In With the Old, Out With the New
Back in the late '80s, if you were looking to impress a date over a sophisticated dinner, there was only a handful of restaurants in Palm Beach County that could pretty much guarantee you a home run. On the island, there was the hoity Café Europe and the even-pricier Petite Marmite on Worth Avenue, or you could head north to the haute French Café du Park or the nouvelle Franco-American Cafe Chardonnay in Palm Beach Gardens. You get the idea: A fancy dinner out meant something French, or at least Frenchified. The gorgeous Marmite closed long ago (though couples celebrating their 25th anniversary can still find the restaurant cookbook on eBay) and the Park lingered on until last year. Café Europe is still with us, planted in a Mizneresque neighborhood that looks exactly as it did a quarter-century ago: In Palm Beach, both the mores and the architecture are static to the point of morbidity. Twenty minutes north, Café Chardonnay continues to serve dinner seven nights a week on the same corner of the same strip mall — but Chardonnay's the only landmark a time traveler to the Gardens would recognize these days. Faux towns ("mixed use communities," in the lingo) have popped up around that old strip like overnight mushrooms — Downtown at the Gardens, Legacy Place, Midtown, PGA Commons — each with its own roster of churrasquerias, pizzerias, and seafood houses.
I doubt there's anywhere else in the U.S. where so many restaurants have opened so fast within a dinner-roll's throw of each other. I counted more than two dozen off the top of my head: steak houses (III Forks, Strip House, Capital Grill), Japanese (RA Sushi, Sushi Jo, Saito), fish places (Cool'a, Aquamarine Grill), Italian (Vic and Angelo's, Brio Tuscan, Bice, Noche, Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza), wine bars and breweries (Off the Vine, the Grape, Yardhouse), French (Metropole, Paul), Mexican (Rosa Mexicano, Cantina Laredo), "Chinese" (PF Chang's), and miscellaneous American (Johnny Rockets, City Kitchen, Hurricane Grill, Cheesecake Factory, Field of Greens, J. Alexander's, Shorty's BarBQ, Javamoon Café). A handful, like the Dubliner, Yopo, and Max's Grill, have already closed — it's like watching one of those time-lapse "cycle of life" films where a seed sprouts, blooms, and decays in the time it takes to read a grand-opening press release.
For a restaurant critic, a boom like this is sexy-scary, in the same way that real estate agents must've felt a dread thrill watching all those quickie condos getting slapped together. Will the Gardens gold rush attract not just high rollers but the customers to fill those empty lofts with sleeper sofas and end tables to eat their tacos, pumpkin raviolis, and strip steaks, to stroll the newly paver-ed walkways under the just-planted bougainvillea? And will those potential customers be gainfully employed? We are, after all, well into a recession — there's no denying it now. Latest word from the National Restaurant Association is that 18,000 restaurant jobs in Florida are going to go bye-bye this summer, along with the tourists, just as high school and college kids are skimming the want ads for a way to fund the weed-'n'-beer habit. And that's just the restaurant jobs. Anybody feeling mildly secure in her paycheck need only read local journo T.M. Shine's surreal unemployment diary in the Washington Post Magazine last week. Reality check!
All this makes you wonder what it takes to keep a restaurant going through 28 years of economic highs and lows; still, it must've been a lot easier when Café Chardonnay was the only game in town. Apart from its name, which sounds a little dated now (if they opened today, owners Frank and Gigi Eucalitto might call the place Café Pinot instead), the menu and décor at Chardonnay have changed just enough to keep the regulars from falling asleep over the lobster bisque. The nightly specials of Continental/new American dishes included an ostrich and peach fire-roasted brochette with prosciutto and endive ($14) on an evening we dined there, along with seared rare tuna "taco" ($15); pan roasted diver scallops with pepper pineapple and rosemary sweet-corn emulsion; a grilled carved kobe NY strip ($48); and burgundy braised beef short ribs ($26). To wash all this down, the Eucalittos have, over the years, crafted an extensive wine list with a generous selection of chardonnays, as you might imagine; a sommelier's suggestion of 30 wines under $50; and a half dozen wine flights (the champagne flight is $69), along with around 50 wines sold by the glass in the $9 to $15 range.
Chardonnay is a large restaurant, colored in blond woods and creams, but because of the way the space is broken up, it feels intimate. The best seats are on a slightly raised dais holding a handful of tables next to windows overlooking an outdoor patio; the next best are on that patio, where weather permitting a fire burns in the stone fireplace. An upstairs balcony hosts private parties and handles overflow crowds, but I've heard complaints that it can get hot up there. A couple of corner banquettes supply a great view of the dining room, and then there's the bar, where you can settle in for a quickie snack and a wine flight, if a full dinner feels like too much of a production.
We fingered Chardonnay as an excellent choice for a first date. The place is white tablecloth sophisticated without pretensions; it's the opposite of trendy but never fusty. The professional staff appears to have been around for years; they know the menu and the wine list, and they have long ago ironed out any timing issues. A gentle bustle allows for conversation, so you can (with subtlety, please!) show off your knowledge of California wineries and foodie trivia. There's activity enough (leggy blond tripping toward bathroom; boisterous Golden Girls staging reunion) to keep the occasional silence from feeling awkward: a steady stream of birthday celebrants, hotties, and boomers. The menu's varied enough to accommodate both your picky, lacto-ovo palate and her risk-taking gene. All the dishes we tried over two visits were pleasant and interesting, and some of them were flat-out great.
I suspect it's just that list of qualities that has kept Chardonnay in the black for so long, balancing precisely on the line between old and new. An entrée like pan-roasted Pacific bass with saffron couscous, shrimp, and three-vegetable salad ($33) off the specials menu is the Catherine Deneuve of dishes, potentially ageless — you can see the kitchen turning this one out in the year 2025, if there's any bass left to roast by then. Chardonnay serves it with large grain couscous, about the size of salmon caviar, which packs a lot more flavor and texture than the fine grain. Mixed up with roasted peppers, onions, and a pure green herbal emulsion it's absolutely heavenly, and great with the moist bass, served skin on, tail intact.
Other favorites: a rare tuna "taco" appetizer, where the shell is made from a green chili wafer ($15), tarted up with two-tomato and avocado "ceviche." Sautéed black grouper ($34, also a special) came ringed with roasted littleneck clams in a hearty, peppery broth made from chorizo, cipollini onions, lobster stock, and fennel. A beautiful wild mushroom filo strudel, flakey and unctuous, ($13, an appetizer) was a sensual way to begin a meal. And an herb-crusted rack of baby lamb chops ($38) was tricked out with lemony mashed potatoes, rosemary scented olives, roasted peppers, and a mint pea emulsion that fell together perfectly.
For dessert we had two pies that might have come straight off the rotating dessert case of a diner in Heaven: A dense, decadent chocolate cream pie with extra fresh whipped cream and Banoffee pie (both $9), invented at an English pub in the mid-'70s and imported to Palm Beach Gardens without a hitch. The recipe for the Banoffee reads like a list of my favorite ingredients: condensed milk, which has been "roasted" to make a kind of toffee (the "offee"); heavy cream beaten with brown sugar; and bananas (there's the "ban").
The Eucalittos could hold their own against the bistros and sushi joints jostling for space around them on the basis of their pie alone — and what a relief it is to see somebody, at least, prospering in this economy. Let's raise a glass (of Chardonnay, of course) to another good quarter century.
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