Restaurant Reviews

Clematis Treat

Somebody spank me. I've been a bad girl. Instead of waiting three weeks for the brand-new La Palma Grill, a nouvelle Mexican restaurant onClematis Street in West Palm Beach, to get its act together, I reviewed the narrow, high-ceilinged eatery only seven days after it opened. I usually like to give a new restaurant enough time to figure out what dishes are working, how much food to order to satisfy customer demand, and how to handle the staff. (The three-week leeway is not, however, the rule; theoretically speaking, chef, kitchen manager, and servers should be experienced and professional enough to hit the ground running.) In La Palma's case, the second floor of the two-story hacienda wasn't even open yet, lunch hours had yet to be determined, and the chile-laden menu was still subject to change. Even proprietor T.K. Kaytmaz, who has owned a host of other restaurants around town including Pescatore, the eatery across the street, expressed concern when I called him after my visit. "It's a little soon, isn't it?" heasked.

But I'm not to blame. I'd gone to Clematis Street for a black and tan at Rooney's Public House, after which I was going to check out an Indian restaurant on nearby Okeechobee Road. I made it to Rooney's just in time to catch the shootout in the Women's World Cup finals, and I never left Clematis. One of the reasons is that most of the businesses that open along the much-ballyhooed strip are of the Gap and Banana Republic varieties; I couldn't resist checking out a dining addition to thearea.

Especially a restaurant that's right next to Rooney's and has a menu, posted in the window, that reads like recipes from the book version of Like Water For Chocolate. And is it my fault that the World Cup victory put me in such a good mood I couldn't resist the dozens of aged tequila drinks, including one splashed with Midori that La Palma so elegantly calls a "Horny Green Iguana"? I also couldn't resist that handsome face, the one the waiter showed me when he caught me peeking through the window at the wrought iron furniture, gigantic banquettes, terra-cotta tile floor, and glowing Aztec design over the bar, which Kaytmaz designed himself. After all, when it comes to good-looking dishes -- like the delicious-sounding roasted poblano peppers stuffed with shrimp and scallops in a chipotle gratin and, yes, the waiter -- I can be seduced pretty easily.

If the restaurant had made a poor showing, I probably wouldn't be writing this review at all. But I was impressed by both the cuisine and management of the place. The staff is cheerful and solicitous, the prices appropriately reasonable, the dishes appealingly inventive. But not everything was perfect. One busboy, as we were savoring a last course of creamy guava cheesecake, asked us if we wanted more chips and salsa. In the ladies' room, the female attendant appeared to be about 12 years old and was inexperienced enough to throw paper towels at me over the top of the stall. And while starters were delivered at appropriate speeds, main courses followed too quickly and were lukewarm toboot.

Despite the rather cool temperatures of the dishes, however, the fare at La Palma Grill succeeds and no doubt will improve as teamwork in the restaurant jells. Even the gratis chips and salsa were a step above the generic examples, with the tricolor chips cut from flavored flour tortillas and the salsa composed from dried, smoky chile peppers. Chile peppers, in fact, infuse most of the items, starting with the ceviche de pescado appetizer. Served in a martini glass, the tilefish had been marinated in lime juice with tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and fresh serrano chiles. The fish, as a result, was perfectly tangy and succulent. Our only complaint was that there wasn't enough ofit.

More peppers, this time chipotles, comprised the sauce that laced a main course of pierna de sirena. Translated, the name of the dish means "leg of mermaid," but instead of being offered a piece of Ariel's delicate white flesh, we were served flaky white sea bass stuffed with shrimp that had been marinated in white wine. The sauce, touched with tomato, was a light and aromatic finish. But the real chile lover will forgo fish for the mole poblano spooned over a chicken breast. Prepared with ancho, pasilla, and mulato peppers, the mole, which is often flavored with bittersweet chocolate, was much more spicy than chocolatey. I also enjoyed the way the dish was plated, the boneless and skinless breast sliced and fanned on purple pottery.

A grilled pork tenderloin entrée, pipian de puerco, was carved the same way as the chicken -- a detail that should have been included on the menu. (We'd anticipated a whole piece of meat, which would have been a little juicier.) Regardless, the tamarind sauce lacing the tender white meat was flavorful, and a roasted corn-purée side dish, topped with pumpkin-seed sauce, was masterfully nutty.

The chile phobic needn't bring along peanut butter sandwiches. For the sissies in the group, several dishes, including the pork, are mild enough to win accolades. For instance, compared to the ceviche, the atún à la vinaigrette starter seemed a little tame. But the chunks of grilled rare tuna, complemented by a sweet blueberry syrup and served over mixed greens, worked well on its own. The portobello relleno de chorizo appetizer offered a bit more zest without crossing the line into spicy territory. Two mushroom caps, reminiscent of sombreros, were layered with high-quality pork sausage and Oaxaca cheese, then broiled until they were succulent and juicy.

Because the menu is likely to change, diners shouldn't count on certain dishes being available. We were disappointed, for example, that the kitchen had eighty-sixed a fillet of salmon stuffed with wild mushrooms and goat cheese and napped with a poblano sauce. A special main course that evening, grilled tiger shrimp garnished with a zesty corn salsa, went a long way toward appeasing us, though. And our waiter, who not only knew the menu but had already picked his favorites, was right on target in recommending a starter of ensalada de aguacate y camarón. Tiger shrimp were marinated in a fruity red wine, then grilled and chopped. They were partnered with a lovely guacamole, less rife with onions and tomatoes than we're used to here in the United States; the emphasis was placed on the buttery avocados.

So yes, I've been a little naughty by reviewing La Palma Grill in its first week of business. In the restaurant critic's world, my actions are equivalent to sleeping with a guy on the first date. But rather than feeling guilty about it the morning after or pretending it never happened, I'm willing to take full responsibility and extend this impromptu relationship beyond a one-night stand.

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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