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Restaurant Reviews

A Lukewarm Reception

Having a good reputation must be irritating. When you have a bad rep, folks don't expect much of you. So while attempts to reform and prosper are initially met with skepticism, any hint of success wins approval. But when your reputation is spotless, the pressure is on to keep it that way. Any new venture you undertake must thrive unequivocally if you want to maintain other people's high regard.

Same goes for restaurants. I've been to plenty of eateries rumored to be awful and found the fare edible instead. So I was a bit more inclined to award praise. On the other hand, I've also dined at many restaurants that were supposed to be wonderful, given the backgrounds of the proprietors or chefs, and found them just plain mediocre. And when it comes to fine dining, the middle of the road isn't a good place to be.

Perhaps that's why I felt so ambivalent about the six-week-old Benvenuto, a behemoth of a Continental restaurant and catering hall on North Federal Highway in Boynton Beach. The place is owned by Bernard Perron and his family, who also operate the 17-year-old Brooks in Deerfield Beach. Brooks is one of the few remaining restaurants in South Florida that "suggest" men wear sport coats. Convincing the hubby or boyfriend to shake out the mothballs is certainly worth the effort; the French-Continental entrees, prepared by executive chef Marc Perron (Bernard's son), are exquisite enough to take attention away from those too-tight shoulders and focus them on the suddenly too tight belt.

Benvenuto, the Italian word for "welcome," is similarly refined. The 21,000-square-foot, 440-seat restaurant is located in a retirement-oriented community, and, on the night we visited, it was packed with mostly older, well-dressed patrons. The Perrons started Benvenuto ten years ago, sold it, then bought it back in 1996. Last July they closed its doors and spent $2 million renovating the foyer, bar, seven dining rooms, two kitchens, and parking lot. Based on my experiences at Brooks, where the staff is exceptional, I expected a sterling experience at the new-and-improved Benvenuto, which is run by Bernard Perron's sons-in-law: chef Jon Howe and Jean Philippe Gaudree, the general manager, who was wonderfully polite on the phone. But despite Gaudree's professional manners, the rest of Benvenuto's employees could use a little polish.

Servers, for example, were absent-minded and a trifle gauche. We didn't receive the homemade onion rolls until we asked for them, and then they were plopped down, after our appetizers, with a flourish -- accompanied not only by butter, but a tasty salmon mousse -- as if we'd just been seated. Later a waiter glanced at the teaspoon sitting next to the bowl of Bahamian conch chowder I'd ordered and asked, "Would you like a bigger spoon with that?" Though I nodded, he never brought me the utensil. (I shouldn't complain too much. Recently, in a Miami eatery, I was given a serving spoon with my lentil soup. Mick Jagger doesn't have a mouth that big.)

The kitchen was out of sync as well. An "Oreo cookie" appetizer, comprising grilled and marinated eggplant disks stuffed with goat cheese and riddled with tomato-basil sauce, was cold and tasted as if the vegetable had been charred hours before. Bitter eggplant and exceptionally bland goat cheese did nothing to elevate the dish, either. The chowder -- more of a puree of conch, tomatoes, potatoes, and carrots splashed with sherry -- was delicious. But it was as lukewarm as the ocean around these parts. Ditto the crabcakes with baby spinach and sweet pepper coulis. The two latke-size cakes were not only cool in the middle but so fluffy with filler that we could barely find the shreds of what looked like fake crab anyway.

I could blame the temperature of our starters on their journey from kitchen to table, which, depending on where you sit, can be lengthy, given the high-ceilinged rabbit warren of hallways and rooms. But our dining room, warmed by striped wallpaper, oil paintings, blond wood, and a fireplace, was right next to one of the kitchens.

Some dishes were incomplete. For instance, an entree of double-cut pork chops was supposed to be dressed with a red wine-pecan barbecue sauce, but the sauce was missing. Though thick and juicy, the pork -- as well as the accompanying shoestring sweet potatoes -- could have used the extra kick from the nutty sauce. A rosemary popover billed as a partner to a beautiful cut of prime rib was absent as well. Instead, greasy Swiss potato pie, a wedge of layered spuds and cheese, soaked up the too-salty jus oozing from the boneless beef.

Dinners may be ordered two different ways: a la carte or table d'hete. I found the a la carte prices strange, in that they weren't rounded to the nearest nickel, as is the custom, but reasonable. A main course of grilled lamb chops, consisting of four good-sized riblets, cost $19.52. But they were too fatty, and, while the young meat was perfectly musky, we couldn't detect the billed flavors of tomato, cucumber, onion, lemon, and mint.

The table d'h™te option is the best deal. For about $8 more, an entree is sandwiched between your choice of appetizer and dessert. If you're going to order a three-course meal anyway, this is the most equitable way to go. The honey-glazed Indiana duckling with gingered mango main course was superb. The duckling half was well padded and succulent, and both breast and leg were juicy. The skin was as candied as an apple, the slivers of mango were refreshing and complementary, and a saute of tricolored peppers rounded out the plate. At just $16.73, the dish is a bargain by itself. But for $24 I added the texturally complex appetizer of jumbo shrimp, hearts of palm, pancetta (Italian bacon), and papaya tossed with lime-and-coriander dressing. And afterward I had the puffy lemon souffle with raspberry sauce for dessert. Both were delicious.

Benvenuto is able to host a special function and seat regular parties simultaneously, so diners need not worry that the place will close down unexpectedly for private affairs. We shared space with an office holiday party the evening we dined and weren't bothered by it at all. I should note, though, that other patrons seemed inclined to act as if they were at a wedding. One couple, obviously drunk, engaged me for a good five minutes while lurching their way out the door. They got so friendly I expected a sloppy good-bye hug.

What I didn't expect was the good-bye we finally received. Admittedly we were one of the last parties to exit the place, which closes at 9 p.m. during the week. But the conspicuous gathering of hosts, waiters, and valets, all waiting for us to leave so they could clock out, made us feel as if we'd overstayed our welcome. For a place that calls itself Benvenuto, the general sigh of relief we heard on our way out was not an auspicious sign.

Benvenuto. 1730 N. Federal Hwy., Boynton Beach, 561-364-0600. Open nightly from 5 till 9 p.m, Friday and Saturday till 9:30 p.m.

Conch chowder
Shrimp and papaya salad
Double-cut pork chop
Prime rib
Lemon souffle

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick

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