By David Minsky
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South Florida and the Mediterranean region are separated by the vast Atlantic Ocean, yet on either side, one can observe the same ritual in approaching that body of water: People wearing bathing suits, timidly dipping their toes in, gauging the temperature, methodically working their way up to the ankles, then knees, sometimes walking till the waters are at the waist before succumbing to the inevitable and plunging in. This is not unlike the way American diners approach foreign foods. We spent generations immersing ourselves in only the lasagnas and meatballs of Italy before acquiescing to porcinis and truffles; we needed Benihana before placing our trust in sushi; and how many bowls of egg drop soup, chop suey, and chow mein did it take until we moved on to the Szechuan provinces? So it goes with our perception of Mediterranean cuisine, which is no longer available only at Greek diners, Middle Eastern falafel joints, and Moroccan belly-dance clubs. In recent years, as our awareness of the region has been expanded to include cuisines from Turkey, Tunisia, and hitherto unexplored coastal areas of Southern Europe, the hummus, moussakas, and kebabs have finally given way to chermoulas, pomegranates, bisteeyas, and tagines -- some of which can be found at Bocadoro, a Mediterranean restaurant that rolled out its bright blue-and-yellow awnings in Boca Raton's Town Center six months ago.
The dining room is spacious and pleasant, with wood floors, faux-finished walls and columns, and a large bar, slightly elevated from the rest of the room, taking up most of the front space. While the décor comfortably straddles the line between formal and casual, the wait staff definitely falls into the latter category; though polite and well-informed, the servers lack polish and lose focus during busy times. Some service issues like this, as well as a wide-screen television set hanging on one wall, serve to remind us that we're still in Florida, not Marseilles.
It's no surprise that the Mediterranean foods Roger Vergé has dubbed "cuisine of the sun" should find a welcome acceptance here in the Sunshine State. South Florida has in common the palm trees, balmy weather, sexy beaches, and boisterous nightlife, so it's only fitting we should enjoy meals with the same theme. Perhaps more important, Americans in general have become increasingly concerned with the nutritional value of what they eat, and studies linking longevity with the Mediterranean diet have helped propel our national trend toward fresh fruits and vegetables, lean fish and meats, olive oils, and light sauces of our sol sisters across the sea. This is precisely the style of cooking found at Bocadoro, which boasts that no butter or cream are used in any of the dishes (except desserts).
The menu was conceived by Doug Zeif, who learned a thing or two about the desires of diners during his years as director of operations at the Cheesecake Factory -- back when there was only one store. Bocadoro's original menu offered numerous authentic and at times unfamiliar Mediterranean specialties, but Zeif and Executive Chef Greg Water have been tinkering with the menu and removing some of the more intriguing items. Gone are flatbread topped with roasted chicken, pumpkin purée, pancetta, and caramelized onions; chicken cacciatore ravioli in a tomato broth speckled with avocado-pistachio pesto; and beef daube, a hearty stew from southern France. The diners of Boca Raton were apparently not willing to wade in that far, but judging by the crowds filling the 200-seat room, what remains on the menu is still fresh, tasty, and innovative enough to keep the customers content.
Those seeking an especially safe start to their meal can begin with Bocadoro's Mediterranean plate. Meant to be shared, the platter includes roasted peppers, stuffed grape leaves, eggplant caponata, long-stemmed artichokes, red pepper hummus, mixed olives, and manchego and gorgonzola cheeses.
On the other end of the intensity scale are three rather bland, dome-shaped eggplant fritters. Encrusted in dark bread-crumb coats that give way to soft squash centers, the fritters gain spark with a red pepper-and-garlic aioli. But the accompanying shot glass of not-as-bitter-as-you-might-imagine arugula cocktail steals the scene; it's so invigorating, I'd suggest ordering the eggplant fritters with a request to "hold the fritters."
More-fearless diners (those who splash into the ocean with abandon) may prefer diving into the Moroccan "bisteeya" appetizer, four slices of deep-fried phyllo wrapped around an aromatic mix of chicken, almonds, and raisins. It's a delicious combination, enhanced by a drizzle of lavender honey and dusting of cinnamon and confectioners sugar. Sound strange? Better get back in the shallow water.
The two menu soups available each night are mushroom bisque and an ebulliently seasoned bouillabaisse, the tomato broth redolent of saffron and anise and amply stocked with clams, mussels, shrimp, potatoes, and sizable wedges of grouper and snapper. Croutons came perched upon the entrée-sized meal but without the customary saffron/garlic schmear (rouille). On one visit, the soup of the day was fresh, chunky tomato, zesty with snippets of basil.
Chicken dishes are generally the dullest items on any menu. Whether dining on a roasted half bird, a grilled breast, or a sauté of some sort, one rarely leaves the table in awe. Yet that was precisely what I felt after savoring a double-breast of thick, juicy, "Tuscan-pressed" chicken. It was seared on a hot top and dreamily matched with a creamy polenta perfumed with truffle oil and bright green leaves of broccoli rabe imbued with the taste of olive oil.
Other entrées are also smartly accompanied with well-conceptualized vegetables, starches, salads, and so on -- Bocadoro is not content to just trot out a few nouvelle items and surround them with a lazy smattering of sautéed zucchini and a mound of mashed potatoes. A moistly roasted Florida black grouper, with crisp crust of chopped shrimp and vegetables, hooks up with a peppy, roasted, red-pepper sauce, wilted baby arugula, and warm new potato and pimiento-olive salad. Arugula leaves also provide a nice counterpoint to sweetly pan-seared snapper dressed in black olives, tomatoes, capers, and garlic; a trio of tomato-risotto cakes alongside the fish was amazingly good.
While Bocadoro's cuisine has been partially compromised for the sake of less-than-adventurous eaters, it still exudes bold taste and praiseworthy integrity. It's hard to find much fault in even the weakest entrée we sampled, lamb kebabs, other than to say the grilled cubes of meat were a little bland, the peppers and onions skewered between were routine, the couscous below, flecked with currants, a bit dry. Lamb tagine was much finer, chunks of the same meat softly and semisweetly stewed down with figs, almonds, and golden raisins, served atop juicier couscous with a perky sauce made from the lamb jus blended with lime juice and honey.
Other appealing meat items include "pork osso buco," the braised shank aromatic with orange and rosemary and surrounded by tiny ricotta-potato gnocchi, and a whopper of a Tuscan T-bone for two seasoned with sea salt and cracked black pepper, then sizzled at approximately 1,000 degrees -- the $55 tag isn't too bad when divided in half. Bocadoro's prices are quite reasonable for the portion size and quality of ingredients being used, and a meal here can be a downright bargain if ordered from a separate "Complete Dinner" menu that includes soup or salad, main course, and dessert for $19.95. There are plenty of drink specials as well, women imbibing for free and men for half price during weeknight happy hours.
You can drink down one of the desserts too, a gin and tonic layered in a martini glass with Granny Smith apple compote, diced bits of that fruit, and airy lemon foam. Another fetching finish comes by way of poached fruits (it used to include poached Holland tomatoes) in balsamic pepper syrup paired with peppadews (a sweet/spicy fruit) stuffed with olive oil ice cream. Daredevils should try this one soon -- I've got a feeling that when the next menu comes out, the peppadews won't be on it. In fact, this is my major concern about Bocadoro: that by continuing to scale down the food so it can appeal to the widest swath of potential patrons, it will begin to resemble a Mediterranean-based restaurant chain. I can swallow the loss of beef daube, but let's hope they don't turn Bocadoro into the Ricotta Cheesecake Factory.