A Thorough Grilling
I've always believed you can't go wrong with bread and salad. No matter how much of a failure a meal might be -- whether it's served in a restaurant or in someone's house -- guests won't leave a table hungry if they're supplied with plenty of crusty bread and fresh, crisp greens.
Well, consider my faith shattered. At Jake's Seafood Grille, the mini loaves of bread were so overbaked, we needed a jackhammer to pull them apart. And the house salad dressing -- a white French blended with shrimp, crab, and whole-grain mustard -- was so prosaic, it was the culinary equivalent of the first chapter of a John Grisham novel.
Located at the Garden Shops plaza in Boca Raton, Jake's is a contemporary-looking bistro. A rectangular dining room, featuring dark wood floors and white-linen-covered tables, is accompanied by a tiered bar area. Glass-and-wood doors lead to a smaller, circular dining room, which offers comfortable banquettes and tables for parties that require lots of privacy.
But the 155-seat Jake's, which is owned by Jerry Worth, simply doesn't live up to its setting or its neighborhood. Consider this: On a recent Sunday evening, when it seemed that just about every Boca resident wanted to eat out, the wait for a table at the neighboring Khaki's, a casual bar and grill, exceeded 45 minutes. Now, I like Khaki's; it serves great burgers. But I wasn't about to hang outside with the white-hairs for close to an hour just to down one. Jake's, meanwhile, offered a few empty tables -- just enough to avoid a wait while not raising suspicion about the restaurant's popularity.
But Jake's, it turns out, is the proverbial devil in disguise. Like the décor the menu is good-looking, featuring items such as lobster ravioli served on a bed of herbed lobster sauce and yellowfin tuna blackened and dressed with white wine and lemon-tomato butter. In addition a sumptuous-sounding list of specials yields main courses like filet mignon paired with Alaskan king crab.
But the dishes are cooked on a grill that leaves an unpleasant residue, which suggests that said grill hasn't been cleaned since Jake's opened about 18 months ago. Even a topping of sautéed mushrooms and merlot sauce couldn't mask the problem; the filet mignon had picked up the charred remnants of dozens of main courses. We had a similar experience with grilled, marinated pork chops, which were served with a gluey demi-glace. Devoid of succulence, the pork was as withered as an old sailor.
Which brings us to the seafood, the apparent draw of the eatery. The restaurant had run out of two of our top choices: Caribbean jerk swordfish and the "lobster burger," or lobster served on focaccia with caper/ chili/chive mayonnaise. With a shake of his head, our server also steered my party -- made up of four adults and three kids -- away from the Chilean salmon-and-shrimp burger, a salmon fillet topped by a single broiled shrimp and served on a baguette. He shook his head again after I attempted to order a stuffed chicken breast entrée, then voiced his disapproval as I asked for the "Florida rice" as a side dish, instead of the potato of the day: garlic mashed potatoes. In retrospect I should have seen these signals as an invitation to quit the establishment altogether. (He was right about the rice, by the way. I ordered the dish simply to see what all the fuss was about, and it turned out to be boiled rice with no seasoning added. What makes it "Florida," I have no idea.)
Despite the waiter's hints, we wound up waiting an hour for what turned out to be disappointing main courses anyway: a burned salmon fillet devoid of any redeeming quality; and a Maryland crabcake sandwich stuffed with so much crumb filler it was virtually impossible to taste the crab. We did enjoy the crunchy sweet-potato fries that accompanied the crabcake, however.
Unlike the main courses, the appetizers were delivered so abruptly that we suspected they'd been pre-prepared. A California artichoke -- stuffed with shrimp, scallops, and crabmeat and then baked inside a puff pastry -- tasted as if it had been baked long ago, then microwaved to warm it. When we cut into it, steam poured out of the grayish artichoke, the leaves of which were discolored and desiccated because of overcooking. The tomato-flavored seafood stuffing featured small, disintegrating shrimp and scallops, and once again we couldn't taste the crab. We also had a difficult time locating the crab in a dish of stuffed clams served on a bed of rock salt with fresh-cut lemon. The clams were supposed to be topped with crab, but we found only broiled bread crumbs.
A second puff-pastry concoction, the baked-shrimp-and-wild-mushroom tart, suffered the same fate as the artichoke. Moistened with a mild lobster sauce, the pastry was fine, if a little soggy, until it began to harden two minutes after it was served. The best of the appetizers, a Caribbean conch chowder, offered good tomato-based flavor and was stocked with potatoes and peppers. A cheese-straw pastry garnished the soup like an olive-laden toothpick in a martini. Martinis, incidentally, might be the way to go, alcoholwise, at Jake's. Otherwise a mundane wine list features the usual California suspects, including Kendall-Jackson chardonnay ($24) and Robert Mondavi Woodbridge cabernet sauvignon ($19). But after one or two shots of gin or vodka, perhaps even the fishy, charred salmon could prove, if not palatable, at least digestible.
Our server, who like George Washington seemed incapable of telling a lie, brought us a gift with the check: a slice of white-and-dark chocolate mousse cake, packaged to go. Nightly, he told us, he determines his favorite table and gives away a sweet. This is a thoughtful, if slightly odd, gesture, and my party wasn't convinced; remember, we had kids with us, all under the age of five, and each was incapable of sitting still for more than a minute.
What we assumed was that the waiter had given us the dessert to make up for the long wait for our main courses -- a wait that, no doubt, contributed to the fidgety nature of our kids. As a result he did sweeten our overall experience just a bit. But one kind gesture didn't make up for the kitchen's palate-numbing performance.
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