I have to admit, I'm a huge fan of director David Lynch. His films, from the all-American discomfort of Blue Velvet to the schizophrenic murder mystery Mulholland Dr., are so strange and moody, they're like nothing else out there. Don't even get me started on Twin Peaks — his early-'90s television series had to be one of the most original shows ever created. Yet some detractors say that Lynch's entire oeuvre of kooky characters and metaphoric references is just art-house gibberish — surrealist themes that come off as weirdness for weirdness' sake.
I never understood Lynch's critics until I ordered the crab fritters at Piñon Grill in Boca Raton. The large white bowl in front of us was supposed to contain three large spheres of deep-fried, lump crab meat. But any fritters present were completely obscured by a billowy nest of what looked like fried hair. It was like I had just stepped onto the set of some bizarre art-house movie. Instead of crab fritters, I'd been served a deep-fried wig — probably to represent my latent fear of male pattern baldness.
"What is that?" asked my grandmother, whom I had brought to lunch at Piñon Grill for her 87th birthday. "Did we order that?"
"It looks like Donald Trump's comb-over," my uncle replied. As he fingered at the toupee of fried dough, I imagined it scurrying to the edge of the table and telling me in a deep, New York accent, "You're fired!"
The sad part of the whole ordeal? The fritters were actually decent — meaty, juicy, and coated in a light beer batter. But the surreal presentation came off as both pretentious and completely unnecessary, especially since the doughy "hair" had no flavor at all aside from the fryer grease that clung to it. Like a plot twist without a purpose, it was — to put it in critical terms — weirdness for weirdness' sake.
I'm evoking this comparison to films and art not only to make a point but because Piñon Grill broaches the subject itself. The first thing you're likely to read on its very short, one-page menu is a prosaic account of its food. The section drags on laboriously about "New American" cookery and its melding of classic dishes with current culinary trends. But behind the Palinesque word salad is little substance — the place serves mostly steak and potatoes, salad and sandwiches. On its own, that would be completely acceptable, especially considering the restaurant's location in the populist Town Center Mall. It's just that, more often than not, the kitchen's artsy pretensions derail dishes that would otherwise be tasty.
It's a shame, really. I'd brought my grandmother to lunch with me that day hoping to treat her to a nice birthday meal. At first glance, things looked good. She, like me, was awed by the impressive interior design. The restaurant sits on a corner lot, with tall wooden doors. Step inside and the foyer opens up into a smart and refined-looking space, full of wood and deep earth tones. Silhouettes of indigenous dancers hang over striped rows, while statuesque busts of piñon trees (a Southwestern pine) frame the rows of banquettes in the dining room.
Following these visual cues, you might imagine a restaurant that combines the contemporary vibe of a modern steak house with distinctly Southwestern elements — a Houston's clone as it would look if born in Flagstaff. Yet the menu lacks that focus. Straightforward enough are the soups (crab bisque, Sante Fe chicken) and the sandwiches (prime burger, tuna burger, brisket). But there's an almost purposeful lack of continuity in dishes such as chicken paillard and Asian grilled salmon, or filet mignon with béarnaise sauce versus baby back ribs. And the Southwestern influence (remember the piñon trees?) is almost completely relegated to the appetizer menu in the form of catch-all dishes like spinach quesadillas and seared tuna tacos (tuna being about as native to the Southwest as cheesecake and borscht).
Adding insult to injury is the fact that Piñon Grill lacks either a lunch or bar menu, meaning you'll pay the same prices — which tiptoe toward the $30 mark — whether you're sitting at the bar for happy hour, eating dinner, or dining at lunch, as we did.
To make up for the pricey entrées, we decided to order a few appetizers as main courses, hoping they'd be big enough to do the job. My uncle Drew went that route and definitely enjoyed his spinach and mushroom quesadilla ($12), which paired a nicely browned tortilla with sautéed mushrooms, julienne greens, and salty Cojita cheese. The accompanying guacamole and salsa, however, were both in rough shape, tasting underseasoned and past their prime. My fiancée wasn't as pleased overall with her grilled salmon salad ($18). Although the fish was perfectly cooked and full of flavor, the "salad" underneath ventured off into that uncomfortable surrealist territory — namely, it was devoid of any sort of greens and instead featured an awful combination of mangoes, capers, pine nuts, olives, red-skinned potatoes, and green beans, all gooped together by a sickly tart Dijon vinaigrette. It was a pairing that looked just about as bad as it tasted — like a niçoise salad that someone purged after a long night of drinking.