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Boca's Piñon Grill: Some of the Dishes Veer into WTF Territory

I have to admit, I'm a huge fan of director David Lynch. His films, from the all-American discomfort of Blue Velvet to the schizophrenic murder mystery Mulholland Dr., are so strange and moody, they're like nothing else out there. Don't even get me started on Twin Peaks — his early-'90s television series had to be one of the most original shows ever created. Yet some detractors say that Lynch's entire oeuvre of kooky characters and metaphoric references is just art-house gibberish — surrealist themes that come off as weirdness for weirdness' sake.

I never understood Lynch's critics until I ordered the crab fritters at Piñon Grill in Boca Raton. The large white bowl in front of us was supposed to contain three large spheres of deep-fried, lump crab meat. But any fritters present were completely obscured by a billowy nest of what looked like fried hair. It was like I had just stepped onto the set of some bizarre art-house movie. Instead of crab fritters, I'd been served a deep-fried wig — probably to represent my latent fear of male pattern baldness.

"What is that?" asked my grandmother, whom I had brought to lunch at Piñon Grill for her 87th birthday. "Did we order that?"

"It looks like Donald Trump's comb-over," my uncle replied. As he fingered at the toupee of fried dough, I imagined it scurrying to the edge of the table and telling me in a deep, New York accent, "You're fired!"

The sad part of the whole ordeal? The fritters were actually decent — meaty, juicy, and coated in a light beer batter. But the surreal presentation came off as both pretentious and completely unnecessary, especially since the doughy "hair" had no flavor at all aside from the fryer grease that clung to it. Like a plot twist without a purpose, it was — to put it in critical terms — weirdness for weirdness' sake.

I'm evoking this comparison to films and art not only to make a point but because Piñon Grill broaches the subject itself. The first thing you're likely to read on its very short, one-page menu is a prosaic account of its food. The section drags on laboriously about "New American" cookery and its melding of classic dishes with current culinary trends. But behind the Palinesque word salad is little substance — the place serves mostly steak and potatoes, salad and sandwiches. On its own, that would be completely acceptable, especially considering the restaurant's location in the populist Town Center Mall. It's just that, more often than not, the kitchen's artsy pretensions derail dishes that would otherwise be tasty.

It's a shame, really. I'd brought my grandmother to lunch with me that day hoping to treat her to a nice birthday meal. At first glance, things looked good. She, like me, was awed by the impressive interior design. The restaurant sits on a corner lot, with tall wooden doors. Step inside and the foyer opens up into a smart and refined-looking space, full of wood and deep earth tones. Silhouettes of indigenous dancers hang over striped rows, while statuesque busts of piñon trees (a Southwestern pine) frame the rows of banquettes in the dining room.

Following these visual cues, you might imagine a restaurant that combines the contemporary vibe of a modern steak house with distinctly Southwestern elements — a Houston's clone as it would look if born in Flagstaff. Yet the menu lacks that focus. Straightforward enough are the soups (crab bisque, Sante Fe chicken) and the sandwiches (prime burger, tuna burger, brisket). But there's an almost purposeful lack of continuity in dishes such as chicken paillard and Asian grilled salmon, or filet mignon with béarnaise sauce versus baby back ribs. And the Southwestern influence (remember the piñon trees?) is almost completely relegated to the appetizer menu in the form of catch-all dishes like spinach quesadillas and seared tuna tacos (tuna being about as native to the Southwest as cheesecake and borscht).

Adding insult to injury is the fact that Piñon Grill lacks either a lunch or bar menu, meaning you'll pay the same prices — which tiptoe toward the $30 mark — whether you're sitting at the bar for happy hour, eating dinner, or dining at lunch, as we did.

To make up for the pricey entrées, we decided to order a few appetizers as main courses, hoping they'd be big enough to do the job. My uncle Drew went that route and definitely enjoyed his spinach and mushroom quesadilla ($12), which paired a nicely browned tortilla with sautéed mushrooms, julienne greens, and salty Cojita cheese. The accompanying guacamole and salsa, however, were both in rough shape, tasting underseasoned and past their prime. My fiancée wasn't as pleased overall with her grilled salmon salad ($18). Although the fish was perfectly cooked and full of flavor, the "salad" underneath ventured off into that uncomfortable surrealist territory — namely, it was devoid of any sort of greens and instead featured an awful combination of mangoes, capers, pine nuts, olives, red-skinned potatoes, and green beans, all gooped together by a sickly tart Dijon vinaigrette. It was a pairing that looked just about as bad as it tasted — like a niçoise salad that someone purged after a long night of drinking.

 

On the other end of the table, my grandmother seemed to be digging her grilled vegetable burger ($11), a house-made concoction of whole grains, brown rice, and beets. I've often seen rice in veggie burgers, and here I think it worked well: The grains gave the patty a nice textural component, while the beets added flavor and had the cool visual effect of making the well-grilled patty look like a perfectly medium-rare burger.

After sampling that burger, I started to get the feeling that Piñon Grill was playing a game of good cop/bad cop with us. Because for every tasty thing on our long wooden table, there was something else proportionally bad. In this case, anchoring out the veggie burger was the braised beef ravioli I ordered ($19). As far as bad dishes go, this was a perfect storm. Rubbery-skinned, obviously bought-in ravioli? Check. Mealy "braised beef" filling? Check. Pasty brown mushroom sauce sloppily poured on top like a can of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup, so as to not even cover all of the pasta? Double check. The ravioli was so bad, I couldn't even pawn it off on my relatives. Grandma pushed away the side plate I had given her with a huff. "I can't eat that, Jay," she said.

She was right. In Lynchian terms, I'd rather eat the log lady's log.

It didn't seem to disturb our waiter that I left a nearly full plate of food and refused his offer to have it boxed to go. Maybe he felt our disappointment too, because he didn't flinch at all when we opted to skip dessert — even though the flour-less chocolate waffle touted on the dessert menu sounded WTF weird... and oddly intriguing.

After our lukewarm meal, I knew I had to give Piñon Grill another shot. So I soldiered up for another visit, this time on a busy weekend night. Even without a reservation, we managed to sneak a seat in mere minutes during the height of the rush hour, our hostess leading us back through the rows and rows of cushioned banquettes to a seat in the back near the busy kitchen.

This time, my dinner date and I resolved to skip the lackluster apps and go straight for the substantive stuff, namely meat (skirt steak, $25) and potatoes (au gratin, natch). I brandished my steak knife in anticipation while she prepared for her more diminutive selection of pan-seared fillet of trout ($23) crusted with pecans and napped in "citrus Chardonnay" sauce.

I can say this for Piñon Grill — the kitchen is fast. So fast that we sat for all of seven minutes before our skirt steak and fish came flying out. And for all his or her obvious speed, whatever cook is manning the grill station at the restaurant is doing marvelous work. Like the previous meal's grilled salmon, the skirt steak I received was cooked perfectly — juicy, tender, and well-charred. On the plate, it came coiled up like a spiral, served with a side of those crisp-crusted au gratin potatoes I had so looked forward to.

The potatoes were great — cut like hash browns instead of sliced thin and crusted with Parmesan cheese. But although the steak was cooked just right, it was ladled with a very loosely termed "salsa" of pineapple that was overly sweet and tart. Coupled with the ginger-soy marinade, the pineapple chunks created a flavor not unlike takeout-style sweet-and-sour chicken.

The trout my date was eating shared a similar fate in that the skin-on fillet was cooked well enough, but the aggressive pecan crust lent the fish an unappealing sweetness and was crushed so finely that it provided little in the way of texture. Coupled with the overreduced and acrid citrus wine sauce, the fish was a flop. On a positive note, a side of Parmesan-coated string beans were topnotch. But no one's paying $23 for string beans.

In the wake of the fish and steak, we started to notice a theme at Piñon Grill: Dijon vinaigrette and mango? Citrus Chardonnay and pecans? It's almost as if the kitchen is throwing out weird pairings in the name of "culinary trends" and hoping to impress its shopping-mall patrons, like a director who flings plot twists at his audience in the name of shock value (paging Mr. Shyamalan). The same must have been true with the flourless chocolate waffles we were still tempted to order for dessert — our waiter gave us the most pained expression when we asked him how they were and instead insisted we try the white chocolate bread pudding ($8).

 

Boy, he was right — that bread pudding was a simple classic of brioche and macerated raspberries that was completely unfussed with. And it was easily the best thing we ate during any of our visits to Piñon Grill. There's nothing "new American" or artsy about that. Which, I'm starting to understand, can be a very, very good thing.

Piñon's grilled salmon salad: Um, where are the greens?

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