By David Minsky
By Nicole Danna
By Sara Ventiera
By Candace West
By Emily Dabau
By Doug Fairall
By Candace West
By Laine Doss
Something is definitely afoot here. We stuck our snout in the air, took a long whooof, and smelled a trend. I'd say this funky perfume resembled a glass of French Bordeaux and seared filet mignon laced with the odor of a corporate kitchen's deep fryer at the end of a particularly busy night.
Here's a dining forecast, based on my own highly specialized scent receptors: The middle-sized, middle-priced restaurant in South Florida is an endangered species. Eateries here are leaning gigantic — either that or they're so microscopic that you need heat-seeking radar to find them. Our current category of Hulks includes the national behemoths that have moved in recently: expensive steak houses including New York Prime and Strip House; seafood chains such as Nick's Fishmarket, Bonefish Grill, and McCormick & Schmick's; warmed-over ethnic in the mode of Cantina Laredo and Jinja Asian Bistro. They don't call the Cheesecake a "Factory" for nothing.
Into this fray march those scrappy underdogs wearing size ultra-petite: Armadillo Café, Saporissimo, Grapevine Bistro, Lola's, Upper Crust, Six Tables, and their ilk. These graceful little gamines, seating a mere handful of regular customers, are often owned and operated by a chef and partner (a wife, husband, son, or daughter). The gourmet menus are personality-driven testaments to the expertise and sensibilities of the cook. Sometimes a lunch and catering business during the day helps pad out the books. A lot of times, they serve dinner only on weekends.
Restaurateurs who open such venues apparently just want to have a ton of culinary fun without going bankrupt. Couples and families operating closet-sized boxes and cooking dinner for a few appreciative customers on Friday and Saturday nights lend their cozy quarters a whimsical air — they want to make a living, for sure, but they also get off on fooling around with weird ingredients and showing off their skills. Dining in these interiors, you feel like you've been invited to a swank dinner party at somebody's private digs. Small restaurant regulars are BFF, and proprietors are charging anywhere from $25 for an entrée to $80 per prix fixe meal for the privilege.
Six Tables in Boca Raton, a minuscule boîte containing a total of — you guessed it — six tables, falls into this little-engine-that-could camp. Except Six Tables is kind of a hybrid, a little engine cloned from another. And there's a reason it looks like some captain of industry's dining room. It's not, in fact, one of a kind — four other Six Tables have opened: the original in Dunedin and one in Tampa, plus one in Charleston, South Carolina, and another in Las Vegas. They offer different menus and decorative touches based on what's available locally, but they're basically the same animal.
Originators Roland and Gail Levi got the idea when they worked as chefs in the hoity Manhattan brownstone of an investment banker and Sanskrit scholar named John Clay. Clay had a dining room on the fifth floor where he entertained guests at lavish meals. When they moved on, the Levis packed the memory of Clay's dinner parties into their bags and eventually parlayed them into a restaurant in Dunedin that opened in 1998, serving six courses on fine china and good wine in crystal glasses, with a different fork for each act. As they had done for Clay, the Levis proffered touches like champagne with the amuse bouche and sorbet as a palate-cleanser. The meal began with soup, expanded into salad and a meat course, and closed with imported cheese and baked fruit accompanied by port wine, followed by a sweet, fancy finale, like profiteroles or crêpes.
The restaurant was successful in Dunedin, so the Levis started licensing the idea. Gail's cousin Jonathan Fyhrie thought it sounded good; when he left his job as an exec for a ski resort in Colorado, he moved to Boca, haunted local antiques stores and auctions for stemware and Limoges dessert plates, and set up shop three years ago in the plaza next door to Mizner Park. Fyhrie runs the place solo with the help of Russian-born chef Boris Schugal, who hails from St. Petersburg, and on busy nights an extra server.
Diners too break down into categories — we who go for club music and eye candy; we who crave peace and intimacy. I shouldn't have to tell you that Six Tables appeals to the more sedate among us. When it's time to treat Mom and her new boy-toy to a special-occasion dinner, when you're close to signing the prenup on an important courtship: Here's your territory. Want to win over a finicky client? Bingo. Six Tables is marriage-proposal and silver-anniversary material; you'll want to clink crystal glasses over the lemon-lime sorbet to toast your second baby and your third promotion.
From what I gathered talking to Fyhrie, a lot of his clientele consists of Big Pharma reps assiduously cultivated. But the night we dined, a Friday, only three of the six tables were occupied. Cole Porter standards tinkled on the sound system; two other couples were engaged in intense conversation. Dinner, and there's only one seating per night Tuesday through Saturday, starts promptly at 7 p.m. with a glass of champagne and an amuse bouche, in this case a mini crab cake.
You pay a fixed price of $80 per person; wine from Fyhrie's sophisticated list of 32 bottles is extra. But it's worth shelling out (come on, you're celebrating) for these Napa or Sonoma cabs and French Bordeaux, priced from $50 for a Château Roquefort 2005 to $290 for a Château Haut-Brion 2002 Grand Cru Pessac Leognan. A Turnbull 2004 Merlot, which retails around $30, is priced at $75. And the champagne that begins your meal is a fine freebie — it really smoothed out our rough edges, along with a fairly nondescript little mouthful of crab cake in a pool of sweet sauce.
The menu Fyhrie has chosen is disarmingly retro. I imagine it's the kind of meal financier John Clay and his wife ate regularly in the mid-1960s. Lobster bisque. Romaine salad. Châteaubriand. Frenched lamb chops rubbed with herbs. Elk venison steak in green peppercorn sauce. Roast duck à l'orange. Poached pear. Crêpes suzette. Fyhrie, tall and lithe, has a hushed, graceful tableside manner as soothing as a deep-tissue massage; when he details the delights in store for you, you can't help but unwind. By the time he's gotten into an intimate description of how the chef roasts the lamb, you're pretty much won over to his old-school version of fine dining.
Based on a single visit, I'd rate the cuisine at around a B+, but I don't think you really go to Six Tables for a cutting-edge foodie experience. The lobster bisque, laced with sherry and redolent of honest-to-God lobster stock and heavy cream, was some of the best I've ever eaten. A warmly spiced winter squash soup emanating the scent of cinnamon and clove like an ode to autumn was delicious too (you get a choice here). Romaine salad followed, tasting about like you'd expect, sprinkled with baked, herby croutons and cherry tomatoes. A basket of warm, slightly sweet and nutty multigrain bread, marvelous stuff, accompanied the greens.
A spicy peppercorn sauce didn't overwhelm our elk chop. Although what you see on most menus is farm-raised these days, elk has an assertive flavor that distinguishes it from our factory-fattened beef; it retains the memory of wilderness in its lean profile. Roasted medium-rare, paired with a trio of buttery vegetables (ribbon-sliced carrots, asparagus, and tiny French green beans), it couldn't have been improved. The same was true of my gorgeous little lamb chops. Six of them, rubbed with herbs de Provence, made a meal that would have handily fed King Henry VIII. I took most of them home.
The cheese course, though, didn't impress — these dull French fromages, including a mild cheddar cut into flimsy triangles like something for a kid's lunch box, verged on ridiculous. Better-quality cheeses, imported and local, please. Poached spiced pear at the center of the delicate dessert plate had a subtle, grainy texture and deeply layered sweetness.
A restaurant this exclusive and expensive ought to set its orange liqueur-drenched crêpes suzette alight right at your table for a big-wow finale. Almost no one does anymore — is it some weird insurance or fire-code thing? Or just too much trouble? My rule of thumb: Don't offer a flaming dish (suzette, bananas Foster, Greek saganaki) that you don't intend to set a match to in full view of we who are paying an arm and leg for it. Half the point of these things is the spectacle, after all. It doesn't matter if you're big or small: I still want my 15 seconds of oooooooohh.