A Mediter-Asian Affair
Restaurant Report, an e-mail newsletter, invites readers to post their opinions and experiences. It includes some great nuggets of advice for restaurant professionals. The latest edition, for instance, gives waiters and waitresses several tips as sterling as Oneida, including: "Servers are there to enhance the guest's experience, not intrude on it"; "Interrupting guest conversation... is a no-no"; and "Exceptional service would require that you read the table. You will know how to approach and when, if at all." Plus my favorite: "Fine-dining employees need to do more thinking."
For the servers at Prezzo Affair, a month-old upscale restaurant in Boca Raton owned by Prezzo chain proprietor Nick Grewal, Restaurant Report should be required reading. Patrons who pay as much as $14 for an appetizer and $29 for an entrée shouldn't have to deal with a waiter who stomps on a dining experience as aggressively as if he were wearing cleats.
Indeed our attendant broke a primary rule: Never talk about yourself to your customers. Given our waiter's tendency to chat narcissistically as if he were a member of our party, I now know more about him than I do about my own husband. I know he was the only Jew working on Hanukkah. I know one of his parents is Egyptian and the other is Israeli. I know that he wears a Star of David similar to my father-in-law's, because he pulled it out of his shirt and showed us.
OK, so we're Jewish and he's Jewish. It shouldn't matter. In a fine-dining establishment, I don't wish my ethnicity to count one way or the other; I have no desire to bond with my server. I want my waiter to be a little less self-involved and a lot better informed about the wine and food he's proffering. For instance it would have been helpful if he had known all Rieslings aren't sweet. He also should have been aware educated diners can be trusted to realize some olives have pits. And perhaps he could have described the soup of the day as, say, mushroom consommé with a duck-stuffed ravioli instead of "mushroom consommé with a shredded ravioli and duck."
I bring this up because the soup, a delicately flavored broth caressing a plump pasta pillow, deserved a more effective and subtler salesman. The rest of the meal, with the exception of dessert, merited the same. We enjoyed everything from homemade focaccia and white-bean dip -- served with the olives -- to stellar miso-glazed Chilean sea bass with wasabi-spiked mashed potatoes and preserved lemon-basil nage. Located in the former location of Jason's, Prezzo Affair is not Prezzo, which was originally conceived by Dennis Max and Burt Rapoport as a casually uptown Cal-Ital place; patrons shouldn't be subjected to servers who want to introduce themselves and pull up a chair.
Corporate chef Mennan Tekeli, a veteran of Dennis Max's operations, and executive chef Arthur Jones, late of the River House in Fort Lauderdale, have designed cuisine that warrants some attention. On paper the Mediter-Asian fare sounds a little strange. Numbering among the more outlandish dishes: a smoked salmon roll garnished with lemon-mascarpone risotto, pickled cucumbers, and a verjuice-horseradish dipping sauce; and a veal chop matched with lemongrass gnocchi, wild mushroom cippolini ragout, wilted escarole, and bok choy. But the dishes taste better than they read.
The combinations that work best tend to be either Asian or Mediterranean, not a blend. A starter of soft Maine lobster spring rolls -- tender rice paper wraps filled with morsels of lobster meat, boiled rice noodles, mango, avocado, and coriander -- was augmented by a mild, curried peanut sauce. It made a good introduction to the seared yellowfin tuna steak. Medium-rare, the tuna benefited from an unobtrusive sake-soy broth and a flurry of stir-fried vegetables, though a crunchy noodlewrapped rice cake was visually overwhelming.
Likewise the wild mushroomand-chicken wrap appetizer, a sauté of diced mushrooms and poultry surrounded by toasted peanuts and Boston lettuce leaves -- hence the "wrap" -- was an appropriate preface to a whole yellowtail snapper. The deep-fried fish was slightly overdone but enchantingly perfumed by a double-barreled atomizer of sweet-garlic sauce and stir-fried basil.
On the Mediterranean side of things are two excellent starters for a main course of baked pasta rolls: a classic Caesar salad featuring homemade focaccia croutons and an even-keeled, Reggiano Parmesanflecked dressing; and the freshly molded bocconcini mozzarella balls surrounded by baby vine-ripe tomatoes. The rolls in the entrée were incredibly rich, stuffed with ricotta and pine nuts, and napped with a mushroom/cream/four-cheese sauce. This is the kind of meal one needs to follow with a stiff shot of grappa to burn away the heaviness.
I especially enjoyed the menu items that combined infrequently exploited ingredients. Fire-roasted octopus had been shaved, so the thin slices weren't tough. Layered over giant lima beans and a shallow puddle of piquant red wineblack olive vinaigrette, this appetizer was a terrific precursor to the chicken tagine, a Moroccan-spiced breast that was only a touch too dry. Fluffy couscous and a scoop of diced, roasted vegetables completed the North African picture and reflected one of the more decadent design elements -- floor-to-ceiling draperies that bring to mind harems and belly dancers.
In keeping with the Mediterranean theme, the two-story, 240-seat restaurant is spacious and has plenty of nooks and crannies in which to dine. If you like being out in the open, order cosmopolitans and appetizers at the horseshoe bar in front; if you prefer to hide, a contemporary lounge in back offers comfort along with sophistication. I'd recommend adjourning to the lounge for a liqueured coffee as opposed to ordering dessert at the table; the banana cheesecake was pasty, the chocolate soufflé flabby. Neither was worth the calories. Although the wine list is pricey, drinks are the best bargains in the joint, if a bit oddly priced: a bloody mary goes for $5.18, while a Patron silver-label tequila costs $6.13.
Otherwise diners pay some fairly steep prices for dinner. But portions are large and the quality of the fish and meat -- a supple filet mignon with a fabulous Barolo wine and short-rib sauce was especially telling -- may well justify the check. If Prezzo Affair can train its servers to match the upscale attitude of the food, then the eatery won't have to worry that, as Restaurant Report warns, a waiter's "eagerness and lack of sensitivity will cost [it] points" -- or ruin the diner's appetite for second helpings.
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