The Lip of Luxury

You make a commitment to part with a significant amount of cash when you give your car keys to the young man handling the valet parking outside what may be the trendiest restaurant in Palm Beach. Any other time of year, that same young man would probably look you up and down and, with wincing disapproval, ask, "Do you have a reservation?" If you didn't, he'd quickly inform you that the place is absolutely booked up -- what with billionaire Ron Perelman entertaining a big party in one corner, singer Rod Stewart cavorting with friends in another, and coach Pat Riley toasting the Miami Heat way in back.

It could have happened that way on my visit -- that is if it weren't a sweltering Monday in mid-June and all the shrub-enclosed winter palaces weren't shuttered, and all the ladies who lunch weren't somewhere up north, in the Hamptons perhaps. In mid-June, members of the staff treat you swimmingly. They find you a table near the window in the sparsely populated dining room where a wilted bird of paradise droops over the rim of a vase and boisterous, bright red tropical flowers envelope a corner of the bar. They gladly fill your glass with water and bring warm, spongy focaccia to your table. They take your order with good cheer and treat you like a member of the landed gentry who fill these same tables every night in season.

Yes, summer is a splendid time to visit Galaxy Grille in Palm Beach, reportedly the hottest spot on or around Worth Avenue (the Rodeo Drive of Palm Beach) last winter. Although dining like an heir to a vast fortune may cost you a month's rent, it doesn't have to at Galaxy Grille, which serves large, even enormous, portions of simple yet luxurious fare in a setting that is at once casual and regal. In fact the portions are so large, you can get away with ordering a glass of wine and a main course and maybe sharing an appetizer. During the off-season -- i.e., right now -- real bargain-hunters may do even better by dropping in before 7 p.m. for the restaurant's early-bird special. Of course they wouldn't think of calling it an "early bird" at Galaxy Grille, but that's just what it is, a full dinner (appetizer, main course, glass of wine, dessert, and coffee) for the price of an entree. Then again, you can also pull out all the stops and order a bottle of Chateau Latour 1988, at $395 per bottle, and a two-and-a-half-pound steamed lobster.

With such a steep decline in business during the summer months, chef-owner Glen Manfra and his partner, Maurizio Ciminella, are more than happy to welcome patrons into their spacious, comfortable restaurant, which opened less than two years ago on South County Road. Galaxy Grille is just up the street from the Italian restaurant Amici, the duo's first venture, at the moment considered the second trendiest restaurant in Palm Beach.

I visited Galaxy Grille with a friend from up north, a refugee from Manhattan's very posh Upper East Side who is considerably more accustomed to dining among the masters of the universe than me. There didn't appear to be too many off-islanders in the place. Occupying one of the semicircular banquettes that are flush against the far wall were Mr. and Mrs. Howell, or very good likenesses of the TV icons. At the table adjacent to the very bored old couple was a very bored young family, the husband spooning filet mignon into the mouth of a young child. Filling the front of the room were table after table of self-confident older gentlemen wearing very expensive suits and puffing on big cigars and sipping Scotch whisky.

And then there were my dinner companion and I, a couple of young writers. Our lowly place in the financial scheme of things didn't seem to matter to the young waiter-waitress tag team who waited on us with the attention of personal servants. Mere seconds after a sip of wine, they would materialize from the shadows to pour a refill. At one point my friend left her cloth napkin in an unruly clump on her plate as she disappeared into the bathroom. Suddenly the waitress appeared, tenderly folded the napkin into an upright triangle, and was gone. (A trip to the restaurant's restrooms, by the way, includes a free French lesson. An instructional tape, featuring a man's voice, is piped in above the sink, spilling sentences in French and instructing you to "repetez.")

The food at Galaxy Grille is as refined as the service. The menu is a cross-cultural melange of Asian and Mediterranean influences with a strong emphasis on seafood. We sampled appetizers from both sides of the world. On the Asian side, crisp seafood spring rolls arrived as a half-dozen small spring-roll halves piled atop a bed of mixed baby greens and accompanied by a sweet and spicy fruit sauce. The spring rolls, which appear to be the most exotic appetizer on the menu (the wealthiest diners are not necessarily the most adventurous), were plump with calamari, shrimp, scallops, and shredded vegetables. On the Mediterranean (and vegetarian) side, we tried the grilled eggplant with roasted red peppers, basil, and goat cheese. The tender grilled slices of eggplant, arranged like the petals of a flower, were simple but satisfying.

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