Heart of Darkness
Palm Beach has always had a thing for Africa. In the several seasons that I temporarily trespassed in the hallways of the Dodges and Phippses and Pulitzers on my way into or out of some party, I often spied with my own little eye the smart set´s embrace of what even then were decidedly un-P.C. decorative touches: umbrella stands fashioned from real elephants´ feet, display cases of ivory, gigantic crossed tusks surmounting a doorway, tiger-skin carpets, the glassy-eyed, taxidermied heads of oryxes and hartebeests. There was a lightless, smelly little Palm Beach bar back then too, the Kenya Club, always full of late-afternoon lushes, across from the fire station on Australian Avenue, with the requisite campy veldt décor. We don´t have the space here to fully decode the ultrarich´s obsession with a continent that has yielded the world´s greatest cache of precious gems and communicable diseases some fantasy of European mastery mingled with horror of a creeping Other that, given half a chance, would turn your internal organs to mush or impale your head on a spike. But in their yen for boa-skin prints, crocodile handbags, and safari helmets, the upper crust is a lot more transparent than it likes to think.
The Leopard Lounge at the Chesterfield Hotel has been around for a decade (the hotel was built in the 1920s), but it feels 30 years older. It´s probably the dimmest dining room in all of Palm Beach, lit mainly by Elvira-meets-Elvis chandeliers in which bright-orange electric candles flicker, plus the twinkle from tiny stage lights on the dance platform dividing the bar from the restaurant. (This dance floor gets plenty of use.) The décor is übertacky -- dusty red-velvet bordello drapes, chairs lined in faux leopard spots, etchings of giraffes on the walls, and bamboo truncheons dangling above the heads of diners like bad news waiting to drop. The room smells a little like 5 billion brunches have been served there; the walls and carpet have absorbed the ghostly essence of every spilled bloody mary or drop of hollandaise sauce. It took me a while to figure out the ceiling, a mural of swirling reds painted by Italian artist Lino Mario: From the perspective of our table, it slowly coalesced into a series of heaving buttocks, open-mouthed faces, bits of exposed thigh, like a throwaway sketch for Hieronymus Bosch´s vision of hell -- or maybe heaven.
If I´ve made the Leopard Lounge sound grotesque and scary, that´s because it is grotesque and scary -- but in a fun way. The Leopard Lounge is the closest you may ever get to dining in a David Lynch dream sequence; the only thing missing is an ugly dwarf to serve you your creamed chipped beef. Uh-huh, I said creamed chipped beef. Finding this ¨appetizer¨ on the menu, I couldn´t have been more aghast if Frank Booth had appeared at the next table howling ¨Baby wants to fuck Blue Velvet!¨
I had to order it, of course. My Dad, who spent a couple of years in the Army in the ´50s, used to whip up what the rank and file called ¨SOS¨ for Sunday breakfast; as a kid, I thought dried beef jerky mixed with canned milk and poured over Wondertoast was just too yummy! To be fair, I´ve heard they used to serve creamed chipped beef at ¨21¨ in New York, where the bluebloods and celebs were wild for it. But honestly, I admire any chef with the guts to put it on the menu of a hoity supper club; it´s like a sly joke that requires a minute to get the punch line; but when you do, it´s hilarious.
And gracious, this chipped beef is delicious! Worth every penny of the 11 bucks they´re charging for it. The chef has the sense not to use the awful bright-red preserved beef that comes rolled up in a jar but instead substitutes real steak, probably scraps from the New York strip the restaurant serves, thinly sliced and tossed with cream, wine, and lots of pepper, and ladled into a buttery phyllo crust (the ¨shingle¨). Rich, warming, filling. Hot and creamy. Delightfully retro. Heavy enough for a main meal -- I suggest ordering it with something light, like a caesar salad, to follow.
I didn´t take my own good advice -- I had a full chicken schnitzel entrée ($21) with mashed potatoes coming, but still I couldn´t stop eating. After I´d scraped up every drop of warm cream and phyllo, I even put away about half of my darling´s chile relleno ($12) with lobster salad. This strange combo was surprisingly good too. The Leopard Lounge has the distinction of being one of the few places in Palm Beachdom to serve an amazingly varied late-night bar menu, from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. on weekends and until midnight otherwise, a consciousness-raising array of burgers (chicken, lamb, shrimp, or beef, in both maxi and mini sizes) along with fish tacos, turkey clubs, and lobster salad sandwiches. I assume the lobster salad that sides the chile relleno is filched from the bar menu. The chunky shellfish -- cool, fresh, and soothing -- balances the spicy heat of the cheese-stuffed chile. You wouldn´t think it would work, but it sure does.
Other appetizers worth trying: duck ragout with potato cake, she crab soup, fresh tomato bruschetta, seared ahi tuna with wakame salad -- all relatively exotic when set against a list of entrées (priced from $21 to $36) straight out of some fusty old London men´s club. You´ve got your steak, your chicken Paillard with mashed potatoes, your seared sea bass, your snapper français with potato gnocchi and ginger-tomato chutney, your rack of lamb, and your center-cut pork chop. If these dishes are as competently put together as my chicken parm schnitzel ($21) or my spouse´s New York strip ($36 served with a baked potato and asparagus), they´ll neither disappoint nor rock you. The chicken schnitzel had been pounded thin and crisp, coated with Parmesan and crumbs, served with a wedge of lemon and a perfectly respectable mound of butter-laden mashed potatoes. It was underseasoned and definitely needed a good soaking with the lemon. The New York strip had been beautifully seared outside and wasn´t overcooked. It was a huge piece of meat, generous to a fault, although the beef itself I thought a tad on the stringy side (really good steak is getting harder and harder to find these days). The baked potato was fine, the asparagus crisp and green.
For dessert ($8), a key lime tart had the right texture but a bitter aftertaste. Toffee pudding -- a square of bready toffee cake soaked in extra-sweet butterscotch sauce with a scoop of vanilla ice cream -- tasted just like a really good stack of breakfast pancakes smothered in syrup. I´d recommend instead something from the menu of the flirty dessert cocktails and after-dinner drinks.
Here´s another thing I love about the Leopard Lounge it´s got all kinds of specials going on; it´s like it never says die. It throws open those doors at 7 a.m. and doesn´t close until 1:30 in the morning. You could come back a dozen times and never repeat your experience. There´s a daily afternoon tea, for instance. And a prime rib night on Tuesdays for $24.95. Happy hour every single afternoon from 5 to 7. A ¨romantic rendezvous¨ prix fixe for $140 for two. And all kinds of entertainment, from drag shows to dance bands. Then there´s the clientele...
Terminally hip out-of-towners like to come to Palm Beach and dis our tatty old Leopard -- just do a blog search if you´re looking for material. Yeah, there´s a lounge singer with his Casio belting out Barry White tunes. (Listen, he does OK with them! And what song could better pair with the swirling red ceiling than ¨Ecstasy¨?) There are the sartorially inept jokers wearing $700 lime-green slacks (Where do they find them? Oh, right, two blocks away on Worth Avenue); the Southern lady lawyers screaming into their cell phones; the big shots ordering $400 bottles of champagne; the doyennes -- newly resurfaced skin stretched tight and shiny as latex over jutting cheek and collarbones. You´ll get your occasional celeb sighting here, but in season, it´s mostly octogenarian romancers getting freaky on this dance floor. Go ahead and laugh, but the essence of Palm Beach life, its glorious hypocrisies and bad hair, has been condensed here into a swell little microcosm that can´t fail to amuse you. If only because, like Capt. Kurtz going slowly mad in his jungle lair, you´re so thoroughly not of it.
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