By David Minsky
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By Sara Ventiera
By Candace West
By Emily Dabau
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By Laine Doss
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.
But we've saved room for Pastry Chef Juan Velasquez's desserts. I'd had a plate of his cookies the day before that had left me almost breathless. With the tasting menu, we're served a trio of mouthwatering sweets: a pale green pistachio pie, a scoop of vanilla and pistachio ice cream, and a perfect black hole of a flourless chocolate cake. With a complimentary glass of house-made limoncello cream, refulgent as a sunset, I don't believe you could dream a more satisfying ending to any meal.
Our success at Paradiso had screwed up our courage to explore further. Another tasting menu came to mind, considerably less expensive at $25 per head, served at Le Bistro in Lighthouse Point and preceded by its fine reputation. Le Bistro's chef, Andy Trousdale, was trained in Michelin three-star restaurants in France and Britain. He now teaches culinary arts at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale and runs cooking classes out of this petite space; his tasting menu is self-billed as "a nightly culinary adventure." Trousdale's wife, Elin, takes care of the front of the house; she's probably responsible for the idiosyncratic arrangement of oil paintings, copper pots, colored bottles, antique furniture, and soft lighting that makes the most of a couple of bland rooms.
The difference between Paradiso and Le Bistro is rather marked -- but that's a bit like comparing la mela to l'orange. The Trousdales aimed to create an intimate, homey setting with a French twist at this 4-year-old restaurant, and they have done their best. Our friendly waiter was enthusiastic if not particularly precise; he used the word awesome a dozen times to describe the menu, rhapsodizing at length about the food.
Wethinks the laddie may protest too much. He may have raised the bar higher than the kitchen could vault. Two of us ordered the five-course tasting menu (there's a two-person minimum). The rest of our party chose from the full menu. We passed around a spicy bean tapenade with toasted rounds of French bread while we waited.
The tasting menu at Le Bistro opens with an espresso cup of tomato soup decorated with a dollop of pesto. The soup wasn't bad, but it had no real kick: The sweetness of the tomato wasn't cut with enough acid to awaken much appetite. While we polished these off, our friends picked at their salmon ceviche appetizer ($9). In its presentation, the ceviche had unfortunate associations. Minced and served as a round terrine, the salmon looked precisely as if a tin of cat food had been upended on a plate and decorated with herbs and capers. And it was a little heavy on those capers, infusing the terrine with a pickled, bottled flavor.
Second course: "smoked salmon." Members of our party who were ranging freely à la carte had a "flowering artichoke" appetizer ($8), pale leaves with balsamic and goat-cheese dipping sauce, good but not stellar, and a spinach salad with blue cheese and honey-roasted pecans ($7) that came inexplicably dressed with mayonnaise -- and not the homemade kind. Our smoked salmon wasn't worth the trouble it took to plate it: just a piece of slightly fishy lox with a slice of bread and raw onions. Why anyone would want a "taste" of this stuff -- which barely qualifies as an "adventure," even at 10 a.m. on a Sunday -- is a mystery. Even then, with a dab of cream cheese and a bagel, you'd want it considerably fresher. Those of us on the tasting tour were already starting to feel our spirits sag. But a fresh green salad, course number three, was a welcome palate cleanser.
After this series of minor disappointments, our entrées came as a big relief. Course four, beef stroganoff, was an unqualified success. Silky chunks of beef in a viscous, wine-dark stew were sculpturally arranged with a bit of mashed potato, crimson strands of red pepper, and tiny French string beans. It looked beautiful and tasted divine. Success at last! It was painfully obvious that the bulk of this five-course tasting menu's energy had gone into a single course. Our friends had excellent luck too with the beef tenderloin au poivre ($27), cooked medium rare, a beautiful piece of meat matched with a spicy black pepper and cream pan sauce.
Still, the neovegetarian in our midst found her gambas tostones ($8), an appetizer served as a main course, bafflingly unsuccessful. A great idea had made a seriously wrong turn: Plantain baskets filled with garlic shrimp and a mango and corn pico de gallo sounded intriguing, but the baskets, meant to be edible, needed a pick ax to split, and chewing them was out of the question.
A flaky apple tart -- fine but undistinguished -- and a dark chocolate mousse served in a parfait glass (both $6) sweetened up our tempers during dessert. The final adventure on our tasting menu, thick slices of bread pudding with peaches and raisins and dusted with cinnamon, arrived only after we prodded our waiter's lapsed memory. We paired these with a couple of glasses of fresh and flowery Muscat, expensive at $10 a glass but delicious, and cups of black espresso.
If we wanted to revisit Le Bistro, we wouldn't come for the tasting menu. Even a reasonably priced meal isn't much of a bargain if it doesn't taste good, and we suspect chef Trousdale's varied talents aren't shown to their best advantage in it. Make your own choices from any of the fine entrées, or try your luck with a few of the other appetizers (we'd go for the pricey foie gras, $19, or the escargots.) At Le Bistro, you probably get what you pay for.