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In Life on Mars, novelist-journalist Alexander Stuart's nonfiction account of his somewhat bizarre experiences in eclectic South Florida, he dedicates one chapter to the romance of turn-of-the-century train travel. Having "chanced upon a gleaming, polished-bronze, private Pullman carriage from another era... unhitched to any engine" while waiting for a friend's Amtrak train to arrive, he "mused for a while on what it might be like to travel America in this gem."
If Stuart had stuck around after his book was published in 1996 instead of hightailing it to Los Angeles to work on a screenplay, he would have been able to do more than muse. He could have eaten at the year-old Hoot, Toot & Whistle on Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach. Billed as a "serious train restaurant" by its owners, Stephen and Margaret Hall and their partners, it isn't one of those theme restaurants, with memorabilia crammed into every corner and cutesy menu items. But HTW does have a motif running through it -- almost literally.
Located next to actual railroad tracks, the upscale eatery practically vibrates when the cargo trains occasionally go by. Plus, the 150-seat main dining room, positioned behind a 50-seat bar-dining area known as "the bistro," is a replica of an Orient Express dining car circa 1930. Long and narrow, with booths lining one wall and white linen-covered tables set against the other, the dining car evokes the elegance of a bygone era.
But Stuart probably wouldn't appreciate the Grateful Dead soundtrack or the unevenly executed fare, despite the thoughtful match of Continental menu to ambiance. To some extent the cuisine reflects the backgrounds of chef-proprietor Stephen Hall and executive chef Ward Martin. They met in Atlantic City, where Hall was director of culinary at the Trump Taj Mahal, Martin the operating chef. Coincidentally they also worked, at different times, at the Boca Raton Club and Resort.
The hospitality training explains the complimentary crudites: carrot and celery sticks, bread-and-butter pickles, and olives. I don't think I've been served crudites since the last bar mitzvah I attended. HTW updates the vegetables with a side of horseradish-cheddar cheese dip and a basket of freshly baked bread.
The hotel mentality may also account for the blackened tuna appetizer, which featured slices of spiced fish as tough and cold as a Chicago winter. Our suspicions were confirmed by the waiter: He told us that the chef had seared the fish first, then thrust it into the fridge so he "could slice it more easily. Otherwise it falls apart." If the tuna had been served with crispy edges at room temperature, we would have bought that explanation. But the excessively chilled fish tasted flabby, and the blackened edges were as soft as mush. An array of condiments -- ginger, wasabi, and ponzu sauce -- didn't help, but a delicious carrot, cabbage, and bell pepper chow-chow (vegetable relish) compensated slightly.
While the restaurant's refrigerator is certainly in working order, the menu proudly proclaims that HTW doesn't have a freezer. We decided to test that claim by ordering stone crabs as a market-price precursor to our meal. The four large claws yielded plump flesh that didn't taste frozen, but it was a little watery. A nice, mellow touch was the "traditional mustard sauce," which had a sticky quality to it, as if it had been sweetened with honey.
Two hot starters were far superior. Lobster bisque was a rosy delight, accented with sherry cream and succulent bits of the shellfish. And the wild mushroom-and-shallot tart was excellent, the meaty mushrooms complemented by the mild, sauteed shallots. The flaky crust was rich with butter, and a roasted red-pepper coulis sparkled on the plate.
I know it's difficult to offer entrees like roasted duck without precooking the bird somewhat, but the bird we were served had been killed twice: once by the butcher, the second time by the chef. The meat was stringy and dry, the extra-crisp skin charred in places. The classic orange sauce, meanwhile, was masterfully subtle, and the side dish of pecan and wild rice featured large nuts and springy grains. The vegetables of the day -- shredded carrots flecked with dill and sugar snaps glazed with butter and garlic -- were perfectly fresh. They were served with each of the entrees.
Another dish we struggled with was the salmon special. A large fillet had been prepared the same way as veal Continental (a menu option), with fresh asparagus and lump crabmeat in a bearnaise sauce. Unfortunately the fish was badly burned, and the ingredients in the sauce didn't jell. We sent the dish back, without protest from the waiter. We later discovered, to the management's credit, that the entree had been deleted from the bill, no questions asked. Our waiter was unfailingly polite throughout the meal, which is evidence of training one would expect from the real Orient Express.
In contrast to the disastrous salmon, the pecan-crusted yellowtail snapper was superb. The pan-sauteed fillet was tender and quilted with crushed pecans. Softening the fish just slightly was a fragrant, creamy, lemon-butter sauce.
Another winner was a hefty pork chop barbecued with Jack Daniel's whiskey. The delicious chop was smothered with a fruity apple-raisin chutney. On the side, a tremendous scoop of "smashed" sweet potatoes was smooth and fiber-free -- a perfect base to soak up the liquored juices.
Our uneven ride continued with the dessert course. Creme brulee also tasted like it had alcohol in it, and while the burnt sugar crust was warm, the custard was still cold. A better bet was the slice of chocolate pecan pie, which was large and hearty with huge, chocolate-laced nuts.
In more ways that one, HTW is a shaky operation. Most of the reviews hanging on the walls, for example, are for other restaurants for which Hall has worked, and the kitchen seems to have its own shorthand. Stuart writes in his book that the Pullman carriage he adored was eventually destroyed by Hurricane Andrew. Unless some are improvements are made, Hoot, Toot & Whistle won't need a strong storm to knock it over.
Hoot, Toot & Whistle. 290 E. Atlantic Ave., Delray Beach, 561-243-0140. Dinner Sunday-Thursday from 5 p.m. to midnight; Friday and Saturday until 2 a.m.