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Restaurant Reviews

Hocus Opus

A perfect martini goes a long way toward softening me up. Here's my totally unprofessional confession: I'm inclined to love the food that follows it in direct proportion to the mastery with which my drink has been mixed. Terrible, isn't it? Worse and worse, many a food snob would crucify me for sipping hooch before dinner. They tell me the hard stuff ruins the palate. Gin dulls the buds, disables judgment, and — for me at least — casts a fuzzy, rosy glow over the direst circumstances. I'm much more likely to feel forgiving about that stain on the suede banquette or the parade of suctioned and anorexic behinds passing within inches of my fork when I'm fully liquored up. Give me a good martini and I'll be eating truffled portobello tart right out of your hand.

The bartender at Opus 5 did that the other night. By the time I'd finished my inspired "Summer Martini" ($12), an ultra-frigid concoction made from muddled cucumber, fresh lemon juice, simple syrup, and good gin, I was regarding Burt Rapoport's new restaurant with the greatest affection. Any obstacles to our continuing relationship had been summarily removed. If Opus 5 had been human, you would have said we'd taken an immediate shine to each other. We were practically necking.

And oh, the prejudices I'd had to overcome! I have a deeply rooted and irrational suspicion of any restaurant with a West Boca Raton address (although, against my better judgment, a few of my favorites do live here). I hate anything that smells of too much money and not enough soul, of anything strategized into functionality or spun by PR mavens. Corporate restaurateurs like Rapoport and his partner in this venture, Bruce Blum, make me feel itchy and impatient. Rapoport, who owns Henry's in Delray and Brasserie Mon Ami in Boca and parts of Max's Grille and Jazziz at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, is given to vapid boardroom babble (Opus' cuisine, he told the Sun Sentinel, "will be distinctive but not challenging"). God forbid anybody should be challenged over dinner (not that Rapoport has ever attempted it in any of his ventures). Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer owners to be on the premises, spreading their personal pixie dust around, not off scouting locations for their next mega-venture. Like a musical opus, a restaurant should ideally be thoroughly infused with sensibility. It should be a work of heart and of art.

Maybe that's what Rapoport and Blum were getting at with "Opus" anyway: presumably, they didn't name their restaurant after a penguin. Something unexpected has happened here. Rapoport and Blum put a lot of money into the old Zemi space — about $1.8 million — and that's par for their course. They ended up with a truly beautiful interior, thanks to Adolfo Galvez, a Miami designer. Rather than the usual South Beach kitschy-koo meets Boca (s)excess, Galvez has put together a couple of tasteful, soothing rooms full of unexpected visual interest. The ceiling, for example, is composed in wonderful layers — big circular lamps hung at one level, mirrored above by wooden grids of larger circles within squares. All those circles are picked up again in the pale, curved banquettes — and very comfortable they are too (although they've already succumbed to staining). And the squares sound a bit of visual rhyme against cream-colored columns that look like stacked platters (which resemble, again, the square white plates your tuna tartare and paillard of veal salad are served on). One wall is padded and quilted in butterscotch-hued fabric: comfy, lush, and sound-absorbing. Another wall is given over to a wine cellar of highly polished wood and glass. The bar is back-lit. The floors are old-fashioned wide plank, the precise color of an excellent old cognac. The look is handsome, unstuffy, and mildly exciting.

So I like the look. I like the drinks. And I pretty much like the food too, even a couple of days later, on sober reflection. The menu is relatively casual — a few elegant and trendy small plates in the $10 range, a bunch of similarly priced main-plate salads for those figure-conscious Boca gals, and a number of interesting if not challenging main courses: half a dozen or so fishes — wild salmon, farmed ruby trout, Norwegian halibut, and snapper — and as many meat dishes, including prime chopped steak, organic chicken, lamb chops, and beef short ribs costing $23 to $34. A pork shank from Berkley farms comes with ginger plum glaze and vegetable fried rice; seared tuna is crusted in wasabi with ginger and Thai chili emulsion. Except for the salads and some of the Asian-inspired fish dishes, this all feels a bit heavy for summer fare; and it doesn't look like the menu is going to change much seasonally, although Chef Francis Casciato is continuing to tweak it. But there's enough variety here to keep us well occupied over many future visits.

We liked both our starters: eggplant patties ($9) and chopped salad ($9). They evidenced enough spunky innovation to keep our hackles smoothed. Casciato, a peripatetic Philadelphia boy who has worked with Rapoport in many guises, including at the much-loved and now-defunct Prezzo in Palm Beach Gardens, adds pine nuts, white raisins, and bread crumbs to his mashed eggplant so the dish resembles a fancy, vegetarian version of crab cakes. Served with truffle-oil aioli and a balsamic reduction, they're scrumptious — soft, sweet, with a mild bite from the eggplant, a rich mouthful with the aioli and vinegar. And the chopped salad certainly wasn't more of the same-old. Carrots, celery, purple cabbage, cucumber, sure. But the addition of seaweed salad, miso-ginger dressing, and big silky leaves of pale-green butter lettuce made this dish a happy event that I'd like to be able to reproduce at home, along with that summer martini. Also available: a yummy-sounding vegetarian minestrone with asparagus, baby spinach, and artichoke gnocchi; and truffled portobello tart with goat cheese and balsamic syrup.

We ordered the ruby trout ($23) just for the novelty of it. And duck with "wild rice," apricots, and pomegranate reduction. Ruby trout is a newish diversion in restaurants these days, basically farm-raised trout that's been fed with the same "naturally colored" fishmeal they give farmed salmon to turn it pink. It looks pretty, and at Opus 5, it's rolled in an almond crust, filleted open so it covers nearly the entire plate, and served with a buttery lemon and vanilla sauce alongside a few crisp asparagus spears. Everything is sublime — presentation, sauce, veggies — but for the fish, which is almost entirely flavorless, often the case with fish raised on meal. Not that you really notice when the trout is swirled around in plenty of that delicious vanilla butter lemon sauce, but even so, a good wild, plain ole white rainbow trout would have really made the difference.

I'm all about duck these days, so I was thrilled with my two little Maple Leaf Farms duck thighs and legs. They'd been lovingly roasted so that they were full of moisture and that dense, dark, mushroomy flavor. The skin could have been a mite crisper, but it was savory and luxuriously fatty. Paired with apricots and a reduction of pomegranate, a bit of sweet and sour to cut the fat, and a buttery pile of rice pilaf (not "wild rice" as advertised), it was fine eating.

We should have skipped dessert, maybe, but we wanted to stick around to watch the girls who had apparently been bussed in and/or bribed to provide the evening's entertainment. At any rate, a whole tableful of lovelies, all wearing the de rigueur uniform of halter-tops, jeans, and long straight hair cut precisely to mid-back, got up around 10:30 and danced with one another (in that semi-suggestive, so-not-gay way) to the tunes the DJ was spinning. It was a transparent attempt to draw horny bachelors in for a late-night drink at the bar or to persuade diners to party. We spooned up our Prezzo-(un)inspired apple tart with cinnamon ice cream (so not a bargain at $9) and our tired scoops of sorbet (raspberry or something, $8 — save your money). There's also a cheesecake lollipop tree with bubblegum whipped cream, which sounds hideous, but for all I know might be just the thing you're craving; and a coconut layer cake, which I very well could have loved. And although our waiter half-heartedly murmured something about why didn't we hang out and dance awhile, the prospect, in this now-rapidly emptying restaurant, was too weird and depressing. Rapoport has been quoted as saying he wants Opus 5 to have a South Beach-via-New York feel, but unlike those cities, the carriage steeds in Boca all turn into dormice at midnight, the glad rags become sad rags, and the town rolls over and plays dead. If it's a late-night party you're looking for, I suggest you point your chariot southward. But for an excellent, earlyish dinner in a refined and relaxed atmosphere, Opus 5 hits all the right notes.

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Gail Shepherd
Contact: Gail Shepherd

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