You know me. I'm not a girl to go all giddy over splashy restaurant P.R. Those artfully composed packages, bearing their painstakingly designed logos, arrive in my mailbox pretty regularly, and I greet them with mixed feelings: excitement (hope springs eternal), dismay (the overwrought hyperbole!), and pity for the office drones who Xeroxed thousands of copies, stapled and stuffed those shiny folders, burned the CDs full of dearly bought photos, and found the oversized mailers in a perfect shade of mauve. But mostly it's the language that gets me, the desperate clutching for superlatives: the "revolutionary" concept and "unprecedented design," the "original cuisine," the "dining experience redefined." And you can hardly blame the P.R. people; it's their job, after all. So whom should we punish for the relentless blinging of the fine-dining-lifestyle concept? I'm told that in our newly downsized economy, conspicuous consumption is already so last year; on the other hand, it feels mean to criticize anybody with the balls to open a big, glitzy restaurant now — God love you poor bastards. Break a freaking leg.
Thus, we have Zed451. Dining in the round. Modern upscale grilling. A fixed price "intended to inspire experimentation and discovery." The restaurant opened a couple of weeks ago in part of the space formerly occupied by the Cartoon Museum in Boca's Mizner Park; the concept comes via Chicago, home of the original Zed, and we're told that others are scheduled to follow in Orlando and Boston — evidently, the suits are taking the Warren Buffet approach, expanding while the rest of the known universe contracts. A prix fixe of $55 buys you unlimited visits to a "Harvest Table" buffet of salads, soups, charcuterie, and breads; plus theoretically unlimited portions of meat and fish delivered by chefs making the rounds with trays and skewers. It's basically the churrasquería concept without the gaucho costumes. So much for "revolutionary."
There are elements, I grant you, that do distinguish Zed451 from your average Texas de Brazil, Amazonia, or Gol! — the restaurant's design by architect Chris Smith (he also designed Miami's OLA) is absolutely stunning. This gorgeous space is reason enough to make at least one visit; the bar in particular takes your breath away with its interplay of stone, wood, and water. Half the 3,000-square-foot bar faces inside the restaurant; on the other side, you're in open air under a sort of raw-wood trellis, where supercomfortable banquettes are nestled below a backlit pool that runs the length of the building. An outdoor fireplace makes everything glow, and as you look down the lantern-lit landscape with reflections glancing off the water, it's like gazing into a hall of mirrors. Inside, a rotunda at the entrance makes an inspired waiting area, and a series of small rooms, each holding half a dozen tables or so, is set around the Harvest buffet. These smaller rooms are divided from one another in artful ways: by a glass-walled winetasting room, for instance, where bottles of Cliquot and Roederer run floor to ceiling on either side of a simple trestle table set with pristine stemware. Sigh. I want Chris Smith to come redesign my house. He's a genius.
451 excels at design in every area; it's true of the Harvest Table too, a series of curved stations manned by an enormous staff. I'm not big on buffets — they always feel a little picked-over and germ-laden to me — but 451 has gone to extremes to make you forget that hundreds of people have pawed through the roasted cauliflower before you got there. It's laid everything out exquisitely on rectangular white plates, each with its own small carafe of sauce or dressing, and the staff changes out these plates and carafes as soon as they start to look rough. It all looks very appetizing and carefully arranged: the salads of green tomatillo or roasted nectarine with string beans, baby zucchinis, the colorful pastas, corn and peppers, tomatoes and olives, grilled pineapple, boards of salami, prosciutto, and cheeses with pots of relish, mustards, and chutneys, and loaves of grain-flecked hearth bread. There's enormous variety of color and texture: You couldn't possibly taste everything in one evening, although it's pretty enough to make you want to.
But the eye trumps the palate here — you expect each morsel to burst with flavor, but it doesn't particularly. The salads taste salady (vinegar, salt, vaguely vegetal), but no individual vegetable really defines itself. I confess I'm spoiled — I get my produce from a local farm or the Saturday greenmarket, so I've gotten used to the unique sugars of fresh corn, the creamy bite of new cauliflower, the musky juice of a recently picked tomato. 451's salads taste like restaurant food. Nor does the charcuterie evidence the velvety, layered flavors of "artisinal" meats and cheeses.
Nothing is bad. But it's not great either. That's exactly the difficulty with restaurants that spend millions on design — they'll wow your eye but leave your tongue unmoved. Believe it, if you pour your resources into fountains, fireplaces, and walls o' wine, there'll be scant funds left over for sourcing the best ingredients — especially if you plan to feed hundreds of customers at once. As diners, we betray our unstated preference when we make our reservation: We choose what's important to us — food or atmosphere? Rare are the restaurants that can knock you out both ways. So, we settle.
How you like Zed451 is going to depend on which way you lean. For me, those banquettes are damned comfortable, and the flagstone floors a pleasure to gaze upon, but it's not enough to compensate for the alternately bland and overspiced chunks of dry chicken and slices of lamb and pork that the servers bring around. The sausages taste almost exactly like hot dogs; the salmon is mushy; the tuna is all water and color; the ribs are unspeakably flavorless. And frankly, none of it goes together — I mean, who really wants to eat rare tuna, broiled salmon, sausage, and roast beef together on the same plate? If you knew what was coming and when, you might be able to plan a pleasing meal — but you have no idea if the next server is going to offer wahoo or bottom round, pork tenderloin or mahi-mahi. Even the skillet corn bread and gratinéed potatoes served as sides can't turn this procession into what you'd call a meal. And the constant interruptions from servers, hostesses, chefs, and managers, while well-intentioned, make intelligent conversation impossible.
The best of the offerings included a nicely seared piece of wahoo, slices of bottom round with a thin layer of fat intact, and smoky, rare, grilled rib eye. The rest of it, alas, was filler. Because one is human, and greedy, one is tempted to sample everything the chefs bring around — but the smart plan of attack at Zed451 is to wait for the rib eye and have them fill your plate with it. You'll see that rib eye only once. There's a method, believe me, to this madness — here's the illusion of excess, not the reality of it. And isn't that just what got us into this economic mess to begin with?
If your heart's set on rib eye, there are better places to eat it — we're not exactly short on steak houses around here. Once you add up the $55 prix fixe at 451 plus a couple of $10 cocktails, a glass or two of wine, and maybe a dirty banana sundae ($10) for dessert, you're looking at well over two bills to have dinner with your sweetie, plus tax and tip. That kind of money would go a fair way into a meal at Morton's or Strip House, where you don't have to fight your way across a buffet table either. My recommendation is to go to 451 but to eat at the bar — there's a separate menu of small plates (a braised short-rib slider, for instance). That way, you can take full advantage of the delicious atmosphere, have a cocktail or two, and get out with your financial dignity intact.
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I mean, who really wants to eat rare tuna, broiled salmon, sausage, and roast beef on the same plate?