By David Minsky
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By Sara Ventiera
By Candace West
By Emily Dabau
By Doug Fairall
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By Laine Doss
Every serious diner has an immediate, pertinent question he or she wants answered about any restaurant. My husband always wants to know about the specials of the house. My friend Meredith needs to be informed about the dessert list before she proceeds with ordering a meal. I like to be told what items are made on the premises: breads, soups, sweets. It's a habit I picked up from my mom, who can't tolerate bottled salad dressings.
As I've recently discovered at Coho Grill in Boca Raton, however, "house-made" isn't always a guarantee of quality. If you're talking emulsions, vinaigrettes and the like, then you're in good shape at this two-month-old eatery. Chef-owner Ahmed Gawad, who owned St. Tropez in Boca Raton and Café St. Tropez in Fort Lauderdale, pulses a terrific raspberry vinaigrette in the ol' food processor. Most raspberry vinaigrettes I've encountered are both cloying and annoying, but this tangy blend not only had vibrant, bright high notes, it had a slightly chunky texture that clung to the mixed greens and colorful bell peppers of the house salad. Gawad also offers a bracing creamy garlic dressing and whips up a caesar salad alive with anchovy flavor.
As an alternative to salad, diners can consume a carefully tended vichyssoise, French onion soup, or potage of the day. We chose the last option, an unthickened, lightly creamy mushroom soup, during our visit. Braced with fresh mushrooms, it was an enterprising example of what Gawad, a 20-year veteran of the kitchen scene, can do with just a few honest ingredients.
Breads and desserts, our server noted, are likewise homemade. But instead of evoking a white picket fence, the baked goods suggested the barbed wire surrounding a below-average commercial bakery. For one thing the bread -- rolls and an intriguing sunflower-strewn focaccia -- were as stale as jokes about chads. As for sweets, peach melba -- a sundae stacked with vanilla ice cream, raspberry sauce, and sliced peaches -- featured canned fruit. Apple pie overflowed with apples, sure, but the fruit was crunchy rather than caramelized and was flecked with pieces of apple skin and core. A slice of chocolate-covered cheesecake was minuscule, we thought, until we tasted the grainy filling and cracker-crumb crust; then we were glad we didn't have to dispatch a larger piece. Frankly I get better desserts from the corner Denny's.
Nearly every exemplary restaurant knows its own weaknesses. As evidenced by the desserts, Coho Grill hasn't learned this yet. Nor has it figured out the niceties of service. Cappuccinos made with sour milk (a faux pas that now evokes a gag reflex in the unfortunate victim thereof every time I even mention the word cappuccino) were replaced, but they should have been taken off the bill altogether. Rather than making room to put down dishes, servers tried to squeeze plates into existing space and half the time left the appetizers and main courses hanging off the edge of the table. Indeed the staff seemed to court crowding, grouping the only four parties in the 157-seat restaurant, which features a low, stamped-tin ceiling and sponge-painted walls, at neighboring tables rather than away from each other.
Coho Grill has yet to determine that it is located in an area not of fine diners but of frequent diners. Fine diners, who may go out for a meal only on the weekends, will spend in the high teens to midtwenties for entrées, which is what the restaurant is charging. Frequent diners, who eat in local joints almost every night of the week, will not. In the spot where Coho Grill took root -- a wannabe-quaint Boca Pointe shopping mall called Wharfside where Pampero, an Argentine steak house, most recently dug its own grave -- frequent diners abound. They, I understand, find Coho's prices to be stratospheric. Even a nightly menu of three-course prix fixes asks for too much from the local everyday wallet.
Still, Gawad lives in Boca Raton and has run an eatery there on and off for the past 15 years, so he is rather well-known as a restaurateur. A loyal fan base may establish him yet. And his fare is certainly worthy of recognition from fine (if not frequent) diners.
If you ask over the phone, the employee who answers might tell you the food is French. Some of it, like the clams Provençal appetizer, is at least informed by French influences. These tender littlenecks, steamed in an aromatic combination of garlic, white wine, and sun-dried tomatoes, suffered only from a bit of sand caught beneath the clam bellies.
A couple of dishes merely proclaimed themselves Gallic. Phyllo la Paris was a starter, fork-inviting phyllo dough stuffed with a blend of spinach, feta cheese, and sun-dried tomatoes. A smear of what the menu called "pink sauce," really a red pepper rémoulade, boosted the savory pastry. "French" chicken ratatouille, a main course, presented a boneless breast that had been rolled around a chopped filling of sun-dried tomatoes, eggplant, and zucchini, then sliced into medallions. A buttery glaze finished the poultry, which was perfectly juicy and a sterling counterpoint to the sautéed vegetables inside it.