It's my best friend Phil's 40th birthday, and Sunday is going something like this: Rounds of $4 wine at Harry's Banana Farm under the stuffed alligator. Back to our place for a bottle of champagne. Over to Cucina Dell'Arte in Palm Beach for Bellinis and kamikazes ("What's a kamikaze?" "Never mind, just drink it"). Back to Phil's for a vodka gimlet and a couple of those smoky inhalations we used to call "shotguns."
Somewhere along the line, I've lost the birthday balloon, an earring, and all of my dignity. At 6 p.m., I emerge into consciousness to find a smirky valet half-pulling, half-pushing me out of the deep leather-and-cigarettes funk of Phil's Lexus and rolling me through the doors into the velveteen lobby at Palm Beach Grill.
Poor Phil. He'd had a reservation for 15 at Commander's Palace in New Orleans for the 40th party to end all parties tonight, but Hurricane Gustav has thrown cold water all over that little plan. Well into my third kamikaze, I think I'd idiotically offered to take us all to the Restaurant at the Four Seasons for dinner, but the gallant boy has insisted he hates the Four Seasons, and anyway, he wants a hot dog and some deviled eggs.
"Are you serious?" We're draped around a red booth, eyeing a menu that keeps going in and out of focus. The "Silver Service kosher" $12 hot dog at Palm Beach Grill looks like the highlight. But I manage to make out "aged prime rib," "roast chicken," and "cedar plank salmon" too.
And they won't serve us any shots! "It's company policy," the waitress apologizes. Nor will they bring us a round of kamikazes. We stare at her in open-mouthed, pie-eyed disbelief.
Palm Beach Grill is in fact a Houston's in disguise, one of a large chain of restaurants owned by Hillstone. The town of Palm Beach made Hillstone change the name when it opened in 1999, because this diamond-studded beach resort won't give permits to chain restaurants, a policy it now shares with the barrios of South-Central Los Angeles. But Hillstone has some policies of its own. Bartenders are forbidden to serve shots; pours are a strict 1.5 ounces; it's one drink at a time per person; and customers are cut off absolutely at the first sign of intoxication. The great joke, of course, is that PB Grill is arguably the most popular restaurant in a town famous for the profligacy of its lushes. During season, incorrigible dipsomaniacs reserve weeks in advance for a Saturday-night table here.
Our waitress relents and brings us four "lemon drop martinis," ($15) essentially kamikazes plus many spoonfuls of superfine sugar served in martini glasses. These cocktails are clearly designed to sober us up, as they're patently undrinkable.
Here's where things really start to get weird. We order a dinner salad ($10), a grilled artichoke with remoulade ($12), and a cheeseburger ($15) cut four ways as appetizers. Minutes pass in a besotted blur until the plates arrive. And then, from the first bite, I feel like I've miraculously been transported through a black hole into some parallel universe. It's a universe where I am halfway sober, and the so-what food at a ho-hum restaurant chain tastes like the most delicious stuff I can imagine putting in my mouth. I pray it will never stop. I vow that I too will join the ranks of wannabes, gold diggers, and Eurotrash who book their tables here a fortnight prior for the privilege of gnawing on a hamburger.
And the greatest irony of all? In a restaurant that supposedly keeps a steely grip on its liquor, auto-scanning for customers who happen to be sailing even one sheet to the wind, this menu is the crapulous soul's wet dream. The proportions of salt, spice, meat, and texture here are designed to cut right through the densest inebriate fog, to coat any churning stomach with a soothing layer of butter, mayo, and hooch-absorbing starch.
Take the dinner salad. This modestly named concoction fails to suggest anything about its insane deliciousness until you start shoving bigger and bigger forkfuls into your maw. Finely chopped mixed greens and red cabbage are tossed in a mildly sweet dressing with minced hard-boiled egg and extra-crisp, olive-oil-infused croutons. The croutons, evidencing a hint of fennel, melt in your mouth. The combined effect is silky-seductive — and how often can you say that about a salad? But it's a great indication of the kind of meticulous care taken here with the most mundane of dishes.
There was further proof of this when I returned the following night — stone sober and praying to God nobody would recognize me as the lady who'd wobbled through the lobby screeching "Let's have another shot!" They did. The valet recognized me. The manager recognized me. So did at least two waitresses.Much subdued, I mutely forked up the sides of spinach and asparagus that came with my red snapper entrée, the asparagus glistening under a ladle of classic shallot vinaigrette. These big green and white spears were steamed to the ideal stage of tenderness, and the vinaigrette made them. Minced, softened leeks entirely altered and deepened the flavor of that spinach. And the snapper ($34, one of two fish specials) was a lovely couple of sweet, white fillets cooked in brown butter and topped with juicy, highly seasoned little rock shrimp coated in a honey-colored crust. The food at Palm Beach Grill is perfect.
It really is. I mean honestly, I'm ready to bare my claws at any pretentious Palm Beach restaurant that won't serve me an honest shot of vodka, but I could not find a morsel of food that didn't make me want to crow with pleasure. The aged, roasted prime rib ($34) was softly pearlescent pink, oozing meaty juices over a bed of smashed potatoes; a rotisserie chicken ($18) with wild rice was so tender that it tasted surreal — I honestly have no idea how they managed to keep it so full of moisture — the skin crackling with peppery seasoning. That cheeseburger we split four ways was one of the best "appetizers" I've had in ages — a half pound of ground chuck served on a toasted sesame bun with the most adorable, salty-lacy shoestring fries. Grilled artichoke was infused with bitter-rich grill smoke that bloomed on contact with a mayonnaise-mustard remoulade dip. The char on an enormous bone-in rib eye ($42; I'm guessing about 18 ounces) brushed it with flavors of caramel and salt. As for the hot dog, even at a buck per bite, it was a bargain for the mellow crackle of toasted bun, the char on the dog, and the creamy-sour deviled eggs on the side.
Desserts (all $6) could win prizes at county fairs. You've heard me complain enough already about the paltry pies that pass for classic key-lime in South Florida: PB Grill not only scrupulously adheres to the lime juice/egg/condensed milk formula of the ideal confection but pushes it one step further with a double-thick graham-cracker crust and a mile-high topping of fresh whipped cream. It is absolutely to die for. Ditto for their tres leches and for the banana cream pie, a special on our second visit. This pie was deconstructed — a layer of cookie crumbs topped with a layer of custard, sliced bananas scattered around and drizzled with toasty butterscotch, and fat dollops of whipped cream. There's nothing much to hold it together but the will of the pastry chef, and it succumbs gently, in pleasurable muddles of fruit and cream, to the spoon's demands.
I've heard some grumbling that the place is superexpensive, but I don't think so. Certainly not for Palm Beach. You can grab a burger or a dog in elegant surroundings for 15 bucks — that's hardly going to break anybody's bank (although the pricey wine and cocktails, even if you drink them one at a time in a civilized way from a real martini glass, could set you back a few). Just make your reservations early. And drink your shots beforehand at Harry's.