The enthusiasm was infectious on a recent Friday night at Carousel Can Can in CityPlace. Surveying the half-empty dining room of mostly couples and well-coifed gals out on the town, you could almost hear the collective yawn. About the only person who showed any sort of interest in the can-can show taking place on the thin, central stage was my friend Joanne.
She pointed at one of the restaurant's dancers, decked in a black corset, knee-high boots, and a tiny top hat tilted slightly to one side, and gasped. "I want to wear that little hat and those outfits!" I asked if she could also kick her leg up to her face like they did, remembering halfway through she always aspired to be a dancer. "Of course!" she shot back. "I used to want to be a Rockette."
Everyone else who didn't dream of high-kicking their way into Radio City Music Hall, however, looked so very bored. Sure, the staff dutifully clapped as the two costumed can-can girls kicked and twirled through Offenbach's "Galop Infernal." But all of it seems to be muscle memory in these post-opening months, a show most likely directed at owner Karim El Sherif, who haunts the cavernous dining room looking very unsure what to do about his fine mess. And if there was any sexual tension evident — besides the question of which server was sleeping with whom — you could cut it with a dull soup spoon.
Sex, after all, is what the can-can is all about. The high-kicking quadrille was once the call of Parisian courtesans, an indecent display that separated sex-starved patrons from their francs. And what a simple formula: Take one frilly skirt, add acrobatic maneuvers, and let gravity take over. The provocative dance was so scintillating, it spawned both burlesque and cabaret and about a hundred or so films on the subject. And, damn, was it a good time.
Any respectable Frenchman would probably shoot bouillabaisse through his nose at the idea of comparing West Palm Beach's CityPlace and Paris' can-can heyday, but there are a few similarities. CityPlace sure is bumping these days, filled up with touristy types looking to do some high-stepping of their own. And joints like Taverna Opa are doing big business combining the thrill of carnal entertainment with casual dining. But most importantly, the folks congregating at the juiced-up shopping mall are all sexed up. Decked in short skirts and sparkly muscle tees, nearly everyone is looking to get liquored and riled and, if all goes well, a little lucky too.
In that light, the addition of Carousel Can Can to that caustic soup should make sense. The French-themed brasserie looks out over CityPlace's second floor, its side-show carnival lights humming like bug zappers aimed squarely at your nether region. It's draped in gold and porcelain, and the whole façade practically sports a pair of fishnet stockings. Imagine if P.T. Barnum opened a cabaret in the Moulin Rouge, with a menu that makes T.G.I. Fridays look like the French Laundry.
Certainly, culinary talent will not keep Carousel Can Can whirling. That job is placed squarely on the dancers, who appear about every half-hour to the sounds of French opera and stay on stage for about five minutes. Between shows, the dancers retreat to the bar to flirt, and the room is filled with a deafening lack of action. The main dining area is dotted with Toulouse-Lautrec-inspired paintings, while a side room sports ornate mirrors and a circus-like big top that one of my friends could only describe as "horribly tacky." Worse yet, the split-floor plan results in a restaurant that feels segmented and empty: Both bars are sidecarred to the corners, so any drinking scene that does develop is completely lost on those customers trying to choke down their coq au vin in the dining room.
The main hall houses a big carousel with a glowing porcelain horse that, between performances, draws your attention toward the open kitchen. Unfortunately, that's a show hardly worth watching, as what it turns out is worse than Offenbach's version of hell. The menu is pretty much held over from El Sherif's Palm Beach Gardens brasserie Metronome, which, despite closing this year, proved that the French can do comfort food as well as anyone. In the hands of Can Can's chefs, however, El Sherif's casual menu of pizzas, burgers, pate, crepes, salads, and simple entrées ends up tasting less like gay Paris and more like Orlando's Medieval Times.
While the bill of fare is not necessarily small, it feels more so because nothing really inspires. What little there is that seems French is often overcompensated, like the horrid chicken cordon bleu bites ($5.50), four pieces of runny, frozen-tasting fodder plopped into a slick of nondescript mayo-based gloop. Other "teasers" include chicken lollipops marred by candy-sweet mango sauce ($4.50); the plum sauce on the pork spring rolls tasted nearly the same even if it was a shade or two darker ($5). Both dishes made a wood-fired spiced chicken pizza ($11) look excellent in comparison, a too-puffy pie blanketed in spiceless tomato sauce, red peppers, and bland chicken.
We pondered a question of etiquette as our entrées arrived: Is it proper form to tip a can-can dancer? If so, where do you stick the dollar bill? We decided that, no, these girls weren't strippers in the making. Besides, we'd have been hard-pressed to reach for a dollar after a taste of my steak frites ($19), a half-dozen unappealing black sirloin tips that were gamier than a used garter. The flavorless red wine sauce pooled beneath them did nothing to mask their obviously past-due expiration date.
The French are supposed to be the masters of sauces, but I wouldn't have come to that conclusion after tasting the white truffle cream sauce gooped over a plate of wild mushroom ravioli ($17). "Try this," my friend Eric offered. "It tastes exactly like mud." He pushed some across the table in exchange for a twirl of pesto-drenched angel hair pasta ($13.50) that was watery and flavorless.
Then there was the unidentifiable. We flagged down one of the corseted waitresses to ask her what the grey-white mash was accompanying the roasted duck breast ($21). Turns out, the mixture was goat cheese and potato hash, dry and desiccated. The very same problem plagued a plate of pan-seared salmon ($17.50); whatever appeal the pink fillet had was lost, thanks to a pile of root vegetables and sweet onion puree that looked and tasted like one of the can-can dancers had rehearsed on top of it. The only entrée anyone enjoyed was a breast of roasted free-range chicken ($15.50), mildly juicy and paired with a mix of overcooked carrots and green beans. Still, you'd fare better getting a plastic take-away dinner from Boston Market and sticking a copy of Moulin Rouge! in the DVD player.
I can see where El Sherif was headed with Can Can: Pair simple food with some titillating entertainment, and hope the revved-up CityPlace crowd makes the connection. After all, dining out is the great aphrodisiac — it's the place so many dates start and end, where romance and (more importantly) lust is born and nourished. But the place gets the spirit all wrong, and the food is break-up material. In the end, about the only people who'll get taken for a ride at Can Can are the customers.