West Palm Beach is obviously on the rise, and the Painted Horse Cafe, on South Dixie Highway just north of Belvedere Road, is trotting along with the resurgence. Owners Ken and Penny Kuzmenko are veteran restaurateurs, having run the successful Pasta Market Café in Boca Raton for ten years. After taking a decade off from the hectic business, the couple got bit by the bug again and opened the Painted Horse in October 2002. Located in a renovated old house that was once a shoe shop, the café is quaint, intimate, and as romantic as can be. late-brown walls. Equestrian figurines are judiciously placed atop a white stone fireplace. Very cozy.
The wait staff's amiable attitude adds to the accommodating ambiance. So does classical music, though halfway through our meal, the CD ended, and that was it. Nor were the waiters very attentive about removing dirty dinner plates or brushing off table crumbs between courses. But they were quite knowledgeable about the food and familiar with a well-priced wine list that tilts toward Southern Italy and Northern California. Kudos to the Kuzmenkos for marking up bottles in less drastic fashion than most, as well as for being on the premises and taking a caring attitude toward their patrons. Unfortunately, like so many other restaurateurs, Ken and Penny focus too little attention on the food.
It's sort of a new continental cuisine, new in this case meaning the '80s as opposed to the '60s -- in another few years, this menu might be passé enough to qualify as quaintly retro. For beginners, there's a choice of three salads, five appetizers, and soup du jour -- on this occasion, a thick, hearty, yellow lentil with juicy nuggets of chicken breast and strips of sun-dried tomatoes.
Small sea scallops, purposefully blackened but accidentally overcooked, arrived atop a bed of field greens dressed with sherry vinaigrette, a squirt of red pepper remoulade, gorgonzola cheese, and what was advertised as toasted almonds (though they turned out to be walnuts). An onion and mushroom puff pastry tart with scallions, onions, shallots, mushrooms, and crême fraiche might have been a winner had the chef not neglected to include the scallions, onions, crême fraiche, and all but a few meager slices of mushroom. The big square of pastry was so empty that I looked around for a hidden camera crew -- was I being Punk'd?
Other appetizers include steamed mussels, salmon gravlax with mustard sauce, steamed artichoke with aioli, salad Caprese, and nightly specials such as a crêpe filled with smoked mozzarella that proved softly pleasing, though the bright pink fig and ruby port sauce in which it was pooled was gelatinous and much too sweet.
Many of the menu's 11 main courses are Italian-style; five are pasta-based. The rest, excepting a sesame-seared tuna with wasabi cream, could be characterized as American bistro: New York strip, braised short ribs, crab cakes, and salmon. Linguini in white wine sauce is offered with mussels or diver scallops and shrimp. Nice and simple, which is preferable to busy, kitchen-sink creations such as angel hair tossed with "tomato concaise" (read: concassé), "vine ripe tomatoes," "fresh basil, toasted pine nuts, sweet onions & roasted peppers, fresh garlic." Fettuccine is weighed down by even more potent baggage -- chicken, grapes, walnuts, and gorgonzola cheese sauce. The less complex linguini Bolognese offered much more -- like, for instance, fresh strands of pasta whose rich, eggy flavor was actually discernible. The ragu wooed too, a generous helping of chopped veal, pork, and beef cooked down with onions, carrots, and herbs in a tomato sauce so sparkling light, it was more like a broth.
Chicken marsala boasted a breast plump and juicy, with an unexpectedly dark demi-glace sauce strongly spiked with the sweet wine. A moist, hefty wedge of roasted salmon was likewise cooked with a deft touch and smartly crusted with panko bread crumbs potently laced with horseradish. Could have been a contender had they stopped there, but this is a kitchen that labors under the misconception that more is more -- a clump of balsamic-soaked onions was plopped atop the fish, dampening the crust and drowning the balance of horseradish and salmon.
I don't think it's a bright idea to place what are supposed to be well-heated lamb chops on a mound of cold couscous. The quartet of chops, a nightly special, wasn't that hot in another respect -- too much of a greasy, grilled flavor overwhelmed the meat's taste. The dish also featured a smattering of cucumber and tomato salsa boosted with fresh mint. Chopped parsley is festively sprinkled on the rim of this and most plates, which is great for those who eat plates.
Peanut butter ice cream pie was supposed to come with a graham cracker crust but instead was presented as a sundae-like mix of vanilla ice cream, peanut butter cubes of chilled-fudge consistency, and chocolate syrup -- tasty, but let's not call it a "pie." The deconstruction of a peach and raspberry cobbler was even more disconcerting, the soupy compote of fruit bearing no crust whatsoever in its place was a dull, dry muffin and a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Painted Horse Cafe oozes so much charm that many a gastronomic misdemeanor will be overlooked -- restaurants are like people in that way. The cuisine is ultimately fresh and flavorful enough to qualify the dining experience here as a good one; it won't be great until they serve great food.