Restaurant Reviews

Gratify in West Palm Beach Should Be Better Than It Is

I've got some major beef with the potato chips served at Gratify. These chips, the bar's equivalent of complimentary bread and butter, are crinkle-cut and fried in-house, which is admirable. But they're also sliced so thick that, in order to get them to crisp, the kitchen has to practically burn them. What you end up with is a basket of potatoes either bottom-of-the-fryer brown, or soggy and limp without any sort of satisfying crackle.

My friends and I wondered during a recent visit to Gratify, downtown West Palm's newest gastropub, why anyone would go through all the effort to hand-cut and then fry potato chips like this when the end result is markedly worse than just popping open a bag of Ruffles. "These chips are just awful," one of my friends commented. "And there's not even salt on the table to make them any better."

The answer, we found, came from the menu itself. The restaurant offers a basket of "pub chips" for $6 — the very same potato chips you get for free, only with a trio of dipping sauces to accompany them.

I'll play devil's advocate for a moment: Maybe those thick, underseasoned chips do work fine for scooping up the sauces (French onion, blue cheese, and wasabi mustard, for the record). But who would actually order a basket after tasting the subpar free helping is anyone's guess.

If I'm combing over every detail of these chips, it's only because their execution perfectly exemplifies Gratify as a whole. There's actually a lot to like about the modern-looking gastropub, which moved into the spot vacated by Spoto's Oyster Bar in February. It has an eclectic and imaginative menu. And with its small-but-intelligent drink list, including plenty of craft beers and inexpensive bottles of wine, it's poised to be an approachable neighborhood bar. But it seems that for each edgy or innovative idea in place at Gratify, there's something equally daft gumming up the works.

Take the restaurant's version of St. Louis ribs ($12), which I ordered during a lunchtime visit with a friend. It was during the Palm Beach Boat Show, and both the streetside seating and the slick, question mark-shaped bar were packed with folks looking to escape the sun with a pint of beer. We took a seat in the restaurant's only section of interior tables, which runs along a wall-length bench, and dug into the ribs, which were stacked like logs in a campfire.

The analogy isn't far off, actually. Though the ribs were creatively dressed with tart and flavorful balsamic-shallot vinaigrette instead of ordinary barbecue sauce, many of the black, sad spears were leathery and charred completely. "It's a shame," my companion remarked. "The few that aren't burnt taste really, really good."

It is a shame, because these types of small plates seem to be the focus at Gratify. They comprise well over half the menu, and their range is diverse enough to cover four restaurants or more. There are risotto balls, curried Prince Edward mussels, flat breads with mozzarella and pesto, and wild mushrooms spread between layers of phyllo. Add to that finger foods, like bowls of Greek olives with garlic and platters of antipasto, which compete against polar opposites like a tower of crabmeat graced with pink grapefruit and micro greens from nearby Swank Farms. I can really get behind the eclectic selection in theory: Offering a little bit of this and that for the beer-drinking crowd seems like a swell idea. But in practice, the "try to please everyone" approach leads to some fairly odd dinner choices and, more important, serious problems with consistency.

For example, on that same visit, my friend and I shared a bowl of bouncy-fresh Florida rock shrimp sautéed and then buoyed by a helping of Manchego-laced grits ($12). The grits had an appealing coarse texture and great flavor. But they were marred by a too-thin sauce of tomato, garlic, and bell pepper that watered down the whole bowl.

An order of pork tacos ($10) was the same in that if you took away the acrid salsa and burnt tortilla, the roasted pork and queso fresco filling would've been pretty damn tasty. Chicken wings ($8), another bar food staple, were lavished in a rich sauce of rosemary, Parmesan, and garlic. But they were also soggy and limp where they should have been crisp and satisfying.

It could be that Gratify is trying too hard to be edgy when it should just get back to basics. Take a turkey and egg sandwich ($9), which the menu advises comes on grilled sourdough. The pile of lunch meat is stacked high with arugula, overly thick tomato, melted Muenster cheese, and a fried egg, the last of which drips yolk over the meaty tower. Sure, egg yolk is a tasty thing — but it makes for one helluva heavy sandwich. And it would be nice if the menu mentioned it was open-faced. My friend, who stabbed at the big, dripping pile with his fork, thought so too. "If you've got to eat it with a fork and a knife, then it's not a sandwich," he said.

Gratify's space also suffers from some big oversights. The restaurant's glass façade opens up to that curvy bar and a modern-looking interior that showcases an impressive liquor collection and a few plasma TVs tuned to basketball and golf. Beyond that is another lacquered, wooden bar top sitting right up against the open kitchen. The idea, I suppose, is to have folks who come in for small bites plant themselves at the bar and watch the chefs go to work.

No one, apparently, thought this part through. Never mind that customers coming for dinner aren't going to want to sit single file as they eat — when I sit down for a meal with friends, I want to sit down with my friends. The big problem is the tall wooden divider that separates the bar from the line. If it didn't already block your view of the kitchen, then the plates stacked on top of it (the plates on which food is served, upon which people sitting at the bar could breathe/cough upon) most certainly would. I guess in the end the point is moot, since not once in my many visits did I see anyone sitting at that bar. It's just one big piece of wasted real estate in a restaurant that doesn't have much to begin with.

I feel bad knocking this place, because it's obvious owners Gene Playter and Scott Helm (formerly of Clematis' Samba Room) are really trying. And I really want to like Gratify more than I do, which has to say something for what they've envisioned. If only the pair would lose their reliance on trendy small plates and focus on simple, comforting food, I think Gratify could be a hit.

A special of blackened local snapper I had on my last visit proved as much. The dinner-sized plate was loaded with two perfectly cooked, Cajun-spiced fillets of flaky white fish. Each was perched on top of a big helping of Louisiana-style dirty rice that was so imbued with tomato and spices it was like a Southern-fried version of creamy risotto. Best of all, the entire dish was just $18. It wasn't mind-blowing, but if Gratify served nothing but this snapper, I'd be there at the bar six days a week, sucking down pints of Arrogant Bastard between bites.

And maybe a seventh, too, for the prime sirloin steak, which at $20 for a whale of a portion is just as good a buy. For dessert, I'd do the house take on a grilled cheese ($10), two picture-perfect slices of Texas toast oozing with white Vermont cheddar. Alongside it is a cup of tomato soup so creamy-thick and chunky it makes Campbell's look like Army rations.

Now that's a gratifying dish — even if it does come with a side of bad potato chips. I really hope Gratify can fix those too. Hiding somewhere behind those burnt ridges is a pretty good restaurant.

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John Linn