The Palm Beach Post critic was in here this week," John Suley says. "Charles Passy. They ordered a lot of food and had us split up the plates in the kitchen, so everybody got to taste the same thing."
Suley, who has stopped at our table to introduce himself, is chef and owner at Café Joley, the 3-month-old French brasserie in Boca Raton.
"Hmmm," I say, scraping up a last smidgen of rum and cream-laced bread pudding. "Did you make him as a food writer?"
"Only because they ate so much."
I'm trying to calculate in my head the number of dishes the three of us have just put away. I'm always nervous about flying under the radar when I go out on a job with my friend Phil, who's a New Orleans lawyer and musician. Not only can he eat like a true N'Awlins native, which is to say vast quantities, but he's conspicuous. He orders really good wine and jokes with the waiters and sends things back if he doesn't like them. He hands out his business card like he's dispensing alms and issues invitations to party. He can't be in a restaurant five minutes without everybody in the place knowing he's there and fluttering around him like archangels awaiting the bidding of God.
I figure we've eaten 12 dishes from the pâté de campagne to the final chocolate-smeared fingerful of profiterole among the three of us in roughly two hours, which isn't bad. It's not even close to a record.
"It doesn't matter anyway," Suley says. "Food critic or not, everybody who comes in here eats the same thing. It's all good, no matter who you are."
Suley, I think, is telling the truth. There wasn't one of those 12 dishes that wasn't freaking amazing, in a very French brasserie kind of way. Whatever problems we might have with Café Joley, they have nothing to do with what comes out of the kitchen and ends up in our stomachs.
Café Joley serves classic brasserie food and a few jolly, Joley signature dishes like short ribs over Parmesan-truffled grits, and scallops with oxtail ragout. If you've ever been to Les Halles in New York (where that crazy bastard Anthony Bourdain is executive chef) or just about any little restaurant in France where the day's menu is chalked up on a blackboard, you know the kind of place I'm talking about. There are standard brasserie dishes: onion soup gratinée, steak frites, mussels in Pernod, foie gras, duck confit, omelets, escargots and you'll find them all here. Some of the weirder stuff you might see in Paris or New York calf's head in caper sauce, blood sausage are noticeably absent, perhaps out of respect to the persnickety Boca palate.
The place is done up in good Belle Epoch style, with ceiling-high mirrors, painted tile, wood floors, and brass fixtures, and, during the day, lots of light pouring in through the windows. At night, the room is cast in a golden glow from reflected lamp and candlelight and from the gold silk brocade on the overstuffed banquettes. The most comfortable seat in the house, which I've already practically embroidered my name on, is the corner booth, where you can lean back like a pasha with a full view of the room, taking in the silly French pop on the sound system and the scents of garlic and butter wafting from the kitchen. There are a lot of tables outside on the patio too.
Altogether, it's a fairly big space, but it feels intimate. I'd trade my fortune and my reputation to have a restaurant like this within walking distance presumably I could drown my sorrows by making my way through Joley's list of French Bordeaux, like the Chateau Phélan-Ségur we drank there. The wine was well matched with the excellent pâté de campagne ($9) served next to a sharp, grainy mustard and tiny sweet-sour cornichons (Suley makes the pâté himself from a recipe he learned in France, with a few modifications, adding cognac and raisins). And a board of four artisanal cheeses ($16) a soft, intense Italian Taleggio, goat cheese, French Forme d'Ambert (a cow's milk blue) and Pont l'Eveque, served with a dense fig port wine jam and an acidic cranberry chutney.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: This is a mighty fine way to begin a meal. Along with the wine and a bit of that deliciously sour French butter on a baguette (these are flown in partly baked from France, then finished in Joley's ovens), the pâté takes on depth and character think Gérard Depardieu sinking into a complex role (opposite, say, Jeanne Moreau). It's made of coarsely chopped Boston pork butt and pork liver, held together by good, honest pig fat, with garlic, thyme, and sweet golden raisins soaked in cognac to give it a playful jolt. The crusty baguettes must be quite expensive to fly in, so the waiters are stingy as hell with them. I think we got like three slices with each board and had to beg for more. I'd suggest Suley source his bread from a good local French bakery and hand it out liberally lest he find his customers sucking butter off their knives.
After we'd decimated the pâté and cheese, we spooned up an exquisite avocado soup ($11), puréed to the consistency of heavy cream, swirled with yogurt, and topped by a little island of chopped smoked salmon and four perfectly placed parsley leaves, like lucky clovers. We dug into a plate of grilled baby squid ($11), blown up like party balloons and stuffed with green olives and fennel. And we savored a simple, fresh green salad ($9), perfectly dressed.
Tricks like these bring it home that Suley learned his stuff in the kitchens of megachefs like London bad-boy Gordon Ramsey. Suley is a studly young guy in his early 30s with big ambitions he and his partner, Christophe Baraton, both come straight from Miami via France Suley from the Ritz-Carlton, Baraton from the Delano. Suley has the intense good looks and chiseled cheekbones of a Food Network superstar, and Baraton is no slouch in the drop-dead-gorgeous department either. They have plans to open five more Café Joleys around Florida (the next one, on Espagnola Way in South Beach, will serve "high end modern French" and be called simply "Joley"). Looking into my crystal ball, I foresee a large and loyal following.
Ambition they have; talent they have. A few serious kinks to work out before they start expanding they have. For one, they've gotta get their service together. At both dinner and brunch, the service was one thin hairline above barely adequate. It wasn't that the servers weren't trying, just that the place was understaffed and the waiters ill-trained and poorly choreographed. Blunders on our visits included two waiters who had no idea what was on the cheese or the charcuterie boards, appetizers that were set down at someone else's table, entrées that came out staggered so that poor Phil had to wait long minutes for his dinner while ours grew cold, and a request for fries (twice) and bread (once) that never arrived. At brunch, the service verged on surly, and as we left, one disgusted customer was practically coming to fisticuffs with the maitre d'.
That I can still recommend Café Joley without hesitation tells you that I'm willing to put up with bad service in the quest for great food. But not everyone, particularly in Boca Raton, is so forgiving.
Certainly my qualms melted away over a plate of duck confit. Suley achieves the odd consistency and unique flavor of this dish with the traditional method of curing Muscovy duck legs in spices and salt, covered with a layer of duck fat. It's an old recipe originally conceived as a way to store meat for long periods without refrigeration (the salt kills micro-organisms, although I'm sure Suley refrigerates his). Duck prepared this way has a captivating, ancient flavor, almost Oriental and totally addictive.
Pan-seared sea bass ($28) with crackling, buttery skin was intensified with slices of chorizo, the real thing salty, almost overburdened with flavor. What a great pairing the mild, moist fish against the chewy sausage and a sprinkling of cilantro was brilliant. We also ordered a big side dish of wild mushrooms ($6) sautéed in butter and wine (rich, delicious) and a rib eye ($39), over which our waiter poured a creamy, fragrant mushroom sauce. The steak came with pommes Anna, the potatoes thinly sliced, layered with butter, and baked to the consistency of custard with a crisp brown top, another French classic that you'd want to have a long supply of on your desert island.
Desserts at Café Joley are spectacular comfort sweets: homemade profiteroles; apple-stuffed crepes with custard ice cream; an unbelievable rum raisin bread pudding that I simply could not stop eating until the last, groaning bite; and my favorite a velvety, orange pot de crème (all $8). Joley has a cheerfully decadent little bar attached, the walls painted heartbeat red, that looks like an amusing place to hang. The lady bartender there, it goes without saying, is très jolie. No freedom fries with ketchup served here, pal. You'd best like your frites slathered in truffled mayo.
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