"Mark's at the Park," I told her.
"Oh," she sniffed. "That place is highly overrated."
A month ago I would have argued with her. After all, proprietor Mark Militello is a James Beard Award-winning chef, and he and his partner Michael Freundlich have been overwhelmingly successful in attracting clientele to their other venture, Mark's Las Olas. My initial experiences at Mark's at the Park -- and my meals at his erstwhile restaurants in Miami -- suggested that, in the long run, Militello would score high with diners at his new place.
But two recent visits to Mark's at the Park in Boca Raton have me pondering my baby sitter's remark. "Highly overrated" sums up the meals in a nutshell -- literally. During one dinner we were happily munching a lovely thin-crust gourmet pizza topped with strings of onion confit, nuggets of pancetta (Italian bacon), pungent Gorgonzola, and walnuts. Then I bit down on something hard enough to send me to the bathroom to check my fillings: an inch-long piece of walnut shell. (Walnuts, incidentally, are among the world's hardest nuts to crack.) I extracted it from my mouth in disbelief and showed the waiter, who wasn't sure what to do until we suggested he tell the chef. It took three more gentle reminders to bring manager John Hart over and let him in on what had happened. He eventually gave me his card and told me to contact him if any future dental problem should arise. He also took the pizza, as well as our desserts, off the check. (This response was much better than the one inspired by the last foreign object I came across in a restaurant: a misshapen pearl in an improperly cleaned oyster. At that Miami restaurant, which has since gone out of business, the waitress was thrilled. "Oh, how lucky!" she said. "A pearl!")
I'm sure the waiter and manager thought I'd made too much of the incident. But though my teeth turned out to be just fine, I was horrified for another reason. Militello has a reputation to uphold. At Mark's Place, his first signature restaurant in North Miami (which he closed about two years ago, to concentrate on Mark's Las Olas), he personally examined the merchandise delivered by local purveyors, sending back a whole case of arugula if he found one wilted leaf, ditching tomatoes if he thought them too pale. He never would have allowed a walnut shell to find its way onto a pizza -- not even one with walnuts on it.
But Militello isn't the head chef in Boca Raton. Mike Sabin holds the reins in Mark's at the Park, named for its primo location (the former Baci) in trendy Mizner Park on Plaza Real, while Militello supervises the operation in Fort Lauderdale. It's too bad Militello can't be in two places at once, because main courses like my oak-charred salmon with roasted fingerling potatoes, watercress, and grainy mustard champagne vinaigrette were a disaster. The salmon was so dry my teeth stuck together. As for the potato wedges, they were desiccated, their skins wrinkled like a mouth without teeth.
Another main course, rotisserie duck with cherry-balsamic glaze, was overdone to the point of fossilization and had a strange vanilla flavor basted onto it. Oak-grilled and marinated double chicken breast, the most reasonable entree at $22 (each of the others costs more than $25), also lacked suppleness and moisture. With both main plates, though, the side dishes stood out; the duck's sweet potato mash was mild but assertive, and mascarpone polenta, which partnered the chicken, was simultaneously creamy and firm.
The lamb loin entree was just cause for outrage, however. The meat, encrusted with a black-olive tapenade and moistened with a roast shallot jus, emanated a delicious musk. But the portion -- each of the three pieces was about the size of my little finger -- hardly warranted the $29 price tag. The kitchen tried to make this dish look bigger by piling greens on top of a tiny oval of feta cheese-potato gratin, but we weren't fooled.
We were slightly deceived by the appetizers, two of which were good enough to make us believe we were about to enjoy an excellent meal. Soft-shell crab, a special that was battered and deep-fried, was so perfectly crisp and tender that we couldn't tell the crab was still wearing its shell. Calamari cakes were delicious as well. The supple, pan-fried disks were complemented by spiced tomato relish, tzatziki (cucumber-yogurt spread), and a fragrant olive vinaigrette. And if we'd ordered desserts first, as I am sometimes inclined to do, the wild honey creme brulee, a smooth and just-sweet treat, might have convinced me to make a stellar recommendation.
But we didn't order the desserts early, and by that time we'd had plenty of trouble with the waiter, who, while very pleasant, had a very difficult time with pronunciation. Militello's menu is rife with foreign words from at least three languages, such as spanakopita, gnocchi, and tapenade, and our server mangled most of them. Not all of the mispronunciations were his fault, though; we spotted several spelling errors in the menu. (Check "tatziki," "frisse," and "fussilli," for starters.) Militello and Freundlich need to invest more time in training the staff, which includes the food-runners, who were delivering dishes to the wrong patrons and, in some cases, the wrong tables. At lunch one day, I almost ate my mother-in-law's tasty chopped tuna salad mixed with asparagus, haricots verts, frisee, and kalamata olives; and the table behind us got someone else's order entirely.
Come to think of it, maybe "highly overrated" isn't the right phrase to describe Mark's at the Park. How about "obviously overpriced"? "Slightly unprofessional"? "Woefully inconsistent"? After all, Mark's at the Park, which opened in December, was once good enough to be named Best Mediterranean Restaurant in New Times' "Best Of" issue. But amateurish mistakes in service and a decline in the quality of the fare have taken their toll.
I harbor no reservation about Militello's abilities as a chef. But I am beginning to question his commitment to this new restaurant. I wonder how much on-site management Militello and Freundlich are supplying. They spent beaucoup bucks remodeling Mark's Las Olas and the 300-seat Mark's at the Park, which offers asymmetrical booths, cherry woods, and stone floors. But they've allowed the fare to become unimpressive.
Mark's at the Park. 344 Plaza Real, Boca Raton, 561-395-0770. Lunch and dinner daily 11:30 a.m. till 11 p.m; Friday and Saturday till midnight.
Onion confit pizza