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By Candace West
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It was after dinner, while waiting for the valet to retrieve our car, that we got confirmation on what we already knew about Aquaterra, the much anticipated Palm Beach restaurant located on Sunrise Avenue across from the Palm Beach Hotel. As other patrons milled about, waiting for their cars, the critiques started to flow.
"We sent it back twice," one man sniffed.
"Just awful," another woman complained.
"Disappointing," I told a dining companion, and soon we were all talking to each other about our ill-prepared meals.
Prior to the meal, the thought that I'd be commiserating with fellow diners about its lack of finesse never entered my mind. Given its elite pedigree, Aquaterra seemed destined to succeed. Press reports had been nothing but positive.
Owned by internationally renowned restaurateur Charlie Palmer and his business partner, Oliver Grace, Aquaterra opened two months ago in a largely residential section of Palm Beach, not far from bustling Worth Avenue. Based in New York City, Palmer is an award-winning chef who was recently featured in Gourmet magazine. His popular Manhattan restaurants include Aureole, Astra, Alva, and the Lenox Room. He also owns the Egg Farm Dairy in Peekskill, New York, which produces widely praised cheddar and muscoot cheeses for use in his restaurants.
So perhaps these days Palmer is spreading himself thinner than the clabber cream made at his dairy farm. He shows up about once a month at Aquaterra, where the kitchen is left in the hands of chefs Joseph and Megan Romano, a husband-and-wife team who worked for years at Aureole. Despite their joint experience -- Joe is a Culinary Institute of America graduate, and Megan also worked at Lespinasse, another premier New York restaurant -- what should have been Aquaterrific was, on the night I visited, Aquaterrible.
Surprised that I could secure a Saturday-night reservation midweek, I was shocked that I was allowed to change that reservation at the last minute. (Aureole is so busy it has two phone numbers: one for future reservations, the other for same-day requests, which are usually met with a chuckle and and a referral back to the other line.) The 150-seat Aquaterra was busy but not packed when we were seated, so we probably should have requested a table change after we were led to a sunken banquette along one of the walls. Our chins practically level with the table, we must have looked like dolls as we jokingly ordered phone books to sit on.
"Seriously, but we can do that," the server said. "There was a design flaw. Cushions are on the way."
While our booth was unintentionally funky, the idea behind the dining-room design was deliberate. Scattered across the multilayered ceiling were elliptical cutouts revealing spotlights. On the white walls were colorful paintings produced for the restaurant by Mark Hess. Each features a food item, such as a trout, hovering above an earthy landscape; hence, Aqua + terra. Prints are available at the register, as are Palmer's bottled Aureole Good Taste products.
The marketing bonanza sets the tone for Aquaterra's menu, described at the top as "a celebration of American bounty; harvested, as the name implies, from the sea and the land." The multiple-choice menu made us dizzy. Starters, for example, may be ordered as "half-dozens," meaning six pieces for the entire table, or simply "appetizers." Entrees provide a choice of meat or fish, each prepared in one of three ways. That means you can get salmon, swordfish, or yellowfin tuna fillet grilled with caramelized lemon, olive oil, and parsley; or roasted with cioppino sauce; or sauteed with tomato-caper-infused brown butter. If you prefer chicken, lamb loin, or filet mignon, try it au jus and grilled with sweet red onion; or roasted with barbecue sauce and garlic confit; or sauteed with wild mushroom ragout. Ten side dishes are priced a la carte.
Opinions on the starters were mixed. The "half-dozens" arrived so quickly I wondered if there were a catering operation in the kitchen, which would explain the pre-prepared taste of the charred beef skewers with peanut sauce. The thin, lukewarm slices of beef were salty enough to revive a Miami Dolphin practicing in full gear in the preseason August heat. A dip in the thick, over-seasoned peanut sauce didn't help the thirst factor, either.
A much better choice was sweet garlic and navy bean fritters. The golden brown fritters were light, puffy, and grease-free. And although the fluffy insides, like mashed potatoes, were somewhat bland, a tasty mustard condiment boosted the flavor level.
From the "appetizers" section, we chose an "open ravioli" with grilled vegetables and Parmesan broth. The open ravioli consisted of two pasta rounds a bit more al dente than we would have liked. Softened by the broth, the eggplant, zucchini, and summer squash still retained the slight singe from the grill. The dish wasn't particularly inspired, but it was decent.
A more accomplished appetizer was crisp oysters with remoulade. Large and moist, the battered, deep-fried oysters were architecturally arranged over a terrine-shaped potato salad. A drizzled remoulade napped the oysters, which were terrific. While the potato salad lacked character, the idea behind the dish -- backyard Southern fare -- worked for me.
The meal fell apart during the main course. After the kitchen's quick response with the appetizers, we anticipated a similar presentation of entrees. Forty-five minutes later, three arrived, but the fourth, sea bass, didn't show up for another few minutes. The sea bass is prepared only one way, as a thick fillet braised in a basil bouillon and propped over fragrant fennel root. Unfortunately it had to be sent back. The menu warns that the kitchen prepares fish "slightly underdone," but this fish was downright raw, ice-cold in the middle and rubbery.
Which leads me to a pet peeve: I appreciate the suppleness of sushi-quality tuna, the tenderness of rare salmon, the juiciness of an underdone swordfish steak. But, trend or no, not all fish tastes best bloody in the middle. Given more fire the sea bass was returned only a tad more cooked, which made it edible but not enjoyable, with parts of it still too chewy.
"Chewy" wasn't the word for the next two selections, which we feared would result in extensive dental work. One dish consisted of two inch-thick slices of pork loin roasted in a barbecue sauce and garlic confit. The confit part of the recipe couldn't be identified, but the barbecue sauce was rich and tangy. The pork loin, however, was hard and dry enough to build a house on. And the veal mignon, two smallish sections of beef, was also construction material. The veal was au jus and grilled with red onion, but the smattering of sauteed onions laid on top did nothing to soften the overdone meat. Both meat dishes were arranged over heaps of sauteed leaf spinach, which featured salt as its main ingredient.
The best dish was the pasta of the day: farfalle, or butterfly-shaped noodles, dressed with pencil asparagus and chunks of tomatoes and featuring beautifully succulent rock shrimp. A pleasant, buttery sauce united the pasta with the shrimp and vegetables.
Ranging from $4 to $5, the side dishes were a uniform travesty. Gray in color, the Parmesan risotto tasted as if it had been sitting around for a while. Ditto the potato-onion tart dusted with bacon stale enough to roof that pork-and-veal house. Tamarind baked-beans were firm pintos, but the infusion of tart tamarind was overwhelming, causing the mouth to pucker. And the pencil asparagus, in a smooth and artful balsamic glaze, were missing their feathery tops.
We tried to soothe our still-hungry souls with two special desserts, but the attempt failed. The chocolate-chip sour cream pound cake, a mini bundt covered in chocolate, was refrigerator hard, although a blast of orange-y Grand Marnier sauce and icy tangerine sorbet were refreshing partners. Blueberry cobbler, described by our server as traditional, was more like a granola bar, grainy and barely fruity, topped with a scoop of blackberry sorbet.
We had plenty of time to contemplate and discuss the disastrous meal after we paid our check and waited patiently for the valet to get our car. Finally, he drove down the ramp -- in the wrong car. When we made no move to get in, he double-checked the number, realized his mistake, and reversed his way up the ramp. Another valet jogged after him -- to make sure he got it right this time, I suppose.
"Rookies," he called over his shoulder. "What can you do?"
Train them -- as a celebrated chef-owner should his kitchen staff, especially if he's not going to be around enough of the time to make sure they get it right.
230 Sunrise Ave., Palm Beach, 561-366-4000. Breakfast and lunch Tuesday-Sunday from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner nightly from 5 to 11 p.m.
Charred beef skewers with peanut sauce
Crisp oysters with remoulade