The Potato Chip Chronicles
Two restaurants. Two cities. One menu.
The restaurants aren't even remotely related. Yolo is a flashy newcomer on Las Olas Boulevard operated by high-rolling dining duo Peter Boulukos and Tim Petrillo, the team responsible for igniting the fire under the Fort Lauderdale restaurant biz. In a decade, they've opened Himmarshee Grill plus three Tarpon Bend restaurants; they took over the floundering River House and made it work. Their latest, Yolo Restaurant and O Lounge, which opened this month, a gigantic, noisy, many-roomed extravaganza in shades of crimson, is the kind of place where couples make out around the outdoor fire pit between sips of "Devil's Hammer" (limit three per customer) and at least one Ferrari is parked at the valet station. On a recent Saturday night, Yolo was teeming with lovely girls aged 8 to 80 in party dresses, elderly gents in expensive toupees, packs of young bucks in opened-neck shirts, and somebody's aunt Flo from Saint Louis. They were tucking into chops, burgers, barbecued pork, seared tuna salad, cedar-plank salmon... and platters of potato chips.
Beach House Bistro is far, far away in a northern land — a sedate little nook tucked across the street from the equally sedate Palm Beach Police Station. It's a country where very little happens at an extremely leisurely pace, a fantasy world where straight men believe "coral" and "lime" are serious sartorial options, where the vehicles of choice are as likely to be Bentleys as Ferraris. The sense of otherworldliness was compounded one recent evening at Beach House when an oversized bumblebee took our drink order. Zoro was DJing '80s pop ("We're gonna rock down to/Electric Avenue"), and Marilyn Manson sat at the bar canoodling with Pippi Longstocking. Who knows if anybody registered the irony: a roomful of well-heeled pirates and princesses partying to a reggae anthem protesting hunger and social injustice — it was Halloween, after all. What was really bizarre was the menu — chops, burgers, barbecue, seared tuna salad, cedar plank salmon... and platters of potato chips.
What looking glass had we crashed through?
I had a terrifying, Twilight Zone kind of vision: a world where, no matter which restaurant I walked into in what remote corner of the globe, an identical menu would confront me: Pork chop. Roast chicken. Crab cakes. Potato chips.
In the food world, a meme — the lightning-fast transmission of information or behavior — is no different from a meme in music or fashion. It operates with a life of its own. Philosophers have compared memes to viruses because they're self-replicating — before you can say Katy Perry or Webkinz or truffle oil, entire populations are infected. The homemade potato chip, appearing practically overnight as an appetizer on menus across the country, is a perfect example of a food meme. Emeril is doing it. Jean-Georges is doing it. You can get truffled potato chips at Relish in Breckenridge, Colorado, or blue cheese-loaded at the American Wing Company in Alpharetta, Georgia. Johnny V, whose new restaurant, Smith & Jones, opens on Las Olas this month, has come up with his own barbecue-flavored version served with bacon and blue cheese dip. Even Ruby Tuesday is hawking them.
Only an entity as powerful as a wildcat meme could convince the American dining public that potato chips have a place on restaurant menus as an "appetizer," a little something that by definition is supposed to whet the appetite. Bar food, it certainly is. Party snack, of course. No one objects to potato chips served with hot dogs; I have no problem scarfing them straight from the bag during an episode of 30 Rock. But you'd have to be insane to eat a whole plate of loaded potato chips before you tuck into a roast chicken or prime rib. I can imagine just one scenario where such a progression might be remotely appropriate: a last meal on Death Row. The meal would end, of course, with ice cream.
Maybe we are on Death Row. A comfort-food tsunami tore through restaurants a couple of years ago, but the one making landfall now strikes me as likely to rip the roof right off our already battered psyches. Comfort Food Craze 1 brought us fried chicken and meat loaf, retro cocktails, mac and cheese, and tuna casseroles with the potato chips crumbled on top, where they belong. In Craze 2, restaurants are serving potato chips as a starter, sandwiches for your main course (both Yolo and Beach House offer a New England-style "roll" — Nantucket shrimp and crab at the former, Maine lobster at the latter), roast chicken of the sort that you can pick up at any Pollo Comparo, and baby food for dessert: ice cream sandwiches and banana pudding. If we regressed any further, we'd be swimming upstream though a tight corridor, microscopic tails a-whir.
I don't mean to imply that this kiddie food doesn't taste good. For the most part, it does. The designer cocktails at Yolo, like a Pineapple chili margarita ($12) with a big slice of hot pepper floating in it, are strange and potent (another, the Devil's Hammer — tequila, cherry-infused bourbon, agave nectar, mint, orange, and lime — tastes exactly like something concocted from a raid on the parents' liquor cabinet). And the food is certainly competent. They give you a ton of it, it's not particularly expensive, and the atmosphere is lots of fun. In this big, booming place, everybody's working hard as hell — from the gorgeous cocktail waitresses, all legs and smiles, to the nattily dressed line cooks in the open kitchen to the roving managers. I like the Big-O vibe. Barbecued ribs ($24) were perfectly cooked to fall off the bone, a refreshing green apple slaw outmanning the wilted shoestring fries. A thick, tender, aged prime rib au jus ($28) was classic, even if the scalloped potatoes were oversalted. But our starters — queso fundido with chorizo, melted cheese, and roast peppers over tortilla chips ($9), and the truffle-oil/goat-cheese/garlic-herb/bacon-loaded potato chips ($9.50) were fit for a football party, not a dinner menu. Boulukas and Petrillo are taking their inspiration from TGI Fridays.
Still, they're doing the dance better than Beach House Bistro — the same lineup here is so mediocre that it verges on inedible. At Beach House, opened last spring by Cindy Rosa, who also owns that Palm Beach institution Hamburger Heaven down the street, the potato chips ($4.95) were the highlight of our meal — Beach House serves them with a minuscule ramekin of homemade smoked onion dip (way yummier than the onion soup mix/sour cream concoction beloved of '60s housewives, even if there wasn't near enough of it): Here I'd found the ideal nosh for my next Dark Shadows marathon. From there, it was straight downhill. Pleasant service and attractive, vaguely 20th-century Marriott décor couldn't do a thing for greasy duck rolls ($8.95). Our bland "Simon and Garfunkel roast chicken" ($18.95) emitted not a whiff of the parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme it had been named for. Snapper en papillote ($23.95), cooked in parchment paper with julienned carrots and celery, was flavorful but oversalted (in the comfort-food kitchen, salt isn't a seasoning; it's the main ingredient), and the thin fillet had turned mushy.
For dessert at Yolo, there's an ice cream sandwich ($7, rescued from utter infantility by an accompanying shot of white chocolate liqueur with cream and cinnamon), not significantly tastier than the same treat plucked from the cooler at 7-Eleven — the cookie was certainly just as flaccid. There's also banana cream pie and bread pudding — you don't need teeth to eat these desserts. At Beach House, it's mom's apple pie, a fudge brownie chocolate sundae, strawberry shortcake, and more bananas — this time in the crème brûlée. Any grownup in the vicinity is obliged to drink her dessert from a liqueur bottle — thank God these joints have a full bar.
Dining options for fully fledged adults are going to dwindle to a pinprick with the economy in the tank: Restaurateurs are in mad retreat, and they've swallowed the hokum that all we want on a Friday night is food that's "approachable." Fifteen bucks used to buy you a plate of handmade, imported salami — now it gets you a hamburger. In other words, it's been an amazing ride, foodies — a crazy fucking couple of decades when we all learned to love semifreddo, miracle fruit, dancy oranges, Pacific oysters, Iberico ham, pumpkin oil, crème fraîche, and smoked Anglesey sea salt — the ambition and scope of our palates fueling a culinary renaissance the likes of which we may not see again. That was then. And this is now: We're just scared little animals huddled in the dark, gnawing on homemade potato chips. Crackle, crunch.
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