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East City Bistro

My sister-in-law had an interesting experience at Darrel & Oliver's Café Maxx in Pompano Beach the other week. She and her husband had gone to celebrate her birthday. They ordered a three-course meal and then, not feeling up to wine or champagne, decided to have a beer. But they changed their minds when they saw the beer list, which I'll just say is limited to a couple of familiar bottles.

My sister-in-law Jill is not about to let something slide when it can be improved upon, so she noted to the waiter that there are plenty of microbrews out there that really complement fine food. He concurred but added that the owners didn't want Café Maxx to "be known for its beer list."

Frankly I don't see why not, because I agree with Jill. American beer has been refined just short of having been sent to charm school. Restaurants these days pride themselves on their beers, and some of my favorite upscale haunts even offer brew master's dinners, where a different ale, lager, or stout is served with every course. Stocking a few good microbrews certainly wouldn't harm Café Maxx's practically untouchable reputation as a bastion of haute cuisine.

Chef Giani Respinto ladels out a third serving of Darrel and Oliver to South Florida
Melissa Jones
Chef Giani Respinto ladels out a third serving of Darrel and Oliver to South Florida

On the other hand, I think I understand the point of view of co-proprietors Darrel Broek, who runs the front of the house, and Oliver Saucy, who is the chef. These two men, in business together for more than a decade, have formed a restaurant company called Unique Restaurant Concepts. Concepts is the key word, but it's used rather loosely in connection with the company's first two restaurants. The theory behind Café Maxx is clearly that elegance must reign, which excludes the brewski from a position of prominence. In the case of the company's second restaurant, the very successful East City Grill, the idea was to bring fine dining to the casual Fort Lauderdale Beach area, which at the time -- the mid '90s -- was suffering from culinary drought.

East City Bistro, the company's new eatery on Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach, presents the duo's most crystallized vision yet: a casual, let's drop-by-after-the-movies atmosphere. The pair took over a vacant restaurant, formerly Luna's, on the ground floor of an office-building-cum-mall. They redid the interior, adding booths with black-and-white upholstery, tables of polished warm wood, and a carpet in front of the fireplace. A large bar area is furnished with high, round tables that are big enough for a party of four to dine on.

Broek and Saucy seem determined to offer quality dishes at agreeable prices but under cutesy menu headings like "Satisfying Salads," "Sides and Such," and "Main Street and Main." (Huh?) Even individual menu items get a touch of the adorable, with names like "unassuming mélange of organic field greens" and "Did someone say filet mignon?" The menu also notes, "Grape news! Ask about our fabulous wines by the glass and microbrews!" (There's my sister-in-law's answer to why Café Maxx doesn't want to be known for its beer list -- it might chip away at East City Bistro's niche.) The proprietors already have plans to open a second East City Bistro in Vero Beach. I smell theme, and it's not exactly a disagreeable odor. It's just that these attempts at playfulness seem forced.

There are some practical kinks to work out, too, and one of them should be addressed immediately. In its studied effort to feel laid-back, East City Bistro takes reservations only for parties of six or more. Perhaps Broek and Saucy underestimate the pull of their reputation, but the place is going to have to start taking reservations, if only on weekends. We were handed a plastic beeper, an oddity in itself (is this BeachPlace?), and waited more than an hour for it to go off; it never did. We had to request a table three times, while others who arrived after us were seated. If I hadn't been working, I would have left.

I'll admit that the 240-seat restaurant was only three weeks old when I visited, but that should have been enough time for seasoned restaurateurs like Broek and Saucy to train the wait staff and break in the kitchen. Instead I got the feeling that the staff made no attempt to individualize its efforts toward each customer. For instance, when we were finally shown to our table -- a long, narrow booth -- it became obvious that nobody had actually looked at two members of my party, both of whom were somewhat husky. Expecting them to slide into such a tight space was like asking someone with a walker to take a seat upstairs. Embarrassed, we had to return to the front desk and ask if we could sit at the empty table next to us.

Nor do the waiters know how to describe the faux-bistro food. A neighboring table was confused when their server brought them blue cheese dressing that looked more like Thousand Island. "This isn't blue cheese," the customer pointed out.

"Yes, it is. Trust me," the server said impatiently. It was clear she had other tables to tend and wanted to get on with it. Perhaps the customer might have trusted her more readily if the waitress had explained that the pink hue of the dressing came from an infusion of raspberries. But if East City Bistro wants to be known for something, it should be those homemade salad dressings. Each of the five dressings, ranging from Parmesan-black pepper to sun-dried tomato balsamic vinaigrette, was well balanced and complementary to the tossed green salad that accompanies main courses.

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