Leo Koel, who founded the EmKo art/food project in 2015. When it first opened, EmKo’s original restaurant Jereve served stunning modern plates by executive chef Nick Martinkovic. But the chef departed a year later and the restaurant operated in a kind of limbo.

Enter Todd English.

“I walked into this space and went, ‘wow!’ There’s something about it that I just love. This is a former 1920s car showroom,” English says of the space that once housed a showroom for The Museum at Ragtops Motorcars. “You can just imagine what it was like in those days, Model Ts and whatever else. I just loved the whole Gatsby, Roaring 20s feeling of it.”

English says he fell in love with more than the restaurant building, which sits between Claremore and Biscayne drives in Flamingo Park. “I studied the larger area, especially El Cid. I just love it,” he says. “I’ve been to Palm Beach a lot, but I had not spent a significant amount of time here in West Palm.”

Once he committed to the Todd’s project — “They had to talk me into it” — English says the process of planning the menu and ambience “just became sort of fun.”

“We took the things I’ve been doing for all these years and put them in a little pot and stirred them around to see what comes out. It’s still evolving,” says English, who describes the concept as “American eclectic.”

“It’s meant to be something that could be special occasion or it could be fun, modern, like, come in and have a snack at the bar or a nice glass of wine and then off you go,” says English, who is tapping into his longtime New England purveyors to supply much of Todd’s seafood. (“I’m a big fan of Nantucket scallops,” he says.)

English wrote the menu with input from a couple of his chefs. “Some of the dishes, I’ve been doing them for 30 years,” he says.

Those who have followed his restaurants and dishes may recognize English classics like the Old School Tuscan Bolognese that’s made with veal, beef and pork, and the tortelli of butternut squash with brown butter and sage that Todd’s sometimes runs as a special. It’s a dish English learned to make while cooking in Italy in the early 1980s, fresh out of culinary school.

There’s also the popular white chocolate challah bread pudding that he described this way in his 1998 “Figs Table” cookbook: “Luscious, smooth, and sensual, it’s like sex on a spoon. We see people acting like Meg Ryan in the movie ‘When Harry Met Sally,’ and it’s not uncommon for others to tell the waitstaff: ‘I’ll have whatever she’s having.’”

  • Located at 2119 S. Dixie Hwy, West Palm Beach; 561-227-3511 ext. 1

  • Open for Happy Hour and dinner Tuesday through Sunday at 5 p.m. Reservations are accepted via OpenTable.com.