Calculated Comfort Food

Comfortable key lime pie
Colby Katz

Red flags were raised when I read that Red Star Tavern had opened in downtown Boca Raton. The new and popular dining establishment is one of a dozen Red Stars run by Chicago-based restaurant group RDG, which also operates 15 other restaurant franchises. Corporate dining isn't all bad; it's just that aiming for the middle never produces greatness. Or, to put it another way, the hazelnut crust on Red Star's grouper has probably been dissected in more focus groups than John Kerry's position on Iraq. Stock recipes, like stock political answers, satisfy for the time being but rarely come from the heart.

Red Star Tavern is a great moniker -- makes you think of a landmark institution that's been around for 70 years. And the red-hued room is as handsome as they come, with redwood walls, red lamp shades, and curved red leather booths offset by grey flagstone columns, dark hardwood floors, and an open kitchen silently encased behind glass. It's a design that successfully conveys the warm, welcoming intimacy of a traditional tavern, yet in contemporary terms. Come to think of it, Red Star looks an awful lot like Houston's.

Consistency is the key to operating a national string of eateries that share the same name, but Red Star's "upscale comfort food," while for the most part agreeable, was plagued by inconsistent execution. Service too was up and down, one time sloppy and forgetful, another night right on target. On one visit, the waiter was a bit chatty but enthusiastic and well-informed (except when, upon my ordering the 12- rather than 18-ounce cut of prime rib, he made a mime-like gesture with his hands indicating that the steak would be small; it turned out to be plenty hefty).

Things started off auspiciously with an impeccably crisp "firecracker calamari" appetizer, cleanly fried rings of squid served with a trio of dips: tamarind, sesame aioli, and something green and herby. Overall, it was a textbook rendition but a total dud in terms of providing explosions of spicy tastes that firecracker fairly implies. Florida seafood gumbo did spark with heat and managed to titillate, though it was skimpy on rice and seafood (just shrimp) and without a trace of okra (which, admittedly, is regarded by the general dining populace with the same suspicion Democrats have for Ralph Nader).

The "ahi tuna stack" probably looked good on paper, but the road to a lousy appetizer is often paved with good intentions -- and poor craftsmanship. A generous round of diced raw tuna topped the tower; the softly textured fish was garnished with limp, black strips of fried nori. Next level down featured ripe chunks of avocado, and then a base of rice -- the same shape as a hockey puck but slightly smaller and infinitely tougher -- tasted like it was cooked days before and left uncovered in the fridge. A drizzle of sweet and spicy Asian red chili sauce was poured from bottle to plate -- we can do that at home, thank you.

The chopped salad was also lacking. When properly prepared, it is a vibrant medley of uniformly diced vegetables displaying a breadth of colors, textures, and tastes. But Red Star's balsamic-dressed version was butchered in seemingly random fashion -- carrots and radishes were shredded, red onions sliced, cabbage hacked into large pieces, and small bits of cucumbers, peppers, and fresh corn kernels were flecked throughout. Garbanzo beans and pepperoncini, two of the more compelling ingredients listed on the menu, were omitted.

There was no such skimping on the seeds and nuts in Red Star's delectable multigrain bread. Each slice speckled with enough to stuff a family of chipmunks. Strangely, though, the staff seemed reluctant to serve any, most tables around us bereft of a breadbasket, as was ours until we requested one (another option is to place an order for skillet corn bread with honey-maple butter slathered atop a brittle, sugar-glazed crust -- well worth the surcharge).

At first, I thought the bread had been held back due to the public's low poll numbers on carbs, but that policy wouldn't make sense in a restaurant in which few main courses come with vegetable and almost all are accompanied by starch. The best of these was probably the mound of mashed, honeyed, sweet potatoes that, along with a smattering of spinach and a sprinkling of candied pecans, elevated a moist, thick cut of pecan-crusted pork chop, the sweetness of the meal balanced by a pool of rich, tangy, red wine-reduction sauce. On one occasion, the regular mashed potatoes alongside a rotisserie half chicken were stiff, bland, and not thoroughly heated. The next time we dined, mashed potatoes accompanying the prime rib were warm, soft, and smooth. The juicy red beef was rewarding as well, tasting as though it were freshly sliced off a robust roast recently removed from the oven. Au jus, unfortunately, was salty in a Knorr-based way, and no traditional dollop of horseradish cream was offered.

Perhaps two different cooks were helming the kitchen during our pair of visits; the chicken on the first night was as off-putting as the prime rib was fetching on the second -- most of the chicken skin had sheared off during the cooking process, and the bird was so pale, it looked boiled. And there were more problems: The texture subtly straddled that fine line between dry and arid, and the plate was garnished with old, yellowed arugula leaves and halved cherry tomatoes. A zesty, horseradish-tinged red-and-white cabbage coleslaw was supposed to come along too but didn't until we asked; it was the best part of the meal. On the same evening, a square of mahi steak was seared to succulence and pleasingly seasoned with dried herbs, though the arborio grains of the shrimp risotto below were seriously overcooked.

Seafood macaroni and cheese sounded suspect to me, but the tenderly seared shrimp, scallops, and lobster combined nicely with corkscrew pasta, tomatoes, and scallions in a splendid mascarpone-creamed lobster sauce. An à la carte side of regular mac and cheese might have been even better, the same corkscrews baked in a Gruyère cheese sauce with light dusting of bread crumbs and rosemary. Eight other side dishes are available (each $3), including the aforementioned honeyed sweet potatoes, coleslaw, and skillet corn bread. Red Star's pricing structure is more than fair, with most dinner entrées between $14 and $20.

Desserts are limited to flourless chocolate cake, pineapple tart, and an unusually lofty wedge of homemade key lime pie (big enough for two), the puckery-sour, pale yellow custard nestled in tasty graham-cracker crust with a puff of hand-whipped cream on the side. Layers of luscious, dark-chocolate pudding streaked through a gargantuan slab of chocolate devil's food cake, a special that's billed as being for two but can feed three or four. The cake soothed in a big, gooey way and was thankfully plated on its side so as not to attract undue attention.

The selection of alcoholic beverages is more ambitious in scope than are the desserts -- an impressive array of martinis, wines by the glass, and, more pertinently for a tavern, lots of bottled and tap beers (the latter including Paulaner Hefe Weiss, Newcastle Brown Ale, and Stella Artois).

The wide range of drafts is just one of many things the RDG folks have done well. While it's true you won't find cuisine here capable of making a foodie do cartwheels, I don't take issue with the concept of carefully calculated comfort food; it's the act of cooking it properly that Red Star needs to improve upon. Then again, the tavern is just two months old, so it's fair to assume they'll iron out some of the culinary kinks. When they do so, this place will be a keeper, and one that's coming to your neighborhood soon (another Red Star Tavern will be opening later this summer in Fort Lauderdale's Galleria Mall).

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