Surf Club may bring ec­stasy (or bank­ruptcy)

Renowned chef’s eatery very good, very ex­pen­sive

Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition - Showtime - Palm Beach - - FRONT PAGE - By Michael Mayo SOUTHFLORIDA.COM

In 2003, when Thomas Keller was sim­ply a per­fec­tion­ist chef toil­ing in Napa Val­ley with two restau­rants and a new bak­ery on the same street, I had my first, heady taste of his ex­traor­di­nary tal­ent. The meal was at the French Laun­dry, his flag­ship in Yountville, Calif., and the oc­ca­sion was my first an­niver­sary. The mar­riage did not last, but mem­o­ries of that even­ing will stay for­ever, a nine-course ex­trav­a­ganza that in­cluded his fa­mous “oys­ter­sand-pearls” (oys­ters in a sabayon bath of pearl ta­pi­oca topped with caviar), lob­ster poached in but­ter, gra­cious ser­vice, thought­ful wine pair­ings and a tour of the im­mac­u­late kitchen by Keller him­self, who was there on a week­night and told us of his teen years in South Florida and grad­u­a­tion from Lake Worth High.

We walked out float­ing on air. I don’t re­call the fi­nal tab (OK, $670), but it was one of those mag­i­cal evenings where price did not mat­ter. We had a din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

Flash for­ward to 2018. Keller, 63, re­garded as the pre­em­i­nent Amer­i­can chef of his gen­er­a­tion, now heads a lux­ury em­pire. Be­sides the French Laun­dry and Bou­chon and Bou­chon Bak­ery in Yountville, his port­fo­lio in­cludes Per Se and Bou­chon Bak­ery in New York, Bou­chon in Las Ve­gas, seven Miche­lin stars, five cook­books that have sold more than 1 mil­lion copies and busi­ness part­ner­ships that pro­duce Cal­i­for­nia wine, Amer­i­can-farmed caviar, pam­pered Penn­syl­va­nia lamb, porce­lain din­ner­ware from France, cut­lery from Ger­many, and All-Clad cook­ware. He has come a long way from scrub­bing pots at the Palm Beach Yacht Club.

I did not see Keller on my re­cent visit to the Surf Club Res­tau­rant, his tribute to clas­sic Conti- nen­tal cui­sine and mid-20th cen­tury Amer­i­can grandeur that opened in Au­gust at the re­stored Surf Club and new Four Sea­sons Ho­tel in Surf­side. At this point, his pres­ence is al­most be­side the point. It’s the Keller name that as­sures book­ings. Week­end slots have been scarce, and reser­va­tions are get­ting harder to snag.

At­ten­tion to de­tail and other Keller char­ac­ter­is­tics — in­clud­ing staffing lev­els at al­most an even ra­tio to din­ers — are ex­hib­ited at the Surf Club Res­tau­rant. But per­fec­tion has not been achieved. Un­like my ex­pe­ri­ence at the French Laun­dry, I did not leave float­ing. I had a very good meal with mostly good ser­vice (and out­stand­ing wine ser­vice from som­me­lier Zach Gos­sard), but the things that stuck in the days af­ter my meal were the stum­bles. This is the high bar Keller sets.

Dirty plates lin­gered a bit too long when we were done with our early cour­ses. Our server in­tro­duced him­self by name at the start, but did not an­nounce that the bill in­cluded an au­to­matic 18 per­cent ser­vice charge (one of my pet peeves of South Florida din­ing; for­tu­nately the credit card slip clearly in­di­cated the charge.) For some rea­son, the sticker shock this time was more shock­ing than at the French Laun­dry. At the Surf Club Res­tau­rant, there is no in­tri­cate tast­ing menu, just an a la carte of­fer­ing of straight­for­ward items. It was jar­ring to pay $85 for a sin­gle­serv­ing en­tree of Maine lob­ster Ther­mi­dor, more so when the puff pas­try shell be­neath the poached tail tasted acrid. It did not look burnt, but when a table­mate tasted it, she said the fla­vor re­minded her of the smell that comes when she leaves her hair in her curl­ing iron too long.

Sharp kid, that 13-year-old daugh­ter of mine.

Do not get the wrong idea. Nearly all the items we had were tasty and pretty, in­clud­ing ten­der steak tartare ($32), cubed per- fectly and topped with a raw yolk, and black-truf­fle lasagna, ($52), a spe­cial that was a rich rec­tan­gle of creamy deca­dence. A spe­cial of sole Floren­tine ($65), a fil­let rolled into a loaf white as al­abaster and stuffed with spinach next to a pud­dle of green sauce, was dif­fer­ent and lux­u­ri­ant. Two thick, grilled lamb chops ($75) from Keller’s Elysian Fields Farm were served sim­ply, with­out fan­fare, as was a side dish of but­ter­milk whipped pota­toes ($12) that were as light as a plate of whipped cream. Too bad there was no salt or pep­per on the ta­ble, be­cause they could have used a hit of sea­son­ing.

Our bill for a party of three to­taled al­most $1,000 — nearly $600 for a dozen dishes (in­clud­ing two desserts and a cheese course) and $350 (from my own pocket) for a bot­tle of wine and two glasses of bub­bly — and we did not even or­der caviar. You could say we had a grand (as in $1G) old time. Like too many

The Surf Club Res­tau­rant

9011 Collins Ave., Surf­side (in Four Sea­sons Ho­tel at the Surf Club) 305-768-9440 or Sur­fClubRes­tau­rant.com Cui­sine: Con­ti­nen­tal Cost: Hours: 5:30-10 p.m. daily (un­til 10:30 p.m. Fri­day-Satur­day) Reser­va­tions: Credit cards: All ma­jor Bar: Noise level: Con­ver­sa­tional, even when crowded and with live mu­sic nightly in bar Wheelchair ac­cess: Ground level Park­ing: Valet $18 other fine-din­ing restau­rants that re­cently have opened in South Florida, the Surf Club Res­tau­rant is priced for the 1 per­cent, a spe­cial-oc­ca­sion treat that will be out of reach for many. Per­haps it should be named the $$$$urf Club.

On the bright side, noth­ing tasted like bong wa­ter. That in­sult was thrown Keller’s way in a damn­ing 2016 New York Times re­view of Per Se. In fact, the dou­ble-ox­tail con­somme Ce­les­tine ($32) at the Surf Club Res­tau­rant was per­haps the most re­fined 4 ounces of liq­uid that have ever passed over my lips, metic­u­lously re­duced over days to a deep, rich brown. A server ma­jes­ti­cally poured it from a serv­ing ves­sel into a bowl with a base of diced leeks, car­rots and black truf­fles and noodle­like sliv­ers of crepes. Be­fore the soup was served, an­other server swooped in to fin­ish the prepa­ra­tion by squeez­ing a

few drops of Madeira from an el­e­gant glass eye­drop­per. This was the Keller I know and love.

And also the Manny Echev­erri I know and ad­mire. Echev­erri is chef de cui­sine at the Surf Club Res­tau­rant, hired af­ter head­ing the kitchen at Bazaar Mar by Jose An­dres in Mi­ami. The Colom­bian-born Echev­erri is work­ing at nearly the same high level in Surf­side. It is a tes­ta­ment to his tal­ent that Keller tapped him and not some­one within the Keller Res­tau­rant Group to lead the 35-per­son kitchen.

In a fol­lowup in­ter­view, Sam Calder­bank, the East Coast di­rec­tor of op­er­a­tions for Keller Res­tau­rant Group, says strik­ing a bal­ance be­tween lo­cals and outof-town­ers has been a key com­po­nent when it comes to staffing and the res­tau­rant’s cus­tomer base. “It’s been a real mix,” Calder­bank says. “We are lo­cated in a ho­tel [the Four Sea­sons], but it’s not a ho­tel res­tau­rant. We’re draw­ing from ho­tel guests, guests from other ho­tels and lo­cal res­i­dents. We want to be rel­e­vant lo­cally.”

Maybe so, but on my way out, a man­ager’s re­sponse when I told him I was from Hol­ly­wood was, “Oh, nice — here from Cal­i­for­nia.” “No, from 10 miles up the road,” I said.

The menu trav­els some dis­tance, fea­tur­ing throw­backs such as beef Welling­ton for two ($132) and lob­ster Ther­mi­dor, a dish cre­ated by iconic French chef Au­guste Es­coffier and named af­ter a pop­u­lar Paris play at the time (per­haps it should be re­made as lob­ster Hamil­ton). Mi­nus the off-putting puff-pas­try shell, the dish was de­li­cious, a gen­tly poached tail sur­rounded by four morels on top and a mix­ture of minced claw meat, spinach and mush­rooms at the base. The vel­vety, bal­anced sauce of shrimp stock, Gruyere, white wine, sherry, co­gnac, cream and a bit of milk was broiled to bub­bly golden un­der a sala­man­der.

Keller’s re­turn to South Florida is a nod to the past, both per­son­ally (his mother was gen­eral man­ager of the Palm Beach Yacht Club) and on a broader scale. The Surf Club served as a play­ground for Hol­ly­wood stars and roy­alty af­ter tire ty­coon Har­vey Fire­stone opened it in 1930. Frank Si­na­tra, El­iz­a­beth Tay­lor, Bri­tish roy­als, the Shah of Iran and Win­ston Churchill once romped there. Turk­ish de­vel­op­ers bought the prop­erty ear­lier this decade, build­ing two boxy, glass high­rises that house con­do­mini­ums and the Four Sea­sons Ho­tel. They also re­stored the ad­join­ing Surf Club struc­ture to its for­mer glory, in­clud­ing its grand Pea­cock Al­ley hall­way.

That hall­way now leads to two up­scale restau­rants, Keller’s and the Ital­ian im­port Le Sirenuse, which opened in 2017. Le Sirenuse fea­tures Old World for­mal­ity and grand opu­lence, but the Surf Club Res­tau­rant, de­signed by Martin Brud­nizki, is sur­pris­ingly warm and in­ti­mate. The bar seats 25, of­fers the full menu and fea­tures live mu­sic nightly. The din­ing room seats 50, with 19 well-spaced ta­bles, a low ceil­ing, ban­quettes and a cen­ter ta­ble fea­tur­ing fresh-cut flow­ers (hy­drangeas on the night I dined). A 50-seat pa­tio is open­ing soon.

Small lamps adorn ev­ery ta­ble, a wel­come touch for older din­ers who will not need to beam their cell­phone flash­lights to read the menu. Even when the din­ing room was full and the sound sys­tem piped in old hits from Ste­vie Won­der and Blood, Sweat & Tears, it was still pos­si­ble to have an un­shouted con­ver­sa­tion at the ta­ble. Re­fresh­ing.

Among the din­ing room’s fea­tures is a rolling cham­pagne cart. Gos­sard of­fered a com­pli­men­tary glass of sparkling, non­al­co­holic cider to my daugh­ter (a nice, fam­ily-friendly touch) and ex­plained the bub­bly op­tions for grownups, in­clud­ing prices. We chose blanc de blancs sparkling wine from Keller’s Mod­icum la­bel ($33 per glass). All were served in wide coupe glasses, the kind you see in old movies. I felt like we were on the Queen Mary. As we sipped, a com­pli­men­tary bowl of crisp, per­fectly peeled veg­eta­bles stick­ing up­right from an ice-filled bowl was placed on the ta­ble. The cru­dite came with a cool yo­gurt dip.

Gos­sard later cheer­fully helped us nav­i­gate an ex­ten­sive wine list, steer­ing us to a fine North­ern Rhone that paired well with lamb and seafood. He brought proper Riedel glasses, de­canted the bot­tle and poured at­ten­tively through­out the meal.

Bread and desserts from pas­try chef Julie Kurz, a veteran of Keller’s Bou­chon Bak­ery in New York, were ex­cel­lent, in par­tic­u­lar crunchy and airy din­ner rolls, grilled bread that ac­com­pa­nied a clos­ing cheese course of Stil­ton rolled with port and a deca­dent, seven-layer choco­late cake. The tow­er­ing cake was a marvel of sturdy en­gi­neer­ing and bal­anced fla­vor that was not too sweet, fit­tingly topped with gold leaf.

Now that Keller has ar­rived in South Florida, it may take a few trips to Fort Knox to feed this ex­pen­sive habit. [email protected], 954-356-4508. Fol­low my food ad­ven­tures on In­sta­gram: @mike­may­oeats. Sign up for my weekly din­ing news­let­ter at SouthFlorida.com/EatBeatMail. Join the con­ver­sa­tion at Face­book.com/groups/Let­sEat SouthFlorida.

DEB­O­RAH JONES

The roasted free range chicken for two ($68) is one of the more af­ford­able op­tions at The Surf Club Res­tau­rant by Thomas Keller.Very ex­pen­sive. Snacks cost $3-$8, ap­pe­tiz­ers and sal­ads $16-$46 (more for caviar and seafood tow­ers), pas­tas $26-$52, en­trees $26-$160, sauces $7, sides $12, desserts $15 Es­sen­tial, by phone or on­lineFull liquor with rolling cham­pagne cart, clas­sic cock­tails and ex­ten­sive, im­pres­sive and pricey wine list

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