We SoFloridians have got to make the best of our rainy, hurricane-whipped summers, so it makes sense that we're suddenly all about barbecue. Even upscale restaurants like Johnny V in Lauderdale and Oakwood Grill in Palm Beach Gardens have jumped into the game, to say nothing of the old standbys.
I'm a two-time loser, though. Not only did I miss last month's Barbequlooza at Johnny's but I failed to show up for New Times colleague John Linn's July Fourth pork shoulder and roast chicken Q-throwdown picnic, the step-by-step process of which is lubriciously detailed on our New Times blog, Short Order. Linn accomplished his tasty Q in nine hours of babying on a propane grill with a pan of water and woodchips for flavor. Get a load of that cracklin' crisp skin.
So I was feeling pretty lame, barbecually speaking, by the time I finally dragged myself over to the newish Spoto's Oakwood Grill in the Gardens last week for its Monday-night, family-style barbecue. This weekly feast runs through the summer, and it's priced at a reasonable $17 per person, particularly reasonable considering the height and weight of the plates they're serving.
Here's my take on the rapidly expanding Spoto's empire. John Spoto opened his eponymous oyster bar on Clematis Street just over a decade ago, and it's one of the few eateries to have survived the economic windstorms that have decimated downtown West Palm Beach over the years. There's been overbuilding, high rents, road construction, competition with CityPlace, and the kind of political mismanagement that makes you double over with stomach pains to watch it. You have to credit Spoto for doing something right to survive that kind of lashing — I'm just not exactly sure what it is. I've never had a good meal at Spoto's, with one exception. The freshly shucked raw oysters are perfection. I spent a memorable afternoon, one of the shining moments of my gastronomic career, with my sister and brother eating all the oysters we could stuff at Spoto's. It's the only time in my life I ever gave myself permission to eat as many raw oysters as I wanted, never mind the cost. They were bluepoints, as I remember, and I drank a good deal of ice-cold, dry white Chablis with them; we sat outside in perfectly calibrated gold and peach-colored sunshine, and I think our final bill amounted to more than $500. It was a bill I paid without a shred of regret for a meal I still shiver with pleasure to remember. You'll never hear me utter a harsh word about Spoto's raw bar.
The rest of the menu is a different story. I've had overcooked fish fillets, bland salads, and watery chowders at Spoto's, plus a good deal of barely competent service. I'm entirely flummoxed by the amount of fancypants critical attention the place has received, including a much-publicized visit from fat Tim Zagat and his wife, Nina, the two most annoying foodie experts on the planet, who apparently arrive at a restaurant with a retinue of photographers and expect to be kowtowed to and fussed over and to eat for free. Spoto's new ventures in Palm Beach Gardens, both the oyster bar and Oakwood Grill just up the road, have generated similar accolades (Oakwood Grill has already racked up a Florida Trend Golden Spoon Top 20 Best New Restaurants award, raves from the Palm Beach Post, and a mention at Epicurious.com).
I'm not a girl to hold a grudge. I've given more second, third, and fourth chances to lovers, friends, and restaurants than they've hardly deserved, so I ventured up to Oakwood Grill with an open heart in the spirit of reconciliation. I even brought along Ms. A and my dear old Mum, who was jonesing for meat and a hamburger in particular.
Monday's barbecue was our second visit. We'd been the Saturday before with a couple of out-of-town friends, and if I had to score that meal, I'd give it a C+/B-. It was a cozy scene, all right — lamplight, overstuffed booths, carved wooden ducks nesting in the eaves, and the delicious scent of wood fires. The space is broken up, so little nooks are available to hide in if you're feeling romantic, including a private room in the back (they call this "the cave") entered through an ironwork gate, flanked by floor-to-ceiling wooden wine racks. It's lovely and unpretentious. A big patio with a bar satisfies the yen to sit outdoors (there's a jazz band on Sundays) — it's pleasant to have a drink here or a glass of wine from a list that includes less obvious Zinfandels and Meritage blends, averaging $10 to $14 per glass, before dinner.
The wine's fine; the digs are great. But our C+/B- meal that night included a "rib eye" on special ($33) as thin as a minute steak, overcooked to medium well (I'd ordered it medium rare), and smothered in a greasy Roquefort sauce. We'd had a gold and red beet salad ($9) made up of chopped beets arranged as a terrine, rather than whole roasted babies, mixed up with goat cheese and pistachio vinaigrette on a bed of arugula; a fairly decent chopped salad ($7) with charcoaled tomato vinaigrette; fish and chips ($17) served without vinegar — the batter lacked kick, but the fries were hot, crisp, and salty; and two dishes that we liked pretty well: "not your mother's pot roast" with mashed potatoes and a maple-lacquered two-bone pork chop (both $18) with sweet potatoes. My mom could certainly make a pot roast as tasty, tender, and rich; the thick, slightly dry pork chop was just a bit too sweet (I would have put something savory on that plate to cut the sugar) but still edible. All the desserts — bourbon pecan pie ($7), double chocolate fudge cake ($8), and banana cream pie ($7) — although they're made in-house by a nice lady who bakes in the mornings, barely rose above mediocre, and nobody even bothered to finish them.
Our little trio fared slightly better with the barbecue on Monday. For your 17 bucks, you get quite a lot of food. Only thing is, you'll starve until it arrives. We weren't offered so much as a slice of toast or a saltine while we drank our martinis and waited. And waited. Some of us grew irritable. Whenever I raised the subject of her possible impending job layoff from UniBank, just making conversation, Ms. A practically snapped my head off.
"Could we talk about something else?" she wondered icily while Mum ordered a second martini. By the time our platters of chicken, ribs, and pulled pork arrived, along with sides of baked beans and coleslaw, Mom was having trouble holding herself upright. Certainly, she was way too many sheets to the wind to handle her white cheddar burger ($11) with much grace.
Forgive me, but I'm going to have to pause for a rant here. Please, kitchen staffs across the globe, let's get one thing straight, finally and forever. There's a ratio, call it a golden mean, that MUST apply in the hamburger-related arts. I'm willing to share the simple formula: Bun in proportion to meat. The sandwich, for this IS a sandwich, has to fit comfortably within the span of the average human jaw.
Sous chef: Open your mouth as wide as you can get it. Now measure the distance between your choppers. I'll bet it's no more than an inch and a half, is it? So what in the hell do you expect us to do with a sandwich that's half a foot high?
I know what we'll do; we'll take it apart. We'll remove your crappy slice of tomato, your wad of iceberg lettuce, your crass ring of thick, raw red onion. We'll throw off the top half of the oversized megabun entirely, and then we'll cut up what's left and eat it with a knife and fork. Sous chef, line cook, prep boy, answer me this. Is this the way a hamburger is meant to be consumed? Does this scenario strike you as so wrong as to be practically pornographic? Me poor auld mum. All she wanted was a bit of meat, and she ended up waging a drunken wrestling match with her dinner.
We fared better with our excellent ribs, juicy chicken, and tender pulled pork — they'd absorbed lots of smoke, and the sauce was a balance of tart, peppery, and sweet. We loved the baked beans, also fire-flavored, made rich and dense with bits of sausage (truly original). Roasted half-ear of corn was excellent, coarsely chopped cabbage slaw refreshing.
A final round: We ordered key lime pie ($6). And then discussed the ideal attributes of that quintessential Florida sweet. When our pie arrived, sadly, it betrayed none of them. Not the balance of sweet and sour (this one had no acid whatsoever and barely tasted of lime at all); not the beautifully buttery yet crisp graham cracker crust (ours was limp and soggy); not the inimitable creamy texture interrupted only with tiny flecks of bitter zest. Worse, the poor tart had been plopped in a hideous pool of artificially flavored red berry sauce. Pah!
That's it — I'm done. Until I have another half-grand to drop on raw oysters, the Spoto's Empire will just have to squeak by without me.