Diner at Eight
Completely against my better judgment, I've developed a grudging respect for Burt Rapoport. This is a guy I'd love to hate he's got a headful of big restaurant concepts and perpetual oodles of startup cash. His gigantic, overwrought restaurants plunked down in bomb-proof shelters like Boca Center and the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino succeed enormously even while other talented young restaurateurs, clutching their culinary-school diplomas and their maxed-out credit cards, dodge the mortars and landmines of our bellicose gustatory marketplace. Nothing can keep this guy down; every time I blink, he's throwing open a new venue. I've found myself writing about him twice already in 2006 (Jazziz Bistro at the Hollywood Hard Rock, Opus 5 in Boca) and you can expect yet another column devoted to his exploits by year's end in November, he's opening Bo-gart's Bar & Grill at the splendiferous Muvico Palace 20. You can't miss the Palace as you whiz past on I-95: It's that radioactive glow in the distance, as if a hot comet had crashed in Boca and then morphed into a terrifying 20-screen movie house from Mars. I can't imagine a more perfect location for Rapoport's next (g)astronomic amuse-gueule.
Rapoport has amused me on many occasions, but it took a trip to Henry's, one of his oldest (it opened in 2000) and least glamorous concepts, to make me really get how brilliant he is. And I understood it best as I sat on the can in Henry's well-appointed ladies room and listened to two carefully preserved Boca crones twitter about an upcoming 50th wedding anniversary celebration. The accents were heavily Jersey:
"You made it to your 50th, Annamarie. Would you ever have thought it all those years ago?"
"Moving to Florida was the best decision we ever made it's just a beautiful place, isn't it? How could a marriage not be happy in this climate?"
Tee hee hee.
Rapoport has nailed it. Henry's is the nicest Jersey diner you've ever mopped up your gravy in. It's a concept calculated to suck up every stray snowbird who yearns for the Happy Waitress Special at the Seville or the Colonial or the Edison or the Skylark. Except that these diner mavens have money now (a few savvy investments have cushioned the retirement) and don't mind dropping $15.95 on a plate of meatloaf with gravy or spaghetti with meatballs or $16.95 on crumb-crusted chicken "Milano" or even $30 on a bottle of wine from the "Wine Spectator award-winning list." It's a few dollars more than they'd have paid for the patty melt back home, but hey, you can't take it with you.
Or, actually you can, and the doggy bags you'll tote home from Henry's are part of its appeal. I found myself liking Henry's even more in retrospect than I did while I was actually dodging the wheelchairs and walkers or wading through my bowl of pea soup ($5.95). And this feeling owed much to the way my pot roast with wild mushrooms and port wine demiglacé ($19.95) reheated the next day. It's probably professional suicide to admit it, but I love restaurant leftovers. I even harbor a secret suspicion that one's cold spaghetti, eaten straight from its styrofoam container, is an infallible index of a restaurant's real cojones. Anything can taste great when it's run straight from the kitchen, an exact replica of the Sears Tower done in avocado and lichee, but how does it taste when it's mashed to a steaming gray paste in my frying pan at 10 the next morning?
Oh, hold your damned letters. I'm only joking! But really, Henry's menu must have been designed with the deep focus of a compulsive leftover lover. There's a big section of "American Classics:" meatloaf with red wine gravy, mashed potatoes, and seven-vegetable sauté ($15.95); veal cutlet with San Marzano tomato sauce and rigatoni ($19.95); a pork T-bone chop sided by sweet potatoes, crispy onions, and apple-cinnamon demiglacé ($19.95); the aforementioned pot roast; spaghetti with chicken meatballs ($15.95); and a daily offering of chicken clay casseroles, from fried chicken through coq au vin and chicken pot pie (all $16.95). You can practically hear these entrées chanting, in their slurpy, sauce-muffled voices, Reheat me! And even apart from the oh-so-comforting selections, there's the size of them the pot roast comes huffing and puffing from the kitchen to remind us of the adage: "Never eat anything bigger than your head." This is a plate Henry VIII would have groaned over.
The entrées, in my opinion, are the sure thing to do here. I wouldn't bother again with the "magical split pea soup" starter. It was magical only in that the endless bowl kept surreptitiously refilling, like the ones in scientific experiments testing human appetite. I managed to get through only half of it. This soup was thick and gray as Oliver Twist's orphanage-cured porridge; it was too salty; its stock base had the flavor of long-overcooked vegetables. It was so thick, in fact, that when I'd eaten half, the remaining semicircle remained perfectly immobile in its white bowl, making a yin-yang pattern of Full & Empty, like an unanswerable philosophical koan on the subject of dining out ("Does the soup have a Buddha nature or not? Gack!").
I say "in my opinion" because my dining companion went all soft and mushy over her own appetizer, warm almond-crusted brie pieces ($8.95) that exactly resembled chicken fingers. I thought they were pretty good. We argued about this while she mopped up every drop of the raspberry sauce they came with, licking the warm brie goo rapturously from her fingers.
The evening's special was a roast pork tenderloin with barbecue sauce, sauerkraut, and corn bread ($19.95), and both this and the pot roast were as pleasing as they were reasonably priced. The pacing of our meal was brisk white-haired ladies and gents having mostly cleared out by the time we arrived at 8:30 and our servers clearly wanted to be done with it. And, anyway, we were so full of Henry's delicious bread (warm, many grained, served with fine, sweet butter) and our hefty appetizers that we could only pick and muse over these wonderful entrées. My pork tenderloin was cooked medium-rare, moist, pink, and spicy, couched in a bit (but not too much) earthy barbecue sauce with swirls of marinated cabbage on the side. The cabbage had terrific, exhilarating notes of cider and cardamom. There were wedges of thin, sweetish, toasty cornbread too. For a homestyle dish, this couldn't have been improved. And we felt immediate affection for the pot roast not least because the "wild mushrooms" advertised on the menu actually did appear on the plate (you'd be surprised how rarely this happens), the mashed potatoes were creamy and flavorful, the little French beans had plenty of snap, and every element was in pitch-perfect harmony. This was comfort food that couldn't fail to comfort.
We didn't need or want the shortcake ($8.95) with "Georgia peaches" and blueberry sauce we choked down afterward, and it was forgettable anyway those peaches were evidently canned in Georgia. The crumbly, dry shortcake and sweet whipped cream was cloying after a few bites. Henry's hearty appetite, evidently, yearns only for the big, big meat. It's certainly what the place does best. And for a luxuriously appointed Jersey diner named after Rapoport's pet dog, what else should we expect?
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