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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.

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.

We had to wait for the salads until after the appetizers, which themselves were a long time coming, without even a piece of bread to tide us over. Fortunately the starters were universally agreeable, particularly "Giani's potato pizza pie," topped with spinach, prosciutto, goat cheese, mascarpone, and Parmigiano-Reggiano -- a rich dish, indeed. The Creole fried oysters were equally worth waiting for, the half-dozen succulent oysters dipped in spicy batter and deep-fried. The shellfish were enhanced with a cool, roasted-corn salsa and puddles of rémoulade.

Utilizing similar flavors as the oysters, the white cheddar/corn/spinach dip made a luxurious topping for homemade tortilla chips. The ramekin of dip had been baked, which allowed it to retain heat and not congeal. We saw the opposite effect, however, in the orecchiette pasta with roasted garlic, broccoli rabe, and Italian sausage, a dish we shared as an appetizer. As it cooled, the sauce jelled into something that could have been used as hair gel à la There's Something About Mary, though the flavors held their own.

The restaurant offers a good selection of sandwiches, including a "knife-n-fork" grilled portobello-and-vegetable focaccia version as well as a hickory-smoked turkey "anti-club" (just two layers). We went wrong with the house "corned" chicken Reuben sandwich; the poultry was as bland and soft as the slightly griddled seedless rye on which it was served. We fared much better with a main course of marinated and barbecued skirt steak that was sliced and fanned over garlic-buttermilk mashed potatoes. The meat had great texture, though we didn't care for the rather gluey potatoes.

The two other entrées we tried have potential for the future, when the kitchen gets a spatula on things. For instance the flavor of the East City prime rib was wonderful, and the meat itself was juicy. But there was too much fat on it, and the medium-rare I'd requested came out medium-well -- twice. After two failed attempts to get the meat the way I wanted it, I gave up. We had even more difficulty procuring the Mediterranean oven-roasted boneless half-chicken. When our waiter proudly put the plate down, it turned out to contain the other poultry offering, a sautéed breast served over black beans and rice. Correcting the mistake took half an hour. The boneless half-chicken, dry and chewy, then appeared along with the original chicken breast, which was practically disintegrated by that point.

East City Bistro does justice to sweets. Its gooey, gloppy, double-size, macadamia-brittle banana split is a pleasure to share, and its white-and-dark-chocolate-chunk brownie could stop PMS like a bulletproof vest. Overall I believe the high quality of the ingredients, Saucy's recipes, and Broek's experience will prevail. But it would help the clueless staff a great deal if the restaurant started taking reservations. Maybe then everybody from chef to busboy wouldn't be so panicked and rushed, and the customer wouldn't feel so misused -- the exact opposite of how you want to feel after a casual dinner in a friendly neighborhood bistro.

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