Worth Its Wait in Gold
How to scam a table at the restaurant of the moment: Be a celebrity, or just look like one. Stars always get star treatment. You can also try to pass yourself off as a restaurant reviewer. If you're not tossed out of the place on your keister (some eateries don't like critics -- go figure), you'll receive some pretty good, attentive service. (I wouldn't know. I'm anonymous. I wear wigs and use other people's credit cards.) Or pull a Ferris Bueller: Scan the reservations book when the host's back is turned and claim to be someone on the list. Then, when the host looks disdainfully down his nose and says in a fake French accent, "You're the Stone Crab King of South Florida?" you can call his bluff and say, "Well, that explains the smell now, doesn't it?" It's bound to work, just like in the movies. Wham, bam, have a seat, man.
But if you're looking to scam a table at Kee Grill, the latest "it" restaurant in Boca Raton, there's just one thing you need to know: Fuggetaboutit. You can try all the tricks, but if you don't come up with the proper number for confirmation, you'll be left high and dry at the host's stand.
See, proprietors Jim and Debbie Taube run their restaurant like an airline. Each party is assigned a reservation number between 1 and 500. (A random number, according to manager Jim Kulik, but I'd estimate the restaurant serves that many parties in a week.) Unless you know the number as well as the name of your party, chances are you'll be sent walking. I witnessed a telephone conversation the night I dined. "If your number is 138," the hostess said, "you're definitely not dining tonight."
"That's right," my mother-in-law said, nudging me. She then flashed the note paper on which she'd written her number and added, "Tonight they're in the 400s."
All this mini-drama would seem reasonable at an established restaurant with a well-known chef at a normal dinner hour -- say, 8 p.m. But Kee Grill has been open for just seven weeks, and the only reservation we could land on a weekend evening was for 5 p.m., a time more suitable for a late lunch. Not too many years ago, the eateries serving meals at 5 p.m. in Boca (and the rest of South Florida, for that matter) offered soup, salad, and Jell-O with each meal and called it an "early bird special." Now potential Kee Grill patrons are calling weeks in advance for the privilege of dining while it's still daylight. And word has spread, as it usually does in Boca, by mouth. My mother-in-law heard about the restaurant while she was having her nails done, from "a fat lady with hair all over her face."
God bless the grapevine in Boca. The fat lady knew what was up, and so do diners jockeying for reservations. In fact many of them, Kulik told me, have heard about the successful first Kee Grill in Juno Beach. The Taubes, who've owned restaurants in Boca before, also operate Jetty's in Jupiter, where they reside. And judging from my experience at the Boca Kee Grill, where chef Billy McCrossin is at the helm, they clearly know what they're doing.
By that I mean you don't have to claim to be a celebrity (or a critic, for that matter), to receive affable, professional service. Our waiter was knowledgeable about the menu and the restaurant's history. The staff is organized so that waiters take orders and deliver drinks and incidentals; food-runners bring out the fare; and buspeople remove dishes and replace silverware. At one point it felt like an army was attending to us, which can be overwhelming. But better a regiment of smiling soldiers than the troops that practice guerrilla tactics at other restaurants.
Kee Grill is named after a beach in Hawaii, and its design has a distinct Polynesian flavor. Pieces of bamboo, two stuffed white marlin, cane-back chairs and white cafe umbrellas give the restaurant, which is located in a shopping plaza, a sophisticated, outdoorsy feel. The fare, however, reflects the world, ranging from appetizers like fried calamari to salads comprising California baby greens and kalamata olives to a grilled filet mignon entree with bearnaise sauce. We started on the North American continent with Cajun spring rolls, a tasty appetizer featuring two crisp tubes stuffed with minced chicken, andouille sausage, shredded carrots, and cellophane noodles. The slightly piquant filling was complemented by a zesty mustard dipping sauce.
We continued west with a vaguely Mexican starter, hot crab and jalapeno dip accompanied by crisp tortilla chips. A crock of lump crabmeat loaded with sliced chile peppers and baked until brown, it was less a dip than a hot cocktail; the aromatic crab, slippery with oil, contained no cream or cheese base. We found it strange at first, but the flavor quickly grew on us. Much more conventional was the house caesar salad, which also comes from Mexico. The romaine was just-chilled and sweet, the dressing potent with Parmesan and garlic, and the croutons crunchy.
Some meals match the Big Island atmosphere of the restaurant. Volcano grilled shrimp, a divine appetizer, featured jumbo prawns that were curled tightly around each other and soaking in a vibrant, slightly creamy, reddish sauce. Upcountry main courses include macadamia nut-sauteed snapper with tropical fruit salsa and a similar dish designed with shrimp. We couldn't resist the shrimp scampi, however. The classic entree was Mediterranean-ized with artichokes, a mellow textural contrast to the succulent shrimp. Served over linguine, the shrimp and artichokes were sauced with a buttery yet subtle garlic cream. Just as good was the crab-and-shiitake-crusted grouper; the mild lump crabmeat and mushroom juices soaked into the hefty, flaky fillet.
Kee Grill offers plenty for landlubbers, including Black Angus filets, rib eyes, and strip steaks. The sirloin was excellent, grilled with just a touch of salt. My father-in-law, a self-proclaimed strip-steak expert, declared it as good as those found at Peter Luger's, his favorite steak house in Brooklyn. I felt just as strongly about three double-cut lamb chops, which were prepared medium-rare, as requested. The musky, tender meat was substantial and winning.
All main courses are served with two side dishes of your choice, which include scampi pasta, garlic-smashed potatoes, and mushroom saute. But the best of the lot were perfumed basmati rice, mashed sweet potatoes, and an excellent individual souffle called spinach Maria. Mixed with grated cheese, the spinach had been topped with Japanese bread crumbs (a coarser grate than Italian bread crumbs) and browned in the oven. I was tempted to order a second spinach Maria for dessert but didn't want to miss out on the house-made strawberry shortcake. Two large slices of pound cake were doused with a lava flow of sliced strawberries. Vanilla ice cream and whipped cream peaked the mountain like clouds ringing Everest.
Boca's a town where, when word goes out, a new restaurant quickly fills up. In some cases the reaction isn't justified: Two summers ago I waited on line for Brewzzi, which was decent but not spectacular; and the year before, Cheesecake Factory, a chain, drew rapturous praise from some. This past fall I thought for sure that Nick and Max, Dennis Max's revamped eatery (formerly Maxaluna) featuring award-winning chef Nick Morfogen, would be all the rage. But gossip about Kee Grill has, so far, eclipsed Morfogen's new "sun cuisine" -- though I suspect not for long. If Morfogen performs anywhere near as well as he did at Maxaluna, fickle Boca folk will be discussing reservation tactics for Nick and Max across the tennis net. That's good news for me, because then I'll finally be able to enjoy Kee Grill at a civilized dinner hour.
Kee Grill. 17940 N. Military Trl., Boca Raton, 561-995-5044. Dinner nightly from 5 till 10 p.m; Friday and Saturday till 10:30 p.m.
Cajun spring rolls
Mediterranean shrimp scampi
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