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Restaurant Reviews

Escargots, Antipasto, and Betty Crocker

Under the "there are two sides to every argument" heading comes the following question: How important is it to know the race/ethnicity/sexuality/politics of the proprietor of a restaurant?

Not at all, I usually think, other than for a passing note of interest. I don't really care if a native Italian runs the local pasta joint or an Asian from California does, as long as the food is good, the price right, and the atmosphere conducive. The same goes for any kind of restaurant, anywhere in the world. There's no rule that says you have to be of a certain origin to prepare food from a particular region.

On the other hand, some restaurateurs go out of their way to announce themselves, which may or may not interfere with the kind of customers who return. There's a restaurant in Miami, for instance, that's run by a guy whom everyone acknowledges to be "a Nazi," yet I know Jews who dine there regularly because the food is so tasty. And the lads at Rhythm Café on South Dixie Highway in West Palm Beach -- Dennis Williams and Ken Rzab, who are partners in life as well as in business -- clearly want you to know you're eating at a gay-run establishment. There's nothing blatant to alert you, but there are bowls filled with free condoms in the rest rooms, supplied by a company called Compass as part of its AIDS-outreach program. A card advertising a book called You Know You're Gay When... claims that one sign is "when your coffee table has more candles than St. Patrick's." The restaurant even stocks pasta in the shape of penises.

Obviously, strait-laced or homophobic folk need not make a reservation here, and they're not the crowd these owners are seeking, anyway. But while the decade-old eatery is gay-friendly, it's certainly not gay-exclusive. In fact, if you walked in with your eyes closed, you might just think you were in a grandmother's house somewhere in the Midwest. All the desserts are homemade, and the kitchen bakes chocolate-chip cookies and brownies throughout the evening. The staff is exceptionally well-mannered and the wine list well chosen and reasonably priced, with dozens of vintages by the glass.

When you open your eyes, it's clear you're not in Kansas anymore (though some of us wouldn't want to be there in the first place). At Rhythm Café, one wall is painted black, the better to reflect the dark specks in the terrazzo floor. The tables are covered in a kind of red vinyl, and kitschy memorabilia abound. A long, curving luncheonette counter has been turned into a bar, with plushy chrome stools. Disco music blasts through the pipes. The menu, which is hand-copied, changes often. The place has the charm of old San Francisco or even early South Beach. To serious diners it is more than welcome, given its location -- smack-dab in the middle of a long run of snazzy car dealerships.

The modestly priced menu could be called global, I suppose, if you consider the provenance of items like the black-bean hummus appetizer or the main course of lentil dal with cucumber raita. But for the most part, the fare strikes European notes. The escargots starter makes a good example of the kitchen's take on French cuisine. Sautéed with a red-wine-and-butter sauce, the plump snails were perched in triangles of frilly puff pastry. More of the pink sauce was puddled underneath the pastry, softening it just a touch. Francophiles can continue on that course by ordering the filet mignon with béarnaise sauce or the steak au bleu entrée. The latter, a trimmed sirloin strip, was pan-seared, then topped with crumbled Gorgonzola and a shallot demi-glace. The intense flavors of the cheese and sauce complemented the robust beef, which was wonderfully tender and juicy.

Italian-food devotees will be well pleased with the choice of goodies such as bread salad -- warm crusts tossed with mozzarella, marinated tomatoes, roasted peppers, and onion. For a bargain start with the $10.50 tapas platter, which is less tapas than it is antipasto. Aside from a smoky fish dip and the aforementioned black-bean hummus, the platter comprised piles of roasted peppers, slices of Asiago cheese, cherry peppers stuffed with prosciutto, and a spread made of sun-dried tomatoes and basil pesto. Add crackers and freshly baked bread to the dish, and you have enough food to feed a family.

The management tacks on a $4 fee for any split entrée, but portions here are so healthy in size that the charge seems quite reasonable. A generous serving of penne with grilled chicken and tomato/basil/cream sauce, divided in the kitchen and presented to us on two plates, was more than enough to satisfy moderate appetites. It lacked only a little salt to bring out the flavor.

The restaurant offers a number of special appetizers and main courses every evening, so we hazarded a serving of North African cauliflower soup. Essentially a creamless purée of cauliflower and other vegetables, it carried a powerful licorice taste, as if fennel or anise had been added. Some of us loved it; others didn't care for it. If your tastes are more homey than exotic, a bowl of French onion soup might suit you better. The sweet onions were bathed in a light beef broth, and a crouton topped with melted Gruyère provided a hearty, traditional garnish. One minor glitch: When the soup, served in a covered crock, was unveiled, we whisked off the lid to find the crock only about a quarter full, as if the soup had somehow evaporated despite the laws of nature. The waiter, as surprised as the rest of us, took it back, and returned with the explanation that the kitchen was using a bigger crock than normal, which made it look like less soup. Well, OK, but appearances are everything.

Main-course specials included a lovely piece of dolphin, baked with a pistachio crust and napped with a horseradish sauce. We also enjoyed a dish of boneless loin lamb chops, two musky medallions that were tender and flavorful despite being overcooked. A tomato/onion/feta cheese salsa jazzed them up.

One way to improve the Rhythm experience, I think, would be to vary the vegetable side dishes. Verdant spears of broccoli were perfectly steamed, and slightly lumpy mashed potatoes were rich and flavorful, but they looked pretty mundane accompanying all the entrées.

The desserts diverge from the European theme -- they're reminiscent, rather, of Betty Crocker. Still, it's hard to improve on homemade brownies. Rhythm Café actually does just that by making them into a sundae. Other sweets include a subtle cappuccino- chocolate-chip layer cake, iced with chocolate cream cheese, and peanut butter cream pie. The chocolate-chip cookies, incidentally, can be purchased by the dozen, and any cake can be ordered whole for a party. (Give the kitchen 24 hours' notice.)

So yes, Rhythm Café is gay-oriented, an inescapable fact if you pay attention to the clues around you. And it may be hard to separate the proprietors' sexual politics from their restaurant. But in the end, unless you're intolerant, the only way these factors affect the dining experience is by giving it identity. Take away what allows Rhythm Café to groove to its own beat, and it's simply another good restaurant.

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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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