The P.R. was relentless. Paradiso, the Lake Worth restaurant owned by Chef Angelo Romano, was celebrating its tenth birthday all season long with a dish of $100 risotto. This was almost more outrageous than the $100 burger recently unveiled at the Old Homestead at Boca Raton Resort, a much-ballyhooed patty made with three kinds of exotic beef flown in and trucked from Lauderdale airport in an armored Humvee. Except rice is a lot cheaper than wagyu, right? Even Arborio rice hand-threshed by hunchbacked crones in the Po Valley. The paperwork said the risotto was made with beluga caviar, white or black truffles, lobster, and the finest aged XO Courvoisier. The only thing missing was a bust of Dante sculpted in gold leaf and goose liver and sprinkled with pixie dust.
Everybody around the office agreed: It sounded disgusting.
What is up with all the blingy food lately? While animal rights activists are busy taking the foie gras war city to city, the rest of us are scarfing up endangered Caspian caviar and popping open $400 bottles of Dom Pérignon rosé like the end is nigh and we gotta get raptured, as if we actually believe in global warming or something. In case you haven't noticed, there is a definitive trend, a kind of oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) to all the politically and environmentally correct blather about "eating locally" and it involves gathering exorbitantly expensive and nearly extinct delicacies from the four corners of the globe and dangling them in front of our bedazzled eyes. As long as you've got the green, that square watermelon from Japan, that 150-year-old bottle of balsamic from Modena, can be yours.
Of course the risotto at Paradiso, we found, was not disgusting at all. I should have known better, because I've been to Paradiso on many more occasions than I deserve, and I know its food is almost always flawless. Paradiso is my dirty little secret I blow wads of cash there the way some people bankrupt themselves at the track. In fact, I'm here to tell you that the $100 risotto at Paradiso is one of the most delicious dishes in South Florida. And the price is less abusive than you might imagine, since the risotto is for two. I'd venture that Paradiso's special risotto is even the exact thing you might want to be sharing with your beloved when you propose marriage or celebrate a momentous birthday or anniversary or require an intimate and romantic interlude. It's a meal meant for high romance, meant to be eaten à deux at some quiet corner table latish on a breezy winter evening. If you can't win or win back her heart over this risotto, you don't deserve to.
We were getting reacquainted after several months of enforced separation. Our seventh anniversary was approaching. And it was almost seven years too since Y2K, when a close friend of ours, a born-again fundamentalist along with 10,000 other Christian Americans had truly and honestly prepared himself for the End Times. That New Year's Eve we'd spent smashing technological detritus with a gigantic mallet old IBMs, black-and-white televisions, eight-track tape players. And for a moment around midnight, it had seemed that the world would indeed end in fire when a box on a nearby utility pole suddenly exploded in a shower of sparks. We survived the night. The dates on the world's computers simply clicked over into the year 2000, and we woke up the next morning from our champagne dreams with a headachy sense that our imaginations nearly always outstripped the plain facts.
Our recent risotto experience, though, was exactly the reverse: reality trumped. We ordered Paradiso antipasto ($18) to start, a plate of cool, marinated vegetables grilled eggplant and baby artichokes, diaphanous waves of pink prosciutto, red peppers moist and fiery, a salty olive, a bit of tomato, and mozzarella with the consistency of pudding. With their usual finesse, they'd split this for us in the kitchen and presented it, beautifully arrayed, with a flourish. Paradiso is the kind of restaurant where the waiters all of them heartbreakingly beautiful dress in what look like $1,000 suits. When you mutter a "thank you" for any of the hundreds of small, pristine gestures they perform, they're likely to respond in a Mediterranean-accented baritone, making sonorous love to every syllable: "Madame, it is my greatest pleasure."
After a little while, a cart was wheeled out, trailing yet more handsome men, for the presentation of the rice. A silver tray was passed under our noses, and we caught a whiff of truffle oil and of sea creatures flambéed in cognac, of mushrooms sautéed in butter along with a flash of red claw and the glimmery pale pink of scallop shells. A couple of langoustines waved languid antennae. Then they took the tray away and divvied it up.
Our plates were set down, a white truffle shaved generously over the top. "Buon appetito."
There were several revelations here. First, the beluga caviar was not incorporated into the risotto as we'd imagined (absurd, in retrospect) it was spooned atop two tiny bay scallops set alongside in their pretty shells, decorative and delicious a perfect example of form meeting function. I'm sorry to say it's been a long time since I've tasted beluga; I'd almost lost sight of reasons why there's a thriving black market in the stuff its clean, oceanic flavor in tiny, timed explosions on the tongue, its serious, fruity richness and lingering hint of musk. It must engender womb memories. On top of the fresh, buttery little bay scallop, it was poetic license. And the langoustines! Have I ever tasted this creature before? They are like long, giant shrimp or delicate, thin lobsters, and they'd been split cleanly down the middle lengthwise from head to tail. The meat in their tails was as sweet and delicate, as gently briny and melting, as you can imagine a seafood even more perfect than any lobster, in my opinion. These, and the lobster pieces (easily a pound and a half between us), both tail and claw meat, and the hen of the woods and maitake mushrooms, had been sautéed in truffle oil and flambéed in fine cognac. You discovered the mushrooms in hidden layers inside the beautifully creamy, al dente risotto, which had absorbed every ounce of the shellfish broth it had been cooked in, every molecule of butter or whiff of alcoholic fume. The magic of risotto, its silk and bite, is in precisely this equation that it fully absorbs and integrates what you cook with it and becomes a thing much greater than its individual parts. When the parts themselves are great, well then... you have truth and beauty.
It was a meal of almost unimaginable richness and texture. My partner scooped up every grain. I couldn't finish mine, but I knew better than to try to take it home with me; that's the other mysterious power of risotto it's a food very much of the moment.
We finished dinner over a slice of Caprese torte, a fine-tuned flourless cake of chocolate, eggs, and ground almonds dusted with confectioners' sugar. It was late. Through the wall of windows overlooking the street, a long-estranged friend seven years lost caught sight of us and came in to make amends. We sat and talked and sipped our espressos and learned that it takes just that long to make a full revolution.
On New Year's Eve, Paradiso is offering a five-course prix fixe menu that looks very promising. Signor Romano tells me there are still reservations to be had for the later seating (around 9 p.m.) The cost is $150 per person ($280 with wine pairings) and comes with a complimentary champagne toast at midnight. The menu includes those sweet little langoustines in champagne sauce; a riff on the blingy risotto with lobster, Venetian caviar, and flambéed cognac; salt-crusted bass; and a combination of meats: buffalo, lamb, and veal. Petits fours for dessert. You can scan the full menu, along with the wine pairings, at paradisolakeworth.com.
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