To get to Hoboken Grill, you must pass briefly through a black hole. It's a lightless, uninhabited corridor of Dixie Highway, a no-fly zone between downtown West Palm Beach and the cozily gentrified neighborhood of Old Northwood. There's not a single streetlamp on this stretch of road; warehouses and vacant storefronts offer blank faces. Before ex-Mayor Nancy Graham started publishing the names of johns caught with their pants down in the Palm Beach Post, this patch of turf was our homegrown red-light district, paced by skinny, coked-up hookers in leopard-print thigh-highs and pink feather boas. These days, it's just pitch-dark, profoundly creepy, and dead empty.
But turn the corner onto 25th Street and you'll find yourself ogling a fleet of Mercedes, Lexuses, and maybe a silver Bentley or an antique Roadster, two gleaming lines on either side of the street. A valet opens your door; faint notes from a piano drift into the night or the sultry vocals of somebody singing "Girl from Ipanema." Cross through the mellow lighting spilling over the threshold at Hoboken Grill and a blond in a micro-mini hands you a menu. You've entered the zone, baby.
George Cesar isn't the first restaurateur to try to get something going in this blighted couple of blocks. In fact, his 3-month-old Hoboken is participating in a 45-year-old tradition. Many an idealist has set up shop in this broken neck of the woods and hoped to lure Palm Beach socialites, politicians, and movie stars to tumble down the rabbit hole. It started when Isabelle and Rel Carta opened This Is It Pub in 1961 a block away on 24th Street. This Is It was 5,000 square feet of chic in the middle of nowhere. For more than 30 years, the Cartas served oyster stew, prime rib, beef Wellington, rack of lamb, and mussels steamed in wine to Palm Beach islanders who liked the idea of slumming it. Seascape painter Jack Gray, goes the story, used to pay his bar tabs with paintings. Gerry Beebe, who bought This Is It a few years after the Cartas closed it, remarked that next to Petite Marmite, it was the swankiest restaurant in Palm Beach County. Beebe poured a fortune into the place but couldn't make it go; neither could Richard Day, who until a few years ago tried staging drag shows to bring the old crowds back. This Is It no longer is.
But pieces of what It was have gone into refurbishing Hoboken one block over. Cesar, formerly a Wall Street trader who has no prior restaurant experience, is not only aware of the weird history of the area; he revels in it. He says the space Hoboken Grill occupies on 25th Street may be the oldest continuous restaurant locale in Palm Beach County. He bought This Is It's gigantic bar, worn down by the elbows of many a local lush; Michael Scalpi happened to have it in storage. Now completely restored and polished to a luster, that old bar is rumored to have gotten its start at the Royal Poinciana Hotel in Palm Beach.
Or maybe not. "Actually, Jim Ponce was in here the other night, and he swears it's the original bar from E.R. Bradley's casino," Cesar says -- which would locate the birth of that chunk of wood in the early part of last century. Ponce is official historian of the Breakers Hotel and the Palm Beach Chamber of Commerce, so he oughta know.
Ponce is a regular at Hoboken, along with West Palm Mayor Lois Frankel and her staff. Plus a bunch of Old Northwood residents who now have to saunter only a couple of blocks to get a good, char-grilled cheeseburger topped with triple cream brie and applewood smoked bacon ($9) plus a side of crisp waffle fries or a plate of pappardelle Bolognese ($17) or a slab of cedar plank wild king salmon with lobster-infused mash ($19). Hoboken's menu suffers from attention deficit disorder; it's almost willfully unfocused. You can get a New England lobster roll ($13) and a bowl of edamame ($5). Or start out with a Mediterranean mezze ($9) followed by risotto with grilled scallops. Craving quesadilla? Asian barbecued ribs? How about a Cuban sandwich? Or a wild mushroom pizza? Want a BLT with your Gaucho steak? And don't forget the veal Milanese!
The menu doesn't say so, but Cesar assures me he'll dish up caviar by the ounce too, maybe to eat with the Dom Perignon on the wine list.
I suspect that George Cesar is serving the stuff he likes to eat while also trying to hedge his bets. He wants Hoboken to be a neighborhood bar -- not so much a special-occasion destination as somewhere people can come to eat five out of seven nights a week. Nice people. Gay couples and ladies wearing Lily Pulitzer clamdiggers and city commissioners with their wives. And according to him, they do.
"When I moved down here to be with my girlfriend, we ate out literally seven nights a week," he says. "And I thought that in general, the restaurants here were not that great and very overpriced. I wanted to open a place serving good food with lots of flavor and keep the prices down so people would keep coming back."
The girlfriend is gone; when Cesar and local real-estate investor Lauren Weber split, the news made gossip columns. And since Cesar says he lives at the restaurant, working 16 hour days, presumably he's getting to eat exactly what he likes now. It's coming right from his own kitchen, cooked by his friend Robert Reilly, formerly executive chef at the popular Madison Bar & Grill in Hoboken, NJ. Based on a couple of visits, I'd say the quality of Reilly's fare -- which he pulls verbatim off Madison's menu, down to the bogus chicken Raphael ($17) and the warm herbed goat cheese salad ($9) -- ranges from excellent bar snacks to home-cooked comfort food to fancier dishes that sometimes fail rather spectacularly.
I suppose if I lived a couple of blocks away, I'd be a regular. Hoboken serves a nice martini, and the average price of a bottle of wine is $20 to $35. There's live music in the bar every night, either a lone pianist playing Sinatra tunes or appearances by local jazz singers. Pale brick floors, beamed ceilings, and that stately old bar make for a snazzy main room; the two smaller dining rooms are washed in cozy hues, exuding warmth; and the front-of-the-house staff is exceedingly attractive. You might even say that the nondescript food is a draw -- there's nothing on this menu that could remotely surprise, much less offend, anybody unless you have something against an open-faced, grilled-chicken sandwich.
What we liked: that cedar-plank salmon, cooked sweetly tender, set on a fluffy mattress of buttery mashed potatoes (with no discernible lobster flavor, but what the heck). We liked the whipped sweet potatoes and warm red pickled cabbage that came with this dish too. A portobello mushroom wrap ($8) with silky white mozzarella, tomato, and basil aioli was just fine, and I absolutely loved the mountain of crinkly waffle fries that came with it.
And we were happy with our crab cakes ($11), full of shredded crab meat and fried crunchy on the outside, served with a mighty hot chili lime aioli. Our pan-seared diver scallops ($8) with balsamic cream reduction made a delicate, satisfying appetizer.
But chicken Raphael ($17) would have baffled department store magnate Raphael Weill, who gave the dish his name. Goat cheese? Pancetta?? Panko breading??? Give me a break! Any campfire gourmet knows Raphael is made with artichokes, mushrooms, and sherry cream sauce. I have no quarrel with Hoboken's invention -- it's tasty, right down to the Madeira demi-glace -- but please, spare Weill the credit. Might as well call it chicken Magellan; that list of ingredients circumnavigates the globe.
I'm not sure what I thought about the colossal shrimp. You buy these by the piece ($3.50 each). Colossal they are: They're roughly the color, size, and shape -- and, it must be said, the texture -- of a penis. It seems evil to cut them with a knife, but biting into one whole is obscene. To eat these things, you must choose between channeling Lorena Bobbitt or Linda Lovelace. Maybe other diners aren't as squeamish -- once I got past the visuals, the shrimp tasted dandy, and the cocktail sauce had just the right amount of horseradish.
The only dish that really didn't work was a risotto special ($25), a ham-fisted concoction drenched in cheese and weirdly studded with red peppers and scallops that were dredged in the hottest spice mixture I've ever eaten. Either somebody's taste buds in the kitchen are entirely shot or somebody isn't testing this dish. Hot I like, in tacos and Thai food, say. But on delicate scallops? Too weird.
One thing we know: George Cesar can't keep up his pace of 16-hour working days. You don't retire to Florida at the age of 34, having already made your fortune in the stock market and ready to dabble in a little real estate, only to find yourself scrambling to manage a passel of employees that, by Cesar's own admission, have been known to black out from drug overdoses during staff meetings and to stumble into work stinking drunk. "I managed 30 insane employees on a Wall Street trading floor," Cesar sighs, "and it was nothing compared to this." Good help is so hard to find. But judging from the Beemers lining up outside his door, finding a ready and eager clientele for Hoboken is a piece of cake.
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