Tender Is the Night

Before I worked as a restaurant critic, I was a "spotter." Hired by restaurant owners, I'd secretly visit their operations, document my experiences, then file exhaustive reports. In exchange for my toil, I was paid in meals rather than currency. I couldn't make my rent, but, for a month or two, I supported a terrific lifestyle. The thrill began to pall when I realized that, with all the time I was putting in, my labor far exceeded my salary. And because I had to hide a microphone in my bra to make verbal notes when the staff wasn't looking, I spent more time mumbling to my boobs than I did talking to my dates.

So I quit -- not before, however, I'd learned how to analyze minutiae to form an opinion. For instance, as a spotter I was required to count the number of rings it took for someone to answer the phone when I called to make reservations or ask for directions and to document the amount of time, if any, I spent on hold. This first impression, I was taught, was important.

If I'd been "spotting" at Moran's, a three-month-old steak house in Boca Raton, I would have noted that, when I called to make a reservation, the phone rang six times before it was answered. I was then left on hold so long I hung up. If I weren't a critic, I probably would have called the steak house New York Prime, also located in Boca, for a table there instead. But as a critic my curiosity was piqued. I chalked the gaffe up to a busy night and pressed redial. I'm glad I did. Because my second impression, formed when someone actually spoke to me, was the one that would prove consistent with my experience at the restaurant.

See, proprietors Jack Curtis, brother Ed Curtis, Jack's son Michael, and their friend Steve Middleton are willing to chat, even when they don't know they have a critic on the line. I always ask how long a restaurant has been open, so that I don't end up bum-rushing the place during its first week of business. "It's been open a couple of years as Mickey G's, but new owners recently took it over," I was told. "And I can tell you, we've got something other steak houses don't have."

"What's that?"
"A chef."
I was on the phone with Middleton, whose cheeky attitude matches his neighborhood and clientele. An older crowd frequents the place, dancing in the aisles to a crooner armed with a keyboard and a lengthy list of standards. They're not exactly models writhing on tabletops, like you find at Mezzanotte, but these patrons seem just as determined to have a good time.

Middleton's enthusiasm was laced with more honesty than bravado. He does indeed have a chef -- David Jamrock, who stayed on from the original restaurant but retooled the menu, particularly the appetizers. Starters, most of which contain seafood, include a fabulous Maryland backfin crab imperial. This crabmeat casserole -- huge, meaty chunks of the shellfish in a buttery, creamy sauce -- were topped with fluffy lemon custard. Nearly as wonderful was a saute of escargots and roasted artichokes featuring a bread-beckoning sauce of wine, garlic, lemon, and butter. It's a good thing the bread basket, containing rolls and homemade pumpernickel-raisin flatbread dusted with cinnamon-sugar, remained filled at all times.

During our phone conversation, Middleton asked me if I like oysters Rockefeller. "If you do, you must try ours," he said. "We have the secret recipe from Antoine's in New Orleans. They're great." Again, this was more than just an empty boast. We sampled these four pearly beauties, poached in Pernod and napped with creamed spinach, from "Moran's seafood feast for two." The enormous platter included the same number of clams casino -- a startlingly good version broiled with crisp strips of bacon, bell peppers, and bread crumbs -- and savory jumbo shrimp stuffed with backfin lump crabmeat and bread crumbs. A three-pound broiled Maine lobster was the crowning glory, and the waiter hurried over to crack and dislodge the succulent meat for us so that we didn't have to wear those undignified bibs. Veritable trees of broccoli and baby summer squash garnished the silver plate. The only flaw was a smattering of gritty sea scallops, which were rank with age.

Middleton was kind enough to warn me at the outset that I'd pay at least $50 a head at his place, probably more. We wound up averaging $50 (which included wine, but not the tip), perhaps because we ordered one of the less-expensive meat entrees, a sliced sirloin steak arranged over bruschetta. Cheaper didn't mean lousier, however. Marinated and moistened with its own juice, which was mixed with garlic, the London broil was superb. The menu warns that Moran's isn't responsible for meats requested well-done. Bravo for the disclaimer, which is meant to discourage folks from thinking beef should be worn on the feet instead of eaten. I suspect, though, that the kitchen would turn out a supple steak regardless; our sirloin was cooked to medium-well specifications, and it was wonderfully tender.

Other meat entrees can cost you, even if you share a roasted rack of lamb for two ($58) or a porterhouse for two ($65). We capitalized on our options by ordering the mixed grill, a musky filet mignon dressed on one side with a double-bone lamb chop and on the other with a pan-roasted boneless veal medallion. The filet was rich and juicy, but we found too much fat on the lamb, and the au poivre sauce on the veal was practically sneeze-inducing.

Middleton wants his steak house to offer more than just meat on a plate. To that end he and his partners, all of whom are experienced in the restaurant business, have instructed Jamrock to add main courses like grilled chicken over red pepper polenta and oven-roasted, Oriental-style duck to the menu. But they've held on to one steak house tradition I've always admired: the caesar salad, prepared tableside. It took one server (there's a team approach here) more than 20 minutes to make the salad, mostly because he was also warming up a bananas Foster for another table. But it was worth the wait (during which we ate our other appetizers); tossed in a large wooden bowl, the crushed garlic, minced anchovies, Parmesan cheese, and romaine lettuce combined to make one of the most delicious caesar salads in the business.

We didn't want to suffer through another lengthy preparation for dessert, so we skipped the bananas in favor of homemade key lime pie. Our mistake. The wedge of custardy pie wasn't tart enough, and it was grainy, like Bubble Yum with extra sugar added.

During our initial conversation, Middleton noted that the exterior of his restaurant, located in a shabby-looking shopping center, wasn't too attractive. But the inside, he insisted, was upscale, and he was right. A circular dining room was warm with plush carpet, patterned banquettes, lacquered chairs, a glossy bar, and mahogany accents. It's too bad that, at first, Middleton couldn't recall his restaurant's address. He finally found it for me during an interview I conducted after my visit.

"You're not going to tell your readers that the owner of Moran's is a ditz, are you?" he asked.

"How 'bout I tell them he's a wiseass instead?" I countered, remembering his crack about his steak house having a chef. He laughed and congratulated me for holding my own in conversation. I laughed and congratulated him for holding his own in the dining room.

Moran's. 21073 Powerline Rd., Boca Raton, 561-487-9966. Open for dinner nightly from 4 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m.

Maryland backfin crab imperial

Caesar salad for two

Sliced steak over bruschetta

Mixed grill

Seafood feast for two

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