Dinner being the meal we like to eat in the evening. Mezzanotte being the sixth installment of a popular Italian restaurant that got its '80s start in a groundbreaking South Beach location where models once spontaneously danced on the tables (and snorted coke in the bathrooms, it must be said). CityPlace being that $375 million behemoth of an outdoor walking mall that opened in West Palm Beach last November, the design of which looks not so much like a city street framed with townhouses but like a surreal Hollywood set mimicking a city street framed with townhouses. And Ohmygod being the utterance you will make when confronted with the following equation: 78 upscale retail stores plus a one-hour search for a parking space in the it's-free-if-you-don't-get-rammed-by-a-Mercedes garage equals a four-hour dinner.
Not all the restaurants in CityPlace have opened. But of those that have -- Mezzanotte, Cheesecake Factory, Legal Seafood, Bellagio, City Cellar Wine Bar and Grill -- none, on any given weekend night, will have less than a two-hour wait. We chose to dine at Mezzanotte solely because it's the farthest restaurant from the parking garage, which we figured gave us the best chance of getting a table. After all, we reasoned, what kind of foot traffic would pass by all the other options to get to Mezzanotte?
Problem was, all the other restaurants were so packed, many other people had the same idea. But get this: Mezzanotte takes reservations. And it was damn near booked. You absolutely cannot expect to dine if you don't call first and that, my foodie friends, is no way to run a mall restaurant.
However, while we weren't able to get a table right away, we were lucky enough to snag cushions on the animal-print lounges that flank the bar. A good thing, too, because not only would 120 minutes on a barstool make the butt grow numb, but a group waiting for a table can't share an appetizer or two that way. On those loveseats and sofas, set up around coffee tables like a Rooms To Go exhibit, you can easily nibble on an order of fried calamari and zucchini, which retained only a little grease and, oddly, included some deep-fried asparagus. We also savored a starter of rich goose liver, sautéed in sweet vermouth and set on croutons composed of wild rice -- though I remain unconvinced that the morsels justified a $14 price tag. Other appetizers, such as the beef or salmon carpaccio or the mussels steamed in garlic and white wine, are more difficult to consume as finger food, unless you like wearing your food on your lap.
The lounges reflect a growing trend in supper-club décor, but they also demonstrate how far proprietor Tom Billante's Mezzanotte has come from its roots. The original restaurant, located on Washington Avenue in Miami Beach, was one large, spare, Art Deco dining room. Not much attention was paid either to décor -- minimal would be a kind description -- or, honestly, to the fare. But the place was such a party scene neither seemed to matter. Besides, no one was looking at the veal chop when the pretty people flashed their silicone from on high.
While the first Mezzanotte was credited with starting the South Beach scene, it was really a right time-right place sort of deal. While Billante and his partners have gone on to open six other links of the chain, including one in Boca Raton and one in Fort Lauderdale's Riverfront, the original location went out of biz last year. Its time had come and gone. South Beach residents felt relief -- a shell of its former self, the restaurant had the classic status of a white elephant. In an area where trends go in and out like the tide, Mezzanotte had become tired.
The owners of Mezzanotte, who also own Carpaccio in Bal Harbour, Fish 54 in Aventura, and Carnevale on Lincoln Road (and a string of failed eateries, such as Stix Oriental Grille in North Miami), are known for cutting losses while the scissors are sharp. Smart enough not to try to revive the original Mezzanotte location, they're also bright enough to have updated the restaurants' concept. The CityPlace Mezzanotte, for instance, is a polished eatery where the ceiling looks like an Art Deco interpretation of a summer sky: swaths of white sheeting interspersed with abstract blue formations set with twinkling lights.
Cocktail waitresses clad in formal gowns and a live jazz trio in the center of a small dance floor also give the restaurant a veneer of sophistication. But a little more training wouldn't hurt. Dirty ashtrays should be cleared off tables when new parties sit down, drinks should be placed on cocktail napkins instead of pressed into patrons' hands, and the management simply must remember to turn off the piped pop music when the live trio begins so that Mack the Knife doesn't morph into Britney Spears.
Other elements of Mezzanotte have not changed. The music, jazz and pop, is so loud that communication is impossible, making Mezzanotte the perfect spot for dysfunctional family reunions but a horrible choice for the tinnitus-inclined. The collective price tag of the clientele's plastic surgery would be enough to send a small country to Princeton. The table service is both indifferent and slow, leaving clients plenty of time to wag their tushies to the beat -- and yes, one woman actually did dance on a table, a stunt that felt both forced and antiquated.
All the detractions are a shame, because the pastas, while on the pricey side, can be quite good. The dishes are both straightforward enough to please the pleb, with a list of ingredients in each menu blurb, and prepared well enough to satisfy the gourmet. For instance the "fettuccine 3 funghi" is really just noodles with mushrooms. But the long strands of pasta wind around porcini, shiitake, and portobello mushroom slices, and the dark woodsy sauce, deepened with sun-dried tomatoes, takes the noodles with mushrooms to another realm.
On the other hand, jumbo shrimp risotto reads simply. But the description doesn't do the fresh, sweet crustaceans, mouth-wateringly sautéed in garlic and olive oil, justice. Nor does the brief blurb, which clues the diner that the rice contains both saffron and clam juice, amply prepare the recipient for a near-perfect risotto, with each grain of rice just slightly al dente yet unified into a creamy whole.
When the kitchen's focus on risotto, which takes 20 minutes of constant stirring to achieve the desired consistency, is so sharp, you can bet meat dishes will also have been watched carefully. We found the veal scaloppini piccata to be tender and of a high quality, napped in a delicate broth comprising white wine, lemon juice, and capers. Filet mignon, topped with a too-small disk of foie gras, was nonetheless supple flesh, coaxed to a juicy medium rare. Crisp, skinny French fries were a downscaling side dish to pair with foie gras, but they were nonetheless pleasing, especially when dredged in the filet's Madeira-veal reduction. The textures of fish entrées like the trio del golfo, an assortment of simply grilled salmon, tuna, and shrimp, also met expectations, with the salmon moist and flaky and the tuna and shrimp succulent. The preparation here was boring, though, and like almost everything we tried, had been oversalted just a bit.
If you can tolerate sitting still any longer, attempt dessert. But don't look for anything inspired; choices range from zabaglione to tiramisu to crème brûlée. Not a slice of cake among 'em. Then again, if you have the will -- and by that I mean another two hours -- there's a way: Other eateries are just down the block. But be prepared. Dessert. Cheesecake Factory. CityPlace. Ohmygod.