I've always operated on the assumption that it's easier to dine in the summertime than the winter. After all, high season is over. The tourists are gone, and we locals get to reclaim our restaurants, which means reservations are not a necessity, waits for tables are shorter even in the most popular spots, and service is generally better from less harried waiters all around.
Well, the dining gods have seen fit to teach me a little lesson about making assumptions. On a recent Saturday evening, I called Restaurant 32 in Delray Beach, where I was planning to take some guests to celebrate a birthday. I didn't think there'd be a problem, this being June and all. Wrong: The place had been completely rented out for the evening by a private party (a practice I always find to be bad form, but that's another story).
So I called Fathom, the new seafoodery in Palm Beach Gardens that's being run by the Breakers. A reservation was a cinch, as the restaurant seats 340. Then the hostess asked for my credit card number in order to hold the table; if we didn't show up we would be charged 25 bucks per person. Now that's nerve. I'm sure Fathom has its fans, but I won't dine anywhere that wants to see the color of my credit before I walk in the door.
301 Yamato Rd., Boca Raton
561-241-9214. Lunch Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. till 3 p.m. Dinner Monday through Thursday from 5 till 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday till 10:30 p.m.
Almost unbelievably a third phone call, to Ambrosia, a six-week-old Greek/ Mediterranean place in Boca Raton that took over the space formerly held by Tavern in the Greenery, yielded a voice mail message stating the hours and requesting that I phone during those times. I checked my watch: The restaurant should have been open and receiving calls. I hung up and was about to go to the fourth establishment on my list -- and pull out a fourth handful of my hair -- when the phone rang. Apparently Ambrosia has Caller ID or *69 or some such service that enabled it to get me back on the horn. As I made my fateful reservation, little did I know that the technological blessing that brought me to Ambrosia was actually a divine curse in disguise.
The problems began when I tried to locate the restaurant, which is buried in an office complex. If you haven't visited it before, chances are you'll be making a lot of illegal U-turns (as we did) before guessing that it might be recessed off the main road. I most likely wouldn't have minded the search had it not made me almost 30 minutes late, a delay of which I was reminded by the host at the podium, the hostess who seated us, and our waiter. Fortunately my guests, who had been shown to the table earlier and were waiting for us, were far more gracious.
Still, I was initially impressed by the surroundings. Ambrosia is a freeform restaurant in the lobby of an office building. Different "rooms" are delineated by changes of furniture -- couches in the lounge area give way to tables and chairs in the dining room, for instance -- and the "walls" are defined by lots of frilly palm trees and other greenery. Fountains and soaring ceilings, girded by balustrades, enhance the feeling of dining in an atrium; if anything the spot mostly recalls the dining area in New York's World Financial Center.
Unfortunately, while the look of Ambrosia may be ideal for resident executives, the fare is hardly what the restaurant optimistically terms "Food for the Gods." Nor is the service even near what it should be for mere mortals, let alone deities of even the most minor sort.
I had a feeling we were in for trouble when one of my guests, whose heritage is Greek, ordered the menu-billed "lemon chicken" soup by its Greek name: avgolemono. The waiter had no idea what he meant, but when I almost apologetically explained that it was the Greek name for the concoction, he huffily replied, "Well, I'm not Greek."
Can't blame him for that, but he also didn't care about his customers' comfort and had no knowledge of the finer points of service. Starters took an hour to appear, with the lemon-chicken soup, acceptable in the way that Campbell's chicken and rice is acceptable, arriving in a record 75 minutes (after we asked after it twice). When we asked for refills of wine, our server tried to top off already full glasses, as opposed to those that were empty and brought us someone else's vintage from the communal cooler. Several times we were almost served cocktails we hadn't ordered.
Though house salads are complementary with entrées, which we all had ordered, he brought only four for our party of six. When another server pointed out that ours didn't have enough for the table, he shot back, "Well, they had a lot of appetizers. Maybe they don't want them," then bluntly asked if each of us wanted a salad before he set it down.
Meanwhile those appetizers, while proportioned amply enough, hardly satisfied us. My Greek friend was the first one to sample the char-grilled octopus, and hence the first one to spit it out into his linen napkin. We didn't much care that the octopus hadn't been "served in pasta" as the menu promised, but we were concerned that the color was black, the texture soft and mushy, and the taste fishy. Its lack of freshness was apparent, and not just because the shellfish displayed in the refrigerator case at the hostess stand had a yellowish tint to it where it should have been pearly pink. But when we requested an employee return it, she asked us what was wrong. When she didn't believe that it wasn't fresh, we told her it was also burnt; at that she took the dish away.
No other starter was so outrageously spoiled, but several had problems. Our waiter brought the horiatiki, or country Greek salad, but before we could distribute it, another waiter piled dirty dishes on the tray and took the whole shebang away. The saganaki, a slab of Greek cheese that had been baked in lemon and butter and then doused with cognac and set on fire tableside, was so overcooked it stuck to the dish like a toddler to its mother. Loukaniko, a Greek sausage, was authentic enough but had been sautéed in basil-infused olive oil, making it extra-greasy. Plus, for six bucks, one sausage cut into four was kind of skimpy. A pikilia platter, comprising taramosalata (called "tarama" on the menu), tzatziki, and hummus, was the only passable pleaser, with enough garlicky flavor in each dip to make it worthwhile.
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Main courses were an unmitigated disaster. When the waiter delivered our appetizers, he informed us that the roasted chicken main course wasn't available. As this was already an hour after we'd ordered, we weren't pleased and told him that he'd waited too long to inform us. "I didn't want to rush you," he replied defensively. We relented and ordered the herb-marinated pork chop "Yiani" instead. Thirty minutes later he returned to the table and asked, "Are you allergic to veal?" You guessed it: The kitchen had run out of pork chops and wanted to substitute veal.
Besides having no understanding of food-ordering, the kitchen clearly doesn't get the very Greek idea of serving ultrafresh seafood to order. Shrimp Mykonos, Gulf shrimp sautéed in olive oil and diced tomatoes and topped with crumbled feta cheese, had an unpleasant sour taste, and the crustaceans were tough and stringy to boot. The scallops that appeared in a large portion of cioppino, which also contained squid, shrimp, and chorizo sausage, were so metallic that I committed the second spit-take of the evening. As a final insult, the pastitsio, a traditional Greek casserole comprising layers of chopped beef, pasta, marinara, and béchamel sauce, was so old and pasty we wished the kitchen had run out of it as well. Only a braised lamb shank, smothered in an onion-heavy vegetable sauce, had any potential. But in truth, given the assumed age of the other dishes, we were afraid to eat too much of it.
While I normally don't rely on the opinions of other diners to sway my review, I will allow that I was the only one at the table willing to chance dessert. And I'll also throw in here that we were one of the few parties that didn't walk out of the restaurant hurling choice words at the management.
In retrospect I would rather have made a reservation and not shown up at Fathom, paying $25 for nothing -- as a peace offering to the dining pantheon, perhaps -- than laid out any of New Times' money for the debacle at Ambrosia.