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Restaurant Reviews

Coming Out of Hiding

Vogue's food critic Jeffrey Steingarten was angry a few months ago when his own magazine published the phone number of Balthazar, one of his favorite New York City restaurants. Until that time the number was unlisted and kept very close to the chests of devotees. In fact, the secret to the success of Balthazar -- where relatives of mine have dined, with nothing significant to report -- seemed to have been its private phone number. The place just isn't the same, Steingarten writes, now that anyone can make a reservation.

Closer to home Johannes Fruhwirt, chef-proprietor of Johannes, located on East Palmetto Park Road in Boca Raton, was doing what the folks at Balthazar once did. Although the restaurant's number is listed, he wasn't advertising. As the former maitre d' of two of South Florida's most respected yet erstwhile eateries, the Plum Room and Citrus, he was depending on former clientele to track the new place down. (The phone number is the same as the former Citrus'.) But the appellation of his new eatery isn't inscribed anywhere on the windows or façade. The only signs that Johannes is nestled in a strip mall where the rest of the stores are closed for the evening are the J-shape door handle and the velvet ropes and red carpet that extend to the sidewalk, which are hardly subtle but make the restaurant look more like a South Beach nightclub than a typical Boca establishment.

"Some diners show their frustration when they finally find me," Fruhwirt admits. "'We've been driving around and around,' they say. But in the end, they're happy. The restaurant is hidden, like a hamlet."

When the summer doldrums hit, however, Fruhwirt reverted to an age-old technique for drawing patrons -- he began to advertise, which is how I found him. Even so, the ad is a bit off-the-wall; its centerpiece is this quote from King Antiocho: "I announced in the piety of my thoughts that the kingdom subject to my throne should be common dwelling place of all the gods."

Fruhwirt's kingdom is undeniably small, with only 32 seats and 8 tables comprising the luxuriously appointed dining room. Designer floor lamps, a ruby-hued carpet, and oil paintings in gilt frames help make for white-linen opulence. Fruhwirt, who studied interior design in his native Austria before attending hotel-restaurant school in Vienna, says he designed the restaurant to resemble a European chalet.

His throne is even tinier: a one-man kitchen built specially for the restaurant. (The space used to be a jewelry shop.) During the fall and winter, Fruhwirt takes in apprentices from the Florida Culinary Institute in Palm Beach, which is his way of acknowledging the value of his own training; he was a guest apprentice at the Culinary Institute of America and did a two-year stint as maitre d' of Le Cirque. During the off-season Fruhwirt prepares elaborately spiced dishes like butternut squash soup with Barbados rum, star anise, and cocoa solo, while a maitre d' and waiter named Giovanni attends the patrons. (Giovanni contributes to the atmosphere by choosing the music, a never-ending blend of electronica grooves and house music that calls both New York City and South Beach to mind.)

Because the staff is so small, patrons may have to wait some time for dishes to appear, and some of those items may not be hot when they arrive. For instance the lobster sauce served with a lobster ravioli appetizer dusted with red tobikko caviar was lukewarm and bland. But the ravioli themselves were intensely flavored. Another starter, crabcakes with Indochine mango jam, offered plenty of lump crabmeat and no filler. Oddly enough, however, the exteriors of the two disks were slightly burned while the interiors were soft and cool to the touch.

Some of the fare is actually supposed to be served at room temperature, like the calamari and wakame salad, a delicious appetizer. Served in a coconut half, the supple calamari and cellophanelike seaweed were flavored with sesame oil and laced with crisp rice noodles. But Fruhwirt has to be careful; even some of his room-temp dishes were cooler than they should have been. A single-malt sauce and a caramelized red-onion relish accompanying a New York strip steak entrée had lost their punch because of the strength-sapping nature of the refrigerator.

Our sesame-seeded tuna steak was as thick as a piece of filet mignon and as such was purposefully cooked only at the very edges. Though it was rare the way we like it, the tuna was too mushy in the center for our tastes. Fruhwirt might consider cooking a thinner piece of fish at a higher temperature in order to avoid disintegration. The Asian pear chutney and tangerine vinaigrette, which accompanied the tuna, however, needed no adjustments. The fruity and tangy touches were perfect foils for the mild tuna.

As the cooler seasons approach, Fruhwirt's tastes become more exotic, and on ever-changing menus customers will find entrées like elk ragout with porcini fettuccine in mustard sauce and slow-grilled Texas antelope with peppery "popcorn" and barbecue sauce. Until then patrons will have to satisfy themselves with the coriander-crusted rack of lamb, a pungent but not gamy main course. The intriguingly scented couscous with Arabic seasonings and a black fig-tarragon compote were interesting alternatives to the more staid but all-too-familiar roasted potatoes and mint jelly.

As his ad purports, Fruhwirt wants his restaurant to be the "common dwelling place of all the gods" in that he treats patrons as if they've just descended from Olympus. He frequently journeys from the kitchen to inquire about meals, adjust utensils, and cater to every whim. Giovanni is gracious to a fault, going so far one night as to accommodate some truly obnoxious patrons who couldn't make do with a generous European wine list, which, while not inexpensive, offers some very nice, dry Rieslings. These folks, who took it upon themselves to turn the eatery into a smoking restaurant, journeyed to a nearby liquor store for a bottle of vodka, which they purchased to accompany classically served beluga caviar (at $45 an ounce). Once settled in, however, they insisted that Giovanni mix them martinis, which he did using juice that Fruhwirt had to squeeze from blood oranges. Talk about catering to every whim.

Of course people have to pay for these kinds of privileges. Appetizers range from $9 to $19, and main courses start at $26; more expensive items like the Kobe beef filet mignon sell for $9 per ounce, and a half-kilo of caviar (18 ounces) runs the intrepid diner a mere $534. While the effort Fruhwirt extends seems sincere, these are hardly prices for the average mortal, and they're certainly not justified by dishes that, while good, are not always served at the right temperature.

The prospect of such an expensive evening is almost enough to make one forgo the dessert offerings of a cheese plate (ours was Brie; another night Stilton was the offering), homemade sorbets, or the Havana-flavored bananas, soaked in rum and baked. Difficult customer or no, everyone at Johannes pays up in the end -- though I suspect if the bill totals more than you anticipated, the short-staffed Fruhwirt could always use some help with the dishes.

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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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