In many respects, country club restaurants resemble hotel restaurants: Both have reputations for serving mediocre fare to captive audiences in staid surroundings. Prevailing dining logic demands that these eateries should be avoided. After all, why visit a hotel unless you're staying in one? As for country clubs, most are private, their restaurants reserved for members only.
But this past decade, hoteliers have made significant efforts to improve the quality of their restaurants, hiring marquee chefs and top designers. They've advertised and enlisted the help of PR people. As a result some hotel eateries, particularly those in touristy areas like South Beach, have become draws. Others are bastions of civilization in a world of theme restaurants. The only thing keeping some diners from hotel restaurants is a lingering prejudice.
The country club has yet to turn around its image. These days clubs are suffering a backlash. Baby Boomers who joined up enthusiastically in the '70s and '80s as a way to make use of their disposable incomes have not been followed by a new population. Generation X-ers may be growing up and getting real jobs, but they're still interested in spending bonuses on snowboarding in the Rockies. They're hardly likely to pay big bucks to join a golf club, with all its rules and etiquette.
A younger clientele will, however, frequent a place like McDivot's in the Carolina Club. And those country clubs looking for a way to increase exposure should follow its example. Not only is the restaurant, located in the Carolina Club mansion on Rock Island Road in Margate, open to the public, but it reminds me of some of the most successful hotels, like the Ritz-Carlton or the Chesterfield in Palm Beach. McDivot's is more playful than prosaic and offers a modern menu, a well-versed staff, and a decent California vino list.
OK, so there's no snowboarding memorabilia on the walls. (The dining room is, after all, named after the little clod of turf you dig up with your golf club while making a shot on the fairway.) Golf memorabilia abound, leather wing chairs stand invitingly near a gas fireplace, and banquettes are so overstuffed it's tough to slide out of them. This is the ideal place for a Gen X-er to consider taking up a new sport or at least to accompany a Baby Boomer for supper.
As in a large hotel, a wedding reception may be taking place in the upstairs banquet rooms the night you dine, but never fear. Executive chef Mark Daley is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. He's a veteran of Scampi's at the Deer Creek Country Club in Deerfield Beach, which, like McDivot's, is run by the Boca Raton Resort & Club. Before that he was in charge of serving 2000 faculty members and students every day as an executive chef at the University of Miami. So Daley and his staff are more than capable of providing for your table and a wedding party simultaneously.
Challenge them, as we did, by ordering a shrimp cocktail for starters. I've rarely had more succulent freshwater prawns than these four huge beauties, hanging from a martini glass filled with zesty cocktail sauce. The sauce was crowned with a Gorgonzola-stuffed green olive, a pungent touch. Equally flavorful and just a trifle piquant was an enormous bowl of conch chowder almost creamy with potatoes and rife with pounded conch so tender it tasted like calamari.
Daley seems to have a fondness for seafood. An appetizer of stuffed mushrooms was bursting with a snow crabmeat filling and topped with a deliciously executed citrus beurre blanc. Lobster ravioli, a pasta entree, was a treasure trove of Maine lobster meat. A generous portion of black-and-white al dente ravioli was tossed with a ripe tomato concasse and glossed with a buttery scampi sauce. And a main course of Gulf shrimp was as delectable as the cocktail. Sauteed Rockefeller-style, the jumbo shrimp were laced with leaves of fresh spinach and flambeed with Pernod. The heavy licorice taste of the burned-off alcohol was perfectly offset by garlic, shallots, and a sun-dried tomato butter.
The chef offers plenty of fish, including horseradish-crusted salmon and nut-crusted grouper, on his menu. We sampled the pistachio-crusted dolphin, a large fillet topped with crushed nuts. The citrus beurre blanc appeared once again, but the tropical fruit salsa and mango-papaya coulis are what grabbed our attention with their complementary tartness. We also enjoyed a special that evening, an herb-crusted fillet of sea bass. Thick and supple, the flaky fish was enhanced with a lemon butter sauce (citrus beurre blanc by any other name). Similarly, chicken breast was coated with macadamia nuts and laced with a raspberry coulis, a delicious combination. While I had no complaint about any of the outstanding preparations, I do think Daley should look into doing something with fish and poultry other than "crusting" it.
For all his expertise with surf, Daley doesn't neglect turf, offering veal, rack of lamb, and prime rib, among other choices. He finished a six-ounce filet mignon entree with a wild-mushroom duxelles, then wrapped it in puff pastry and baked it. The chopped mushrooms flavored the meat, which was beautifully pink inside, and the pastry shell in turn was softened by the juices from the filet. He accompanied this, as he did all entrees, with an assortment of sauteed vegetables -- zucchini, squash, and string beans, mostly -- and rich mashed potatoes. Still, you may want to order the Carolina blossom onion as a side dish. Though it's really an appetizer, the crisp, tempura-battered, julienne onion, served with Vermont honey-Dijon mustard dip, takes onion rings to a new level.
Because appetizers and entrees are clearly made to order and made exceedingly well, the intermezzo course of salads was disappointing. The house doesn't make its own dressing, and though the tossed lettuces, cherry tomatoes, red onions, and black olives were refreshing, the assortment of store-bought toppings brought it down a notch or two. By way of contrast, desserts, some of which are also not made on the premises, were more wisely chosen. In fact we couldn't decide between the superb "midnight seduction," a chocolate mousse cake with chocolate ganache, and the fluffier white-chocolate mousse cake, so we compromised and asked for both.
The menu at McDivot's changes seasonally, and a slew of nightly or holiday-oriented specials adds interest for repeat diners. One thing you can count on are the prices; main courses don't exceed $20, and most hover around the $15 mark -- a meal the younger generation can afford.
McDivot's, 3011 Rock Island Rd., Margate, 954-753-3500. Lunch daily from 11:30 a.m. till 4:30 p.m; Sunday brunch 11 a.m. till 3 p.m. Dinner nightly from 4:30 till 10 p.m; Friday and Saturday till 11 p.m.
Carolina blossom onion
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Maine lobster ravioli