So it's comforting to drive down George Bush Boulevard in Delray Beach (formerly just Eighth Street) and lay eyes on the sign for Pineapple Grille -- one of the few constants in a discontinuous universe. This irrepressible, Caribbean-themed, old Key West-style outpost has been here for ten years. That a place just a decade young should signify a constant is a painful irony -- history's on the march!
The Grille looks like a tourist's Technicolored daydream of Florida. Every surface is painstakingly hand-painted in tropical colors. Giant fish swim above mosaic-tile patio tables -- including a hammerhead shark with somebody's hat in its mouth. On warm, clear nights, everybody sits outdoors in the jasmine-scented air, talking above the caged parrot's imprecations (he was noticeably absent last time). A guitarist quietly plays "Norwegian Wood" and Pink Floyd unplugged. When the weather turns chilly, they drag out heat lamps and roll down the curtains.
Owner Charles Tobias has been kicking around Delray Beach since the days he worked at Vittorio -- he went on to open Il Girasole and later operated Charlie's on Atlantic Avenue. Donna Bruner, head chef at Pineapple Grille for nine years, is another notable constant. Some of the wait staff have also been there for years. Only Sous Chef Ricky Gopeesingh has moved on; last year, he left to go solo with his French-Caribbean restaurant, Nirvana, in Boynton Beach.
The most significant constant of all, though, is unanimous critical praise. You can stand in the little alcove by the bathrooms and never run out of reading material -- every glowing review is lovingly framed and displayed. There are lavish accolades from the Sun-Sentinel, the Palm Beach Post, Boca Magazine, Zagat, Wine Spectator, City Link, a "People's Choice" award from AAA, and two "Best Of" designations from New Times -- one for Best New World Restaurant in 1999 and another for Best Wine Selection in a Restaurant in 2000. Even the Boston Globe has waxed ecstatic about Pineapple Grille. There are more stars on this wall than in a night sky over Kingston.
"This is a serious restaurant for locals," intones the Post in one blurb.
No. It's just a seriously overrated restaurant.
I've never had a good meal at Pineapple Grille, though I guess somebody has. Either the place is wildly uneven or it's piping laughing gas through the sound system. Five years ago, I had a dinner that was OK but not good enough to draw me back. A Sunday buffet brunch around that same period was memorably awful (one detail that stands out was a horde of flies alighting on the sliced pineapple). Two more dinners there this month haven't managed to relieve me of my sense of isolation. Am I crazy?
Not crazy -- desperate. I'd sell my first-born for a moderately priced neighborhood hangout that serves fresh fish dishes and has a full bar -- my disappointment with Pineapple Grille is well-nigh crushing. Nobody could want this place to be terrific more than I do. I'd settle for pretty good. I'd even settle for "always edible." It doesn't look like I'm likely to get my wish, no matter how hard I rub my magic lamp. The vision that appears when I mouth the words "Pineapple Grille" is an evil genie.
These are hard words to write. The staff is so sweet. The servers have never been anything but extremely nice to me -- notably attentive in some cases beyond the call of duty. I know from talking to Tobias that he really cares: He wants customers to have a good experience so much that he practices numerology with the menu prices (blackened tuna is $20.08; crab stuffed artichoke hearts are $8.76, lucky numbers meant to bathe diners in good karma). I love that Pineapple Grille is also one of the few restaurants in South Florida to employ blacks in visible, front-of-the-house jobs (a peeve I'll save for another column). I just can't figure out what's going on with the food.
In 1999, another critic from this very publication pointed out that New World cuisine is often a case of overkill: "Too many side dishes on one plate, too many competing flavors." Pineapple Grille, we said, "does New World cuisine the way it's meant to be prepared: simply. The dishes certainly aren't overdone or overwhelmed by dozens of ingredients."
I beg to differ. My "Five-Spice Seared Sea Bass Tossed with Oriental Veggies and Hoi sin Plumb [sic] Sauce," at a whopping but karmically auspicious price of $31.97, was as far from "simple" as Paris Hilton is from Mao Tse-Tung. I brought most of the dish home not because I wanted to eat it but because I wanted to leisurely unpack it -- like a Mary Poppins' valise. I have it before me now, and I'm amazed by the frightening conspiracy to silence this piece of sea bass. There are curls of raw carrot and raw red beet, chunks of mango, black beans, celery, sliced red and yellow peppers, canned mushrooms, shreds of cilantro, bok choy, Chinese cabbage, red cabbage, and zucchini (pick the "Orientals" out of this lineup). Was there anything left in the cooler after this dish was sent out? The fish did not come "tossed" with these vegetables, it came "smothered" in them, and I don't doubt it had fought to the last gasp. There may have been five spices somewhere in this mess, but the hoisin sauce was so cloyingly sweet and salty that one bite left no taste bud unslaughtered.