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Restaurant Reviews

One Luxe Spot

I confess I've let the most recent issues of Vogue sweat on my coffee tables in their plastic wrappers, so I have no clue: Is fur, faux or otherwise, in or out this year? And how about animal skins -- cow, alligator, zebra, leopard? I mean, these are serious questions. Since it's the season to travel up to New York and visit shivering relatives, I can't look like a rube by showing up in worsted wool when everyone else is wearing rabbit collars and carrying pony-skin handbags, now can I?

To get the definitive answer without plowing through those mammoth fashion magazines, I took myself to the Leopard Lounge and Restaurant in the Chesterfield Hotel, a 1926 historic landmark in Palm Beach. And found: Yup, leopard is surely in, as evidenced by the leopard-print carpets, the leopard-upholstered chairs, the leopard-covered menus, even the leopard-spotted paper-towel dispensers in the lavatories of this restaurant, which is commonly known as the Leopard Room. If leopard, leopard everywhere weren't enough, the patrons who crowd the supper club every night of the week do their part by actually wearing it -- I spotted (no pun intended, of course) three different ladies wearing leopard-print apparel. In fact two outfits were so similar I thought for sure a catfight was in the making, but unfortunately everybody behaved.

Within reason, that is. The Leopard Lounge is a definitive nightlife joint for a range of Palm Beach socialites, from the just-dating to the dowager set. But unlike at the sex clubs of Broward County and the X clubs of Miami-Dade, alcohol is still the catalyst for a good time here. Bluehairs gather on one side of the horseshoe bar over $6 ultradry gin martinis, the only bargains in the place, while the younger crowd plays with $8 cosmopolitans on the other side. Amazingly enough, just about everyone takes a turn or two on the dance floor next to the bar, where a live trio plays standards and jazz tunes nightly.

But you'd have to be addled by cat scratch fever to plan on eating much at the Leopard Room. This is not due to the fare itself, prepared by executive chef Doug Barg and executive sous chef Chris Bentz, both formerly of the Ritz-Carlton in Manalapan. Execution of the fusion menu, which has no real unifying ethnic trait, ranges from competent to terrific. Nor are the portions small; in fact, the Nicole Miller- designed plates are bigger than the bedside-size tables warrant, and the food fills them to the edges. But to pay for this night on the town, you have to dig deep into your kitty. Even for a Palm Beachite, 40 bucks for a New York strip steak is pricey -- and it was stringy, too, even though it was billed as prime beef.

Some of the fare justifies the expense. For instance, a bison carpaccio appetizer was unusual but mild. Seared with pepper on the edges, the leaves of raw bison meat were arranged with a dab of cherry chutney, a sprinkle of tarragon oil, and a shaving or two of Asiago cheese to give it flavor. The rare pleasure of this dish was certainly worth the $19 price tag. And the sesame-seared ahi starter, coated with black and white sesame seeds, was firm and succulent. The medallions were complemented by seaweed salad and ponzu sauce, and the portion was generous enough to warrant $15.

Still, I was a little shocked by the cost of the crabcakes ($17), which didn't boast enough crab to be such an indulgence. Made with sweet potato instead of bread crumbs as filler and aromatic from a hint of sherry, the crabcakes were crisp-edged and savory, napped by a roasted corn coulis. But they certainly weren't a novelty.

Indeed, the only starters priced under $12 are the soups, though I think the "rustic smoked tomato soup" is a misnomer. More like a tomato stew, the chunky mixture contained onions and roasted garlic. But I would have enjoyed this either as a vegetable side dish or puréed with a touch of cream. A piece of crostini topped with minced crab salad made an interesting garnish but didn't jell with the overwhelming smoky flavor of the vegetables.

Service can be slow, depending on the evening; menus, bread, and main courses took a while to appear. When they did, we were not convinced they hadn't been sitting under a heat lamp as long as some of the women had been tanning themselves in the Palm Beach sun. Coq au vin, for example, a favorite dish of mine, was dry enough to stick my teeth together. The dark meat of this stewed half-chicken, braised in red wine and mushrooms, was a little more supple than the breast, but all in all the poultry -- at 29 bucks the cheapest main course on the menu -- failed to impress.

We felt similarly about an herb-crusted rack of lamb, which had been sliced off the bone and served as medallions. Though the port wine- blueberry sauce was vibrant, the lamb itself was fairly flavorless and much more well-done than the medium-rare we had ordered. Florida red snapper, on the other hand, was perfectly cooked, with almost-caramelized edges and a soft center. A banana beurre blanc was appropriately buttery if a trifle too fruity for my taste -- I couldn't help picturing the puréed baby food I used to feed my daughter.

Main-course plates are individualized, with accompanying side dishes ranging from roasted-shallot mashed potatoes to a pastry "purse" filled with chunks of root vegetables. That makes ordering additional side dishes like asparagus or creamed spinach (which are priced à la carte, as if the Leopard Lounge were a steak house) pretty unnecessary. Besides, it's probably better to save room for a luxurious bread pudding or crème brûlée for dessert. Sweets are also a better investment than the wine list, which is limited to French and California vintages, some of which weren't in stock the evening we visited, and average in the $50 range.

But while the fare can waver from satisfactory to satisfying, there's no doubt that the Leopard Lounge is an aggregate experience. Add in the luxe surroundings, which the hotel updates at least once a year, and the retro-enthusiastic clientele, who like the place so much that they stylize their outfits to blend in, and suddenly dining here seems like belonging. Which is ideal, because in Palm Beach, half the battle of joining a club is being able to afford it.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick

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