A woman, one member of a party of six at Baredo Café in Boca Raton, got up suddenly from her table and began marching around the dining room, glancing pointedly at other tables and their parties.
We knew she was a customer, but she looked for all the world like a manager making the rounds, checking to make sure everything was OK. In fact she was noting the status of other diners' orders and comparing them to her own. "We've been here since 7 o'clock," she confided to my table after completing her tour of the 80-seat room, "and we just got our appetizers now [at 8:30]. My theory is that the kitchen has only one set of dishes and that we have to wait for other tables to finish before we can get our food."
We assured her that, though we'd been seated at 7:45, we had yet to see our starters. Apparently satisfied that her party wasn't being singled out for a slowdown, she was still miffed by the wait. "Oh, you're in for a long evening," the woman responded before rejoining her friends.
4400 N. Federal Hwy., Boca Raton
561-391-2120. Lunch Tuesday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. till 3 p.m. Dinner Tuesday through Sunday from 5:30 till 10 p.m.
Indeed we were. A three-course meal took nearly that many hours, with the server coming over time and again to say that our entrées "would be right out." Of course they weren't. Nor were iced teas refilled, utensils replaced, or dirtied dishes removed from the table in a timely manner. And like the woman who had wryly complained, we were somewhat mystified by the continuous delays. Though the restaurant had a good crowd, it was not full. Nor was there turnover; we were actually the last party of the evening to enter the restaurant.
We also couldn't understand why the eatery, which serves what it bills as "international cuisine," seemed to be running out of food. The duck with pancakes and braised cabbage, an appetizer we'd ordered, turned out to be sold out. The replacement starter, a bowl of French onion soup, had also been 86ed, our waitress reported, coming back a second time, somewhat embarrassed. (As she should have been. A good server always knows what the kitchen has run out of before going back to a table to retake an order.) We weren't convinced the same fate hadn't befallen the shrimp bisque. The soup we were eventually served, about ten minutes after the other appetizers, resembled vegetable stock and had no nuance whatsoever of the shellfish.
I'd blame the sloppy treatment on Baredo Café's newness, but the restaurant has been open nearly four months. Or I'd cite inexperience, though the proprietors, who hail from Yugoslavia and Croatia but don't want to be named in this article, claim they have experience. The managing owner says he's worked at a restaurant on South Beach and admits that Baredo Café is "an extension" of an operation in Europe. What that means, exactly, I don't know; I'm always suspicious of restaurateurs who want to protect their identities.
Blame it on culture clash and move on, because Baredo Café, if it could get itself up to speed, has a chance to make it. Formerly Citrus, then an Italian restaurant that promptly went out of business, the eatery occupies the last storefront space of a poorly lighted professional plaza. The owners have done most of the renovation work themselves, smartening up the place with interior brickwork, latticed wood, and black-and-white prints of ballet dancers to liven up plain stucco walls. Upright carved wooden chairs have been brightened with blue tie-on cushions. The result is a Northern European warmth, perhaps more suited to a menu of Wiener schnitzel and spaetzle.
The fare, though somewhat bizarre if you start analyzing influences, does show promise. Maryland crabcakes, offered as either an appetizer or a main course, were pleasantly meaty and enhanced by mild spices rather than bread crumb filler. The pan-fried cakes sat on fresh leaf spinach, which had been sautéed in cream, and were topped by crisp, nongreasy onion rings. A tropical fruit coulis napped the crabcakes, adding both sweet and tart flavors to the plate.
Other starters include quesadillas and composed salads, including one that featured endive, goat cheese, tomatoes, and grilled eggplant. Presented as an architectural stack with a drizzle of balsamic vinaigrette, the salad was refreshing and enjoyable, despite the minor distraction of undergrilled eggplant.
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If you want to follow the European notions set forth by the salad, Baredo Café offers several pastas. These are overshadowed, however, by dishes like the more exotically flavored coconut buttered shrimp, a pile of medium-size shrimp sautéed in rum and butter and sprinkled with coconut flakes. The shrimp were a bit small for an entrée presentation, and a side dish of jasmine rice had been overcooked, but the rich sauce made up for the flaws. Another tropical option, snapper with grilled pineapple, was served with the same rice and was overly salty, though the freshness of the crisp-skinned fillet compensated for this misstep.
The owners also understand the Boca diner, whose love of fine dining is enhanced by the satisfaction of a good bargain. Which is precisely why the restaurant runs a special for two: A couple can choose either soup (French onion, shrimp bisque, or chicken) or salad (mixed greens or caesar), and then any main course on the menu. A dessert platter -- whatever the kitchen has made fresh that day -- follows, along with coffee and the bill, only $39.95 for the whole deal. Take advantage of the caesar salad, which had a nice garlicky cast and featured homemade croutons, then indulge in the most expensive entrée, the grilled veal chop for $21.95. We were pleased by the juicy consistency of the inch-thick, marinated chop, which was presented over sautéed leaf spinach and polenta -- billed on the menu as "creamy" but served bland and lumpy. You'd also get more than your money's worth with a large New York strip. Though oversalted like the fish, the steak was tender, with that slightly chewy sirloin edge. A beautifully balanced peppercorn sauce moistened the meat, which was accompanied by quartered, oven-roasted potatoes.
It's possible to get so fed up with the wait that you'd be tempted to leave without dessert. Don't be so hasty. Someone in this place has an excellent hand with pastry, and a homemade apple tart paired caramelized apple slices with a crust so buttery it fell apart at the nudge of a fork. The cheesecake, too, was an unusual pleasure, tart with sour cream rather than overly sweet with sugar.
It was at this point in our meal that the aforementioned party of six, headed by its intrepid scout, paid up and left. Pausing at our table, she asked us, "Well? Is it worth it?" Her look said that her meal wasn't even close, and it was clear she wouldn't be returning. The owners of Baredo Café would do well to keep her in mind, because Boca diners spread the word, good or bad, faster than any restaurant critic. But I'd be inclined to disagree with her just a little. When measured against the time frame and offhand service, perhaps dining at Baredo Café isn't yet worth it. But with a little polish, and keeping in mind the prices and generous portion sizes, it could be.