Cooking by Numbers
Things change so fast in South Florida. It's like we're living inside the head of some giant god with ADHD. Landmarks vanish overnight; restaurants flip three times before you make it back for your second plate of calamari fritti.
So it's comforting to drive down George Bush Boulevard in Delray Beach (formerly just Eighth Street) and lay eyes on the sign for Pineapple Grille -- one of the few constants in a discontinuous universe. This irrepressible, Caribbean-themed, old Key West-style outpost has been here for ten years. That a place just a decade young should signify a constant is a painful irony -- history's on the march!
The Grille looks like a tourist's Technicolored daydream of Florida. Every surface is painstakingly hand-painted in tropical colors. Giant fish swim above mosaic-tile patio tables -- including a hammerhead shark with somebody's hat in its mouth. On warm, clear nights, everybody sits outdoors in the jasmine-scented air, talking above the caged parrot's imprecations (he was noticeably absent last time). A guitarist quietly plays "Norwegian Wood" and Pink Floyd unplugged. When the weather turns chilly, they drag out heat lamps and roll down the curtains.
Owner Charles Tobias has been kicking around Delray Beach since the days he worked at Vittorio -- he went on to open Il Girasole and later operated Charlie's on Atlantic Avenue. Donna Bruner, head chef at Pineapple Grille for nine years, is another notable constant. Some of the wait staff have also been there for years. Only Sous Chef Ricky Gopeesingh has moved on; last year, he left to go solo with his French-Caribbean restaurant, Nirvana, in Boynton Beach.
The most significant constant of all, though, is unanimous critical praise. You can stand in the little alcove by the bathrooms and never run out of reading material -- every glowing review is lovingly framed and displayed. There are lavish accolades from the Sun-Sentinel, the Palm Beach Post, Boca Magazine, Zagat, Wine Spectator, City Link, a "People's Choice" award from AAA, and two "Best Of" designations from New Times -- one for Best New World Restaurant in 1999 and another for Best Wine Selection in a Restaurant in 2000. Even the Boston Globe has waxed ecstatic about Pineapple Grille. There are more stars on this wall than in a night sky over Kingston.
"This is a serious restaurant for locals," intones the Post in one blurb.
No. It's just a seriously overrated restaurant.
I've never had a good meal at Pineapple Grille, though I guess somebody has. Either the place is wildly uneven or it's piping laughing gas through the sound system. Five years ago, I had a dinner that was OK but not good enough to draw me back. A Sunday buffet brunch around that same period was memorably awful (one detail that stands out was a horde of flies alighting on the sliced pineapple). Two more dinners there this month haven't managed to relieve me of my sense of isolation. Am I crazy?
Not crazy -- desperate. I'd sell my first-born for a moderately priced neighborhood hangout that serves fresh fish dishes and has a full bar -- my disappointment with Pineapple Grille is well-nigh crushing. Nobody could want this place to be terrific more than I do. I'd settle for pretty good. I'd even settle for "always edible." It doesn't look like I'm likely to get my wish, no matter how hard I rub my magic lamp. The vision that appears when I mouth the words "Pineapple Grille" is an evil genie.
These are hard words to write. The staff is so sweet. The servers have never been anything but extremely nice to me -- notably attentive in some cases beyond the call of duty. I know from talking to Tobias that he really cares: He wants customers to have a good experience so much that he practices numerology with the menu prices (blackened tuna is $20.08; crab stuffed artichoke hearts are $8.76, lucky numbers meant to bathe diners in good karma). I love that Pineapple Grille is also one of the few restaurants in South Florida to employ blacks in visible, front-of-the-house jobs (a peeve I'll save for another column). I just can't figure out what's going on with the food.
In 1999, another critic from this very publication pointed out that New World cuisine is often a case of overkill: "Too many side dishes on one plate, too many competing flavors." Pineapple Grille, we said, "does New World cuisine the way it's meant to be prepared: simply. The dishes certainly aren't overdone or overwhelmed by dozens of ingredients."
I beg to differ. My "Five-Spice Seared Sea Bass Tossed with Oriental Veggies and Hoi sin Plumb [sic] Sauce," at a whopping but karmically auspicious price of $31.97, was as far from "simple" as Paris Hilton is from Mao Tse-Tung. I brought most of the dish home not because I wanted to eat it but because I wanted to leisurely unpack it -- like a Mary Poppins' valise. I have it before me now, and I'm amazed by the frightening conspiracy to silence this piece of sea bass. There are curls of raw carrot and raw red beet, chunks of mango, black beans, celery, sliced red and yellow peppers, canned mushrooms, shreds of cilantro, bok choy, Chinese cabbage, red cabbage, and zucchini (pick the "Orientals" out of this lineup). Was there anything left in the cooler after this dish was sent out? The fish did not come "tossed" with these vegetables, it came "smothered" in them, and I don't doubt it had fought to the last gasp. There may have been five spices somewhere in this mess, but the hoisin sauce was so cloyingly sweet and salty that one bite left no taste bud unslaughtered.
If this were just one instance of a valiant but ultimately failed experiment, I might be tempted to let it go (well, maybe not, at that price.) The sea bass was my second entrée on my second visit, and the kitchen had long since abused my trust to the point that our differences were irreconcilable. I'd previously ordered one of the "Grille Specialties," Lorelei yellowtail with lime pepper sauce ($21.04), specifically because the menu promised locally caught yellowtail snapper. The fish was pure mush, the lime pepper sauce very bitter, and it was finally inedible. That I'd barely been able to touch it was clear enough to our darling, solicitous server, who comped our dessert to ease the pain.
So what's the problem? I'm going to hazard a guess that the kitchen is trying too hard to do too much. Maybe after nine years, Chef Bruner is bored and wants to fool around a little. I don't blame her a bit. But she's doing nine or ten nightly specials, in addition to an extensive regular menu, and these specials change significantly every night. The difference between Thursday and Saturday is the difference between egg rolls and empanadas, escargot and crab Napoleon, flatiron steak and short ribs of beef. If she'd take any one of these dishes and really perfect it, she'd be doing us all a favor. As it is, she just appears to be floundering in a sea of bottled hoisin sauce.
Our appetizers were further examples of insufficient attention. Crab and roasted corn chowder ($4.18) had been started, I'm guessing, from a powdered soup base -- it had Cheney Brothers written all over it. There wasn't any crab in it either. (This is the third time in three weeks, at three restaurants, that I've ordered a crab item entirely free of crab meat. Is there a worldwide crustacean shortage?) It was so salty, I was blown up like Kirstie Alley for two days afterward.
Another small plate, aquacate ($6.47), fried avocado with organic greens and chipotle mustard vinaigrette, made us a bit happier, although that was one pricey slice of avocado. Parmesan-crusted artichoke hearts ($7.76) were served with an unpleasant mayonnaise "dipping sauce" (I'm hazarding that it came straight from a jar). Terrible. Flubbed details like this can just ruin a meal.
You couldn't pick out a single flavor note in our short ribs with "zingy" cumin citrus barbecue glaze ($20.96) -- not the cumin, not the citrus -- and they were also oversweet and salty. An entrée portion of crab cakes ($17.14) was better, rolled in macadamia nuts and bread crumbs. It's served with a corn and black-bean relish you've probably seen in other restaurants and in store-bought jars, but it's pleasant enough, and the crab cakes were crunchy, spicy, just about right. Grille entrées used to be served with a green salad, but the practice has been discontinued -- Tobias says to keep prices down. I'd resume the salads and skip the stale bruschetta that begins every meal if I were pinching pennies.
But why should they have to pinch pennies? The place is jammed every night; you can't get in without a reservation on weekends. Don't these loyal customers deserve better? I paid $9.44 for a glass of Gran Marnier after dinner, to which a 75-cent surcharge was tacked on because I drank it straight up. Jesus. Who drinks Gran Marnier on ice? Do we infer that mixed drinks don't contain a full shot? Any way you slice it, it looks tacky.
Maybe the crowds throng Pineapple Grille for the good crab cakes, the interesting wine list, and the truly paradisal atmosphere. Or maybe they're under Tobias' black magic spell. But numerology isn't going to help this place. Somebody here needs to get real.
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