Jill (Boynton Beach, iced tea) and Mike (Boynton, Budweiser) were looking for an evening's escape from the kids.
How do I know? Because they were eating and talking large, one and two tables down from me the other night at Cabana El Rey, the fun, new arrival on Delray Beach's can't-get-enough-of-itself Atlantic Avenue.
Conversations at this 2-month-old place travel like a conga line among the tables, around the bar, and even in the booths. It's not that you're so close to your neighbors that you need to share the Binaca.
I dare you to have a bad time at Cabana. You don't just eat here -- you frolic through a meal. It's a little like being back in the early days of South Beach's Strand restaurant, when impresario Gary Farmer was helping create the scene. Farmer treated his restaurant as a high-attitude club with a low-attitude door policy. It took only a reservation (or sometimes just a smile) to enter those swinging doors, but once your bum settled on its appointed seat, you felt almost sanctified by rubbing up against all that fabulessence.
Cabana owner Glenn Fletcher has that same gift; he brings his own brand of loose-limbed zest down from his same-named sister restaurant on West Palm Beach's Clematis Street, and, in turn, from his Cabanas on New York's Upper East Side and -- yes, Virginia -- in Queens.
Part of the fun is the Delray restaurant's interior, which is made up of one part flamboyance and one part bravado. If you're not enlivened by the whimsical bursts of gold and blue around the room, chairs that don't turn your back into a pin cushion, and fabrics on the banquettes that would make a sunset blush, you'll get off on the service. Men in black (and white) circle the two rooms with efficiency instead of speed. All seem to operate on the premise that a good waiter doesn't respond; he anticipates. The only time I raised my hand was to lift my glass of house merlot.
Cabana describes its food as "nuevo Latino," but the kitchen manages to keep a lid on preciousness. The restaurant states that the menu goes "from Cuba to Aruba," but things get flung much farther than that -- south into Venezuela (arepas) and Peru (ceviche) and east across the Atlantic (paellas), with lots of Puerto Rico thrown in for good measure.
And, search as you might, much of the "nuevo" is hard to find -- at least in the food. You can locate some of it in the presentation, which realizes that Latin cooking doesn't demand to be served under fluorescent lights on Chinet.
Gorgeous as it is, however, the food often seems to function as a backdrop to the playland atmosphere. The capable bar staff, which supplies all the hard stuff and an expansive number of fruity coladas and margaritas, does its part in masking the fact that recipe preparation is not always consistent. Wine from the modest, sensible list, heavy on California and South American varieties, is poured by bartenders who understand that a glass is never half full, always half empty. And that filling a glass to three-quarters makes tips grow geometrically.
Depending upon your alcohol intake, meals here begin peacefully enough. Your waiter will give you a reasonable amount of time to get your bearings, order your beverage, and glance through the menu. And he won't put you through a recitation of complicated "specials," since off-the-menu items are few and to the point.
The 11 appetizers range from $4 for a homemade soup of the day to $12 for ceviche Mexico. (As an example of what "nuevo Latino" can mean to a recipe, this Peruvian mainstay is accompanied by viandas -- Puerto Rican root vegetables -- and toasted corn.) We sampled the camarones de coco ($10), coconut-dipped shrimp over mashed maduro, which made a nice marriage of the sweetness of the coconut and the blandness of the plantains. We also tried the baccalaitos ($9), another Puerto Rican favorite of fried codfish cakes, served in a stack of three separated by avocado salsa. The batter was a little thick on the cakes, the seasoning a little light, and the avocado salsa a little bland. None of these shortcomings, however, kept people from reaching across tables for a sample.
Nor did this reaching seem inappropriate. By around 9 p.m., playfulness overwhelmed the two rooms. Amid a soft roar, sudden friendships materialized as courses deconstructed; our meal began to resemble one of those determinedly zany progressive dinner parties. Mike and Jill ordered for three tables from the six salad plates ($10 to $12). Tastes of their Cabana salad ($10), a frenzy of greens topped with hearts of palm, queso blanco, plum tomatoes, red onions, and olives served with a black bean vinaigrette and their aguacate ($10), avocados with red and yellow peppers, plum tomatoes, and red onions tossed in a lime vinaigrette, didn't make the earth move. But the veggies were fresh and the dressings subtle enough to let the flavors speak for themselves.
Cabana's menu offers 12 platos tradicionales ($15 to $22) and four platos Cubanos ($14 to $16). We went with one of each. Recommended from experience -- and by the chorus of neighbors boldly extending their forks -- is the surprisingly mild coco Cabana pollo ($16), an intercontinental blend of chicken breast and broccoli, spinach, and Caribbean root vegetables, all simmered in coconut milk flavored with curry and habañero peppers. The $15 chicharrones de pollo, deep-fried chunks of garlicky chicken served with a mound of rice and black beans big enough to fill a C cup, are no better (or worse) than the same dish at any one of the La Carretas scattered throughout South Florida -- and about twice as expensive. But who ever said fun came cheap?
From the list of 11 side orders ($4 to $6), the arepas con queso ($6), nicely toasted and served on a bed of fresh shredded queso blanco, had me longing for afternoons in Caracas -- where the native versions are usually doughier and greasier. And a dessert of banana zeppoles ($5.95) erased any memories of the sweety-sweet same-named cream puffs often served in Long Island bakeries. The mouthfuls of pastry and custard filling were guaranteed to slug me silly on the Stairmaster the next morning but proved too tasty to be anything but wonderful at the moment.
By the end of the meal, around 11 p.m., Roy and Lisa, Mike and Jill were talking about continuing the party at Mano à Mano, a new tapas bar/restaurant two blocks down the street. Whether this urgency to keep the fun alive was the normal effect of dining at a place that serves dinner till 1 a.m. on the weekends or simply part of the Atlantic Avenue gestalt was open to question. Much more certain was the evening's $100 tab.
I came. I saw. I had a great time. Maybe I dined.
And maybe Cabana proves you can eat atmosphere, after all.