By David Minsky
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Picture a prototypical tavern. Envision the dark, scarred wood, the frayed seat cushions, the rotund bartender pulling a draft. Smell, through your mind's nose, the cigarette smoke vying with char-grilled burgers and ancient fried onions. Listen to the squawks and yawps of casual, unrestrained conversation.
Are you there? Good. That is a perfect image of what Mizner Tavernis not. The two-month-old Boca Raton establishment instead features an extensive lounge filled with sumptuous fabrics, gauzy draperies, dramatic oversize banquettes, and copper light fixtures so elaborate they resemble abstract art. The air is redolent of duck breast lacquered with balsamic vinegar or a du jour preparation of Hudson Valley foie gras. Forks clink against fine ceramic dishes as ice tinkles in crystal glasses.
In short, Mizner Tavern has all the intriguing design elements and menu furbelows we have come to expect from our finer dining establishments, not from our taverns. Yes, it's located in Mizner Park. But a tavern? The place is way too glamorous and refined for such a designation: roomy rather than cozy, snooty rather than homey. (Unless you consider tony culinary destinations such as New York City's Tavern on the Green or Aspen's Ajax Tavern.) Prices alone belie the appellation: Appetizers hover around $11, main courses around $27. Mizner Tavern doesn't even have beer on tap, and on one recent visit, was sold out of three top bottled brands -- on a Friday night, no less.
While chef-owner Jeremy Smollar should take a closer look at his supply and demand, he's fortunately doing just fine with quality control. I don't think Boca Ratonians will regularly pay $35 for an entrée of lamb chops encrusted with goat cheese, pine nuts, and Provençal herbs, but they should. These double-cut chops were superior in flavor, their light muskiness complemented by the lacy cheese crust. Smollar fancifully calls an accompanying chopped-beet salad a "tartare," served along with grilled frisée and a decorative swirl of mint-infused crème fraîche.
Such playful and pricey fare will come as a shock to anyone who comes looking for the former occupant of this space, Max's Coffee Shop, an ultracasual eatery that appeared as its name implied. Folks may assume -- as I did -- that the new restaurant has capitalized on the Coffee Shop's rep as a place to grab a quick burger. Instead, plan on the waiter recommending that you order your lamb medium-rare, the way (as he'll tell you) the chef recommends it.
And count on some pretensions. The menu utilizes ingredients that seem exotic but really turn out to be mundane. For instance the abbreviated "e.v.o. potato purée" beckons queries from even the most experienced fine diner. What it really is: potatoes mashed with extra virgin [olive] oil. Shrimp-and-crab chowder with winter vegetables was a wonderful bisque base garnished with chunks of fresh shrimp and lump crab, but the winter vegetables were really just potatoes and onions; some chopped zucchini had been added to the brew, but such a squash is truly a summer vegetable. Other elements -- "rissotto," "shitake," "tartar," and "fraische," to name some -- are misspelled. These complaints may seem picky, but "beet tartar" sounds like something the dentist scrapes off your teeth.
On the other hand, some of the menu designations connote an intentional sense of humor on the part of the chef. The "Angry Lobster" was a two-pound Maine lobster dusted with spices, chiefly cayenne pepper. Doubtless the lobster wasn't too thrilled with the idea of becoming a zesty main course, but diners who can afford the $48 price tag will promptly make this dish all the rage. The succulent flesh, pulled from the split shell, contrasted vividly with a mattress of just-bitter broccoli rabe.
More jocularity surfaces in creative starters like the chilled shrimp martini or the barbecued quail with cornbread and napa cabbage slaw. The latter was a surprisingly meaty bird that appeared a little too charred but tasted as if the skin had been caramelized. Smoked trout crabcakes, another appetizer, were a new take on a familiar preparation, and they were faultless. Thick, filler-free cakes were more like meatballs in shape and carried just a hint of smokiness. Served over hand-cut organic greens with a dash of the same mint crème fraîche that softened the lamb chops, the trout-crab combo worked beautifully.
Dishes are exuberantly proportioned; even a main course of pan-seared sea scallops, which in other restaurants can seem skimpy, was ample. The richness of the scallops was enhanced with a white truffle¯corn sauce laced with shiitake mushrooms. Fingerling potatoes and tender fava beans added some much-needed textural counterpoint.
An intriguing wine list and a good selection of wines by the glass (including zinfandel, as in the red wine, not the pink one) make up for a disappointing beer assortment. But not even a frothy cappuccino can replace dessert, so Mizner Tavern needs to work on the sweets. Crème brûlée had cold spots in it, and banana fritters, a special dessert that evening, were sour, as if baked with unripe fruit.
Aside from laying in some flavorful microbrews, Smollar might also want to take a look at his competitors' prices. Neighbor Gigi's, where the entrées range from the midteens to the midtwenties, was packed the night we visited, but Mizner Tavern had empty tables. It would be a shame for such a restaurant, with its gourmet touches and culinary expertise, to go undiscovered because the foot traffic is disconcerted by a tavern that serves a $35 steak -- regardless of the black truffle sauce that dresses it.