A Mouthful of Nostalgia

The weather people predicted it, and for a change they were right: A couple weeks ago, a cold front swept through South Florida, edging out the sunshine and reminding us that it is indeed flu season. The clouds rolled in, and the wind was the kind that makes you want to cuddle up to your sweetie in a cozy little restaurant and feast on homemade meat loaf, pot roast, and macaroni and cheese -- you know, the comfort foods Mom, or maybe Grandma, cooked for you during the doldrums of winter, cuisine that's absolutely perfect when the temperature drops to... 75 degrees.

OK, so maybe Florida is called the Sunshine State for a reason, and even cold fronts don't rock speedboats and cruise ships too much (though I have seen some fur coats hauled from among the mothballs for such occasions). Taking our temperate temperatures into consideration, then, comfort food -- that hot, heavy stuff with a long shelf life -- is something of an oxymoron. Like jumbo shrimp.

Enter Lucille's American Cafe in Weston, a reasonably priced, upscale diner where the sign sports the subtitle "Foods That Comfort." Proprietors Craig and Karin Larson, who own a restaurant-catering company called Crazy From the Heat, deliberately geared the menu toward fare any self-respecting bathing beauty should shun: pork chops and applesauce, chili, onion rings, banana splits. They'd have to be a little nuts to think this stuff would fly in the plastic surgery mecca of the United States, right?

Nope, says general manager Paul Nunez. "We think there's a need for [comfort food]. We've seen the resurgence in classic diners. The diner appeals to people; the simple menu is easy to understand, there's plenty of choices, and of course [there's] the [low] pricing.... But most diners don't seem quality-focused and consistent. They might have five great items, but they'll also have five terrible ones. We want every item to be great."

Pretty high standards for a diner, but then that's the kind of benchmark for which I expect every restaurant -- casual or otherwise -- to strive. Otherwise why be in business? The attitude seems to be working. Since it opened in early January, Lucille's has been mobbed with Westonians who turn up remodeled noses at pricier restaurants but stand in line for this updated, old-fashioned chow.

I expected nothing less from the Larsons, who run the two Bistro Zeniths and Lucille's Bad to the Bone BBQ, all popular restaurants in Palm Beach County. Each Bistro Zenith serves the kinds of complicated dishes Lucille's shuns, and Bad to the Bone offers great ribs. Because of their successes, the Larsons know just what to leave in and what to leave out. So while you won't find any roasted garlic or wasabi-infused mayonnaise at Lucille's American Cafe, you will come across a pungent blue cheese dressing, which, unfortunately, was served with a frosty house salad. (Perhaps the refrigerator temperature needs some adjusting.) And the barbecue sauce, sweet and piquant with minced onions, enhanced the extremely tender baby-back ribs.

Frozen lettuce was the biggest faux pas of the evening. Otherwise we had only minor complaints: The marinara sauce served with the fried calamari appetizer was too chunky with undercooked garlic; the torpedo roll sandwiching an eight-ounce cut of prime rib was overly toasted; and the seasoning used to coat the "black and blue burger" was a trifle too salty. But the squid was both succulent and greaseless, and the prime rib, which is also available as a 12- or 16-ounce entree, was beautifully medium-rare and soft as a snow bank. We especially liked the hamburger, which was topped with broiled blue cheese and presented, like the prime rib sandwich, with a pile of crisp French fries. The zesty blackening spice and the pungent cheese were a combination that precluded adding ketchup.

Unless, of course, you're talking about the homemade ketchup Lucille's serves with its hand-sliced potato chips (appetizer or side dish). Nunez wants patrons to consider dinner at the cafe a "home meal replacement." But I gotta tell you, my mom (and grandma, for that matter) never made me ketchup from scratch; the closest she came was adding water to the inch of Heinz stuck at the bottom of the bottle to loosen it up. Potato chips she wouldn't even buy until I was a teenager, which explains why I'm addicted to them now. Lucille's version -- browned quickly in the deep fryer, then salted just so -- satisfies my craving. The ketchup requires a little getting used to; it's more like beefsteak tomato puree than the rich, pasty condiment in the squeeze bottle. But it's delicious nonetheless. Perhaps Nunez should start calling the fare "home meal enhancement."

Attention to detail shows up in other ways. For instance, potatoes are baked every 15 minutes. If that sounds wasteful, it isn't: Unused potatoes become potato skins, meaty starters mounded with melted cheddar cheese and sour cream. Chopped applewood bacon and scallions dot the skins as generously as gravel strewn on an icy road. The restaurant also serves a prodigious amount of creamy mashed potatoes, accompanying everything from the slow-roasted lamb shank to the Sunday roast turkey dinner, which was sold out the night we dined. The one dish I thought for sure would include spuds, however, was devoid of them. Instead, parsnips -- root vegetables similar to, but starchier than, carrots -- were rife in the chicken potpie. Carrots, celery, and peas, not to mention supple white- and dark-meat boneless chicken, joined the parsnips under a masterful pastry crust. Forget comfort food -- this pie was hotter than a steam room. When I couldn't finish the extra-large portion, I took the rest with me in a container that was still smoking by the time I got home.

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