Some people pooh-pooh the notion of big-name chefs lending their expertise and big names to luxury hotels, cruise ships, airplanes, Vegas, Disney World -- any venue that offers enough money. Personally I'd lobby these culinary wonder boys to apply their golden touch even to the food concessions at sports arenas and Amtrak terminals as well. Face it: The days of American chefs using their fame simply as marquee draws for single restaurants are over. We have seen the future of fine dining, and it is everywhere.
Mark Militello has also seen the future, and it looks a lot like an upscale mall. Militello, who has been innovatively cooking up fresh, local ingredients in "New American" fashion for some 20 years now, first traipsed into the spotlight with his original Mark's Place in North Miami Beach. That restaurant no longer exists, but he has maintained his loyal following and stream of critical kudos with subsequent successes: Mark's Las Olas, Mark's South Beach, and Mark's in the Park, which opened just a little more than two years ago amid the glittery stores of Mizner Park. That first foray into a high-end shopping center evidently worked well enough to propel Militello into trying again, this time with Mark's CityPlace in West Palm Beach.
CityPlace itself is more open and urbane than most massive modern malls; the center square actually feels like a village meeting place, with milling crowds entertained by live music and assorted goings-on. These festivities are visible from Mark's upstairs location -- as is the Cheesecake Factory. Mark's is certainly above that chain in the context of quality dining as well, but even so, surprising similarities exist between the two spots: Mark's CityPlace is a big, bustling restaurant that, by offering pizza and sushi, appeals to a wider, more Cheesecakey demographic than Militello's other ventures. And while I don't believe that a lack of linen tablecloths or a server to grind your pepper mill reflects negatively upon a restaurant's sophistication, the copper saltshaker and pepper mill on each bare wooden table do suggest a certain informality.
An elevated bar and cocktail lounge sit to the left of the entrance; a 12-stooled, crescent-shape sushi bar in the center; an open kitchen in the back; and lots of indoor and outdoor tables everywhere else. Warm earth tones intermingle with modern touches that by themselves would not be accurately described as "attractive" (the adornments of wrought iron are tortuously twisted, and the ceiling looks like a design student's project to turn attic insulation into art) but fit reasonably well into the composite décor. Altogether this is a comfortable and stylish room, as intimate as a two-level, 240-seat eatery can be.
Militello probably won't be on the premises when you dine here (chef de cuisine Henry Marchman runs the kitchen), but the food is unmistakably his. That means combinations of big, often earthy flavors with lighter gastronomic delicacies. White-truffle macaroni and cheese certainly exemplifies this spirit as well as any other dish, and while adding truffle oil to this American classic might strike some as being sacrilegious (kind of like misting Humphrey Bogart with perfume), the resultant taste is intoxicating. A strong French/Mediterranean influence runs through Militello's creations as well, with almost negligible nods to global and New World cuisines. The sole Asian dishes, besides those offered at the sushi bar, are a tuna tartare starter with pickled ginger, sweet soy, and Togarashi crackers and a main course of ginger and shoyu-marinated sea bass with soba noodles. And while a few salads contain hints of apple or pear, the only other fruits in sight are pineapple gastrique atop a duck confit appetizer and orange fennel salad alongside a pan-seared salmon. This may surprise those who still equate Militello with his "Mango Gang" roots, but he and his onetime fellow travelers have scurried from that label the way Hollywood's elite once fled from the word socialism. ("Mr. Militello, are you now or have you ever been a member of any organization that promoted the use of tropical fruits in cooking?")
Wood-burning ovens are practically obligatory in contemporary American restaurants, and the one at Mark's churns out thin, blistery designer pizzas with charred crusts and trendy toppings such as shrimp, pesto, sun-dried tomatoes, and fontina cheese. Pies are normally nifty to share as appetizers, though in the aftermath of indulging in thick, buttered slices of soft, warm breads, you may wish to opt for a less doughy starter. I recommend one of the shellfish or crustacean selections, because forgoing shellfish now means missing it entirely -- it's confined solely to the appetizer section. There are plenty from which to choose, including white-water clams pan-roasted with tasso smoked pork; fried calamari with lemon bread salad; fresh shrimp with tomato, black olives, capers, and feta cheese; and crunchy soft-shell crab with Dijon aioli and a "fingerling potato salad" composed of room-temperature spuds, green and yellow wax beans, and a tangy smoked bacon-lemon vinaigrette. I hesitate to make fun of the crab's puny size, as I imagine it must have already spent its short life being subjected to such ridicule by other, plumper crabs, but I suggest sticking with one of Mark's signature appetizers: a duet of succulent diver scallops, seared golden brown, with morsels of Jamaican spiced oxtail, a small mound of "Cuban sweet potatoes" (mashed boniato), and a shiny pool of rich, sticky, delectable veal reduction. If this dish weren't so imaginatively conceptualized, prettily presented, and highly priced, you'd be tempted to call it comfort food.
The fourteen entrées can be broken down as follows: one risotto (with wild mushrooms and white-truffle oil); two poultry dishes (mahogany-glazed duck and Bell & Evans chicken, both roasted in the wood-burning oven); three pastas (sausage-and-broccoli rabe, chicken and white beans, and Bolognese); a quartet of red meats; and the Big Four in the world of restaurant seafood (Atlantic salmon, Chilean sea bass, yellowfin tuna, and mahi mahi). We sampled the latter two fishes; both were pristine and scrumptious but mildly marred by execution. Oregon chanterelles and a luxurious foie gras veal reduction teamed with celeriac purée and a chive-tied bundle of haricots verts for a uniquely delicious take on black peppercorn-crusted, seared rare yellowfin tuna. Unfortunately the otherwise fantastic dish suffered from that trademark Mark's lukewarmness, thanks to the meticulousness of the plating process.
No such problem with jumbo lump crab- crusted mahi mahi or its robust embellishments of oven-roasted rosemary potato spears, a salsify-and-wild mushroom ragout slightly salty with pancetta and horseradish butter. The fish was cooked perfectly, but the crabcakelike coating didn't brown or crisp as well as it should have.
Roast garlic-stuffed tenderloin of beef has been a staple at Mark's since his first restaurant; when something is this terrific, it makes sense to keep it. The filet's juicy, ruby red center was as tender as a kiss, accompanied by crunchy-fresh spring peas, baked Gorgonzola polenta, a sweet-onion confit glazing the top of the meat, and a deep rosemary-cabernet sauce below. It's the ability to produce this balanced diversity of flavors, aromas, and textures that gives chefs such as Militello "big name" status.
A generous slice of molten chocolate torte with coconut ice cream came to the table very cold and not at all molten. We spared the kitchen the trouble of extra zapping in the microwave by just going with our other two choices: double-chocolate croissant bread pudding paired with luscious white-chocolate-chip ice cream and a sweet, crumbly apple tart with honey-vanilla ice cream and toffee sauce.
Mark's CityPlace can't help but suffer by comparison: The food at his Las Olas location is overall more dazzling, at South Beach more personal and refined. Yet these seeming shortcomings are very likely by design. The operating strategy at Mark's CityPlace seems focused on keeping appreciative family diners coming back rather than trying to impress restaurant reviewers looking for gastronomic epiphanies. Residents of West Palm Beach should not feel cheated; even at his most formulaic, Militello is still better than most chefs at their ground-breaking best.
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