A Little Taste

Further adventures in prix fixe

The sidewalk entrance to Paradiso Ristorante, a set of gleaming wooden doors opening into a room with the subtle, violet-tinted glow of a saltwater aquarium, is an anomaly in downtown Lake Worth, where the reigning aesthetic is set by taverns called Dirty Dwarf and Lizard's Den. So is the clear-eyed, honey-skinned hostess bending over the lectern to study the names in her leather reservation book and the stupendous urn filled with surreal blossoms behind her. The mirrored bar, the languid couples lounging there, and the micromanaged blend of uplighting and downlighting give everything a rarefied look, as if you'd stumbled into a stage set just before the curtain goes up.

It seems a restaurant you can't afford. You can't remember when a waiter last called you "madam," much less inclined gracefully forward as he said it -- not a bow exactly but an almost martial gesture: disciplined and self-possessed, with just a trace of humor. You'll witness such gestures repeatedly at Paradiso -- the crisp snap of butter-colored linens being cleared from the next table, the way the cloth is folded away with all the pomp and circumstance of the changing of the flag. These dark-suited men, with their silk ties and slicked-back hair, hurry without ever seeming hurried -- much less harried. And despite a packed house, where every table is filled by handsome couples ordering bottles of Amarone, doddering capitalists who can barely manage to hold a level soup spoon, and parents cooing over fussy toddlers in highchairs, languor permeates everything. Somebody has turned on a nozzle of magic pink gas; the effect is to slow the heart to a handful of beats per minute.

In the eight years since Paradiso opened practically within walking distance from my house, I've eaten there only three times, all of them special occasions. Prices were high. But now, Chef Angelo Romano is offering a five-course "degustation" menu. Otherwise known as prix fixe, which carries connotations of Canadian tourists digging nickels out of thread-bare wallets, this tasting menu comes with a price tag, $48 per person, that we can at least get our arms around.

From the haute French Laundry in Napa Valley that was recently voted Best Restaurant in the World by a consortium of French chefs to the corner tapas and martini bar in Delray Beach, "tastings" -- little bites of lots of things, tiny flights of fancy, or just samples from the kitchen's repertoire -- are all the rage these days. Very 21st Century.

Once we're settled in with our glasses of Gavi di Gavi white and a red Baone (the recommended wine pairings, at $12 and $15 a glass, respectively), and a waiter descends upon us with two china plates of six appetizers laid out like precious jewels, we see the point. Our first course is stunning. There's a succulent grilled round of calamari encircling leaves of baby artichoke with a touch of lemon and olive oil, a single, luxurious mouthful. Next to this, a mound of silky, rosy, tuna tartare. Then a spoonful of grilled, diced, and marinated red peppers with a curl of parmigiano Reggiano; tender, wispy slices of grilled eggplant steeped in extra-virgin olive oil; a disk of smoked mozzarella topped with transparent waves of prosciutto; and another round of mozzarella di bufala cozied between ripe tomato slices and festooned with slivers of fresh basil. These foods are both blindingly fresh and simply prepared; the flavor notes are never obscured. A slice of tomato basks in its own tomato-ness; a slender, grilled oval of eggplant is allowed just to be itself. Each bite is singular and memorable; taken together, it's a bravura performance.

Plates are whisked away; the pasta course arrives in a hand-painted tripartite bowl. Smoky eggplant with penne in tomato sauce; a mushroom and truffle risotto; spaghetti marinara with shrimp. Although all three are lovingly prepared, balanced, fragrant, and nuanced, the mushroom risotto is the most vivid. All these dishes are available à la carte; the risotto is certainly worth a return trip. The toothsome grains have absorbed every drop of flavor from the mushroom sauce, a velvety tour de force: What a fine lunch this would make with a green salad!

Servers come and go like apparitions, replacing forks, refilling water glasses. When one of us gets up to visit the ladies' room, her napkin is refolded. A pause, like the caesura in music, ensues. It's near 9 p.m., and the room has begun to clear out.

And then, two small filets of grouper, lightly poached in a Livornese sauce of chopped fresh tomato, black olive, and capers, are set down before us. Livornese is a modest dish requiring restraint from the chef. The impulse is to tart it up with extras -- as if rich olives, salty capers, and the clean, grassy flavor of chopped parsley weren't enough. But this chef knows what he's doing and leaves it alone.

Here we've come to a fork in the road. For the meat course, my partner has chosen veal; I've asked for the venison. The veal is as delicate as the finest filet mignon. The venison, a deeply browned filet set in a pool of balsamic reduction, is as luxuriously smooth as a suede glove. The completely distinctive flavor of this meat is surprisingly visceral -- almost like organ meat but with a woodsy, untamed flavor. It's scrumptious. But I can't finish it. I'm beginning to realize that we're both lightweights; any grandiose dreams of clearing our plates have evaporated. Thank God this isn't a six-course menu, we're thinking.

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