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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.
Other dishes seemed more New Orleanian than strictly French, including an entrée of blackened mahi-mahi with green applemango salsa and an appetizer of spicy shrimp served over fried leeks. The latter item comprised four large shrimp rather than the jumbos to which the menu attested, and for $10.95 we should have seen a few more of them. Still, the shrimp were expertly grilled, and a Cajun lemon-ginger seasoning was affirming.
But given the range of recipes -- from Wiener schnitzel topped with a fried egg, anchovies, and capers to roasted rack of lamb with rosemary-cranberry sauce -- the cuisine is hard to pin down. The tag "New Continental," which Gawad uses in his advertisements, works as well as any. Whether you order the maple-glazed duck breast with mango salsa or the veal scaloppini française with ginger, white wine, and lemon-basil butter for dinner, you can count on the dishes to reflect the current global trend in cooking.
You can also expect top-quality meat and expert rendering. Filet mignon Diane was phenomenal: prime beef cooked to specifications, glistening with a wonderfully sublime mushroom-cognac sauce. Roasted salmon encrusted with almonds, hazelnuts, and pecans maintained a crisp edge and moist interior, dabbed with citrus-herb butter rather than awash in sauce. Linguini pescatora, an assortment of seafood and mahi-mahi served over pasta woven with chopped tomatoes and washed with olive oil and garlic, provided some of the sweetest scallops I've eaten in some time.
What you can't depend upon are menu descriptions. Though some plates were supposed to be served with mashed sweet potatoes, all main courses came with sautéed leaf spinach, quartered roasted potatoes, and a melange of squash and zucchini. Coho Grill also needs a more inspired wine list. A few good California chardonnays like Cambria are available for less than $30, but nothing on the list surprises. And one warning: Prices may rise and fall -- our prix fixe was $17.95 one week, $18.95 another -- so if the check doesn't look right, be sure to ask for a recount. Then, if you skip dessert, you'll know just how to vote for this promising young candidate.