At Sassafras in West Palm Beach you'll find more than just a nod to Southern soul food.
Here, you'll also find a chef with an ethos dedicated to reviving the spirit of the South — and its global counterparts — in every dish he creates.
Throughout his career, Sassafras executive chef John Thomas has worked with some of Palm Beach County's finest restaurateurs, most notably with Delray Beach's 32 East alongside revered South Florida chef Nick Morfogen to his time spent with Clay Conley at Buccan in Palm Beach.
Now, as a chef of equal caliber in his own right, Thomas helms the open kitchen at Sassafras alongside chefs James Feola and Edison Ramirez, offering local foodies in search of some Southern-inspired fare a taste of something truly unique.
"My goal is to help people understand what Southern cuisine truly is — it’s not a homogeneous style," explains Thomas. "Southern food, at its core, can be traced to Africa. But it's also food I identify with, and grew up with. For that reason, I cook Southern with reverence and respect for its history. It's food that has both a story and a soul."
Thomas explains there is both a “traditional" and "recognizable” element to the Sassafras menu. You'll find classics like Chicken and Dumplings, Gumbo, and Hush Puppies. But you'll also find touches of Asian, Mediterranean, Italian, and French cuisine when you read between the lines of the various small plates and specialty dishes, presenting Thomas' global approach to Southern cuisine — along with touch of Florida influence.
"I really don’t keep myself tied down to simply Southern," explains Thomas. "I'm also pulling inspiration globally, getting innovative while offering a local vibe wherever I can. I like to show people how you can draw parallels between different latitudes when it comes to cuisine. If you’re in North Carolina, for example, that latitude can be stretched across the world to Korea."
Take the Fried Green Tomatoes, served with an Italian twist thanks to a creamy buttermilk ricotta and Calabrian chile honey. Or the house favorite snack, Crispy Chicken Skins, fried and flavored with a new twist every few months. Once it was cacio e pepe, but these days it might be Flamin' Hot Cheetos paired with a housemade herb ranch dressing. Wash them down with the Florida Sun Tea, a cocktail prepared with peach-infused vodka, alfalfa sun tea, lemon, and sweetened with honey.
Some classics remain straightforward, however, from the Crispy Chicken Sandwich that can be decked out Nashville-style hot or remain OG plain, a topped with pimento cheese and chow-chow, a pickled relish of chopped bell peppers, green tomatoes, sweet onions, and cabbage cooked down to a jammy consistency. House-made Jalapeno Cheddar Sausage is a Texas staple, pork that's cut and ground in-house and smoked at Craft American Ale Works next door. Order them with a side of Betty's Baked Beans, a recipe Thomas took from his grandmother. Spotlights, of course, include the Fried Chicken.
Legs, drums, and thighs are sweet tea-brined for eight hours and soaked in buttermilk for another hour before being seasoned in a flour, cornmeal, and a proprietary blend of spices. Fried to order, each piece takes a quick dunk in the kitchen's own Henny Penny pressure fryer, sealing the natural juices. The chicken is served with local honey, house-made pickles, piment d’Espelette, and a cheddar bisucit. It also comes as a two-piece meal on Wednesday when — for $15 — you'll receive a plate with two sides and half-off glasses of bubbly during the restaurant's all-day Bubbles and Bird special.
No self-respecting Southern restaurant can forget to add Local Shrimp and Grits to its menu. At Sassafras, it's also one dish that perfectly showcases Thomas' intent. The chef tries to get as far away from the industrial food chain as possible, a task made easier by the plethora of local ingredients, including Florida-sourced shrimp, and regionally-sourced grits that offer a taste of heritage grains.
Despite the hardship of the pandemic, Thomas remains passionate about delivering local ingredients whenever possible, featuring items from the region, as well as the West Palm Beach Green Market and local farms. Today, nearly every Sassafras dish confirms his dedication to offering a truly fresh-and-regional focus, with sides like the Kai-Kai Farm pole beans to the fresh Florida oysters from Treasure Coast Shellfish, where you can get local Sebastian Silvers for just $1 each every Thursday.
Outside Florida, specialty sourcing includes heritage grains milled by the artisans at Marsh Hen Mill in South Carolina, from the grits to a Carolina gold rice that appears in a number of dishes for its chameleon-like properties. It's clean, sweet flavor produces sticky rice for the Dirty Rice Arincini, soaks up the spices found in the Sassafras Gumbo, and delivers a creamy Cracked Farro Risotto. And, of course, the course-ground hominy that makes those creamy grits, with shrimp sourced from Florida bay waters.
"Everyone's world got turned upside down with COVID, and the experience over the course of the past year has given me a lot of humility," summarizes Thomas. "Now, I've learned to take a step back, look at the big picture. The pandemic put a new perspective on the work I do, and what's really important. Our lives, our families, and our communities are where the value lies, and enjoying those things through food is something I try to bring to my work every day."
Sassafras offers a daily happy hour from 5 to 7 p.m. with half-priced drinks and $5 bites. Brunch is served Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Hours are Wednesday and Thursday from 5 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 5 p.m. to midnight, and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Sassafras. 105 S Narcissus Ave., West Palm Beach; 561-323-7007; sassafraswpb.com.