Forget cleanliness, and don't even mention godliness -- when it comes to restaurants, flexibility is the topmost virtue. Indeed, I know some colleagues who put such stock in a staff that is not just willing but delighted to accommodate last-minute reservation changes or a chef who will gladly leave out an undesirable component from a dish that they deliberately throw logistical curveballs or make special requests. Some show up with an extra guest in tow; others make sure a vegetarian is a member of the party.
Although I see the value of making restaurants jump through these kinds of hoops, that's not the way I generally operate. For one thing, I don't like to be impolite, either to staff or to other customers whom I might unintentionally be imposing upon. And, of course, creating unnecessary scenes is an all-too-easy way for an anonymous critic to reveal her identity.
Occasionally, however, real last-minute changes of plans -- a sick kid who makes you late for a reservation, a dining partner who turns out to be allergic to shellfish -- happen to restaurant reviewers just as they do to Joe Diner. On a recent Saturday evening, I had a reservation for six people at Lana's Cafe in Boca Raton. But at the last minute, one couple couldn't make it, leaving a group of four -- just a bit too few of us to occupy the round table for six that had been set aside.
From the horrified reaction of the hostess, you would have thought this admittedly small neighborhood restaurant had turned away numerous large parties while waiting on us. That scenario is possible though not likely, given the quiet nature of the place and the time of our reservation, which was closer to closing than to the normal dinner hour. Regardless, this is the restaurant business: Figuring out how to accommodate potential customers, despite their number, comes with the territory. But rather than simply clearing and resetting a vacant four-top from surplus materials, the muttering staff made a point of bringing over the decorative plates from the round table, which incidentally had been only half-set anyway, at an excruciatingly slow pace. It was as if the 35-seat restaurant had only 35 plates and the rest had been dirtied. A subsequent search for white linen napkins to stick in the water glasses took even longer. All told, we were left standing in the foyer for nearly a quarter of an hour, which was still not enough time for Lana's staff to wipe down the food-littered chair upon which one of my party almost sat.
Matters improved with the arrival of menus. Lana's Café may not yet have the sophistication to make all patrons feel unfailingly welcome, but the menu's intention -- the type of fare that a restaurant chef might prepare for himself on a day off or food the kind your mother would cook had she attended a culinary institute -- compensated amply.
In fact, Lana's has the casual gourmet in mind. Someone who enjoys vinaigrettes that are both homemade and on the sharp side, as the roasted shallot-sherry dressing demonstrated on the house salad, for instance. (The fresh, young frisée, along with other greens, ripe tomatoes, and Mandarin orange slices, was enhanced by the same dressing.) Or a diner who can appreciate that sauces such as the sun-dried tomato aioli, which accompanied the stuffed chicken roulade starter, taste as if they have been whipped up in-house -- despite the fact that the obviously burned slices of rolled poultry should never have left the open kitchen that is the centerpiece of the spare, cheerful dining room. One of only three appetizers, the roulade was also matched with a "Mediterranean feta slaw," a marinated salad that showed ample evidence of dried hot peppers but none of the cheese's pungency.
A second starter, "Lana's seafood explosion," proved to be a better investment. The layered timbale of tiny bay shrimp, fresh crab salad, smoked salmon, mango relish, and avocado purée lacked only a bagel to complete its inventive delicatessen flair. Everything melded smoothly into fruity, smoky, silky mouthfuls. This stack of goodies can be a little sloppy to share, however, so it's probably best to either selfishly claim it for one's own or put it in the middle of the table and invite wandering forks.
Soup is also not easy to pass around, especially when the cheese on the pleasantly mild French onion soup is about as pliable as the mozzarella on a pizza -- scissors might come in handy here. But dinner portions are large enough that a first course isn't a necessity, at least not if you want to finish every bite of the tender filet mignon, napped with a subtle smoked Gouda sauce spiked with just the right amount of horseradish and served with a large scoop of truffled mashed potatoes.
Those potatoes, though tasty, didn't dispense much truffle aroma -- a shame, since they're often the side dish on entrées. They partner everything from homemade meatloaf with wild mushroom gravy to rack of lamb to Dijon mustard-sautéed diver scallops, a rich delicacy that could benefit from a lighter, less intrusive counterpoint. Ditto for the trout almondine, a treat I rarely see on menus anymore. This version, flamed with Amaretto, was a buttery, crisp take on the familiar preparation, with a smattering of toasted almonds providing a good crunch.
For a variation, again with a tweak or two to the classic recipe, try the duck à l'orange. Rather than tasting as if it had been coated with sticky marmalade, the crisp-skinned bird had more of a citrus-bright vinaigrette flavor. Despite its browned-skin status, the flesh underneath was slick with juice, a gastronomic accomplishment I haven't encountered in some time. I also admired the pairing of the duck with a vibrant cranberry-almond couscous, though the sautéed squash medley that drifted listlessly to one side (as it did on every main course) inspired little interest.
A wine list made up of largely domestic, wide-production vintages also might not hold a connoisseur's gaze for very long, but reasonable prices allow diners to indulge in more than one selection. Not so the dessert list -- my attention was immediately drawn and held by a wonderful parfait of hazelnut gelato, fudge, and crumbled almond biscotti. What a great sundae! If Lana's Cafe can do a little fine-tuning and then relax and allow the ambience of the restaurant to harmonize with the tone of the cuisine, well, then it'll be a candidate for the virtue next to godliness.
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