By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
By Bill Wisser
By Dana De Greff
By Laine Doss
By Zachary Fagenson
With the hotel's 1993 renovation/reopening, this appreciation extended to the Raleigh's restaurant, which debuted as Blue Star under New York transplant Kerry Simon. More than a year ago, when Simon made his highly publicized trek across the Beach to Debbie O'Hanian's Starfish (he's since moved on to Max's South Beach), his press pals and glam entourage followed. And yet, despite a difficult summer that saw reduced hours, I wouldn't say the Raleigh's dining room is suffering for Simon's absence as the season hits full stride.
Gilt-edged and linen-draped appearances aside, the Raleigh Restaurant & Bar seems less elitist than it was during Simon's tenure. (The place still attracts the same chic-to-the-point-of-pretentious crowd, though.) Executive chef Marc Lippman, whose culinary resume reads like a top ten list of the nation's best-known French restaurants, revamped the very American menu last fall, introducing a "supper fare" category that reflects the current fondness for return-to-basics items such as meat loaf, hamburgers, and macaroni and cheese. A "spa fare" section includes roasted halibut in a lemongrass broth and couscous with vegetables, naturals for the fashion industry-dominated clientele. Then there's the local stuff, Florida fishes and game doctored with tropical ingredients. In short, nowadays the Raleigh is casting a wider culinary net, exhibiting an elegant hominess -- right down to the burnt dinner rolls and the stray cat that, encouraged by the lack of appropriate lighting on the terrace, successfully begged for food during my most recent visit.
Being a fool for kitties, I wasn't too bothered by the uninvited guest (other patrons weren't so charitable). If only service had been as attentive as that cat. Our meal extended for three and a half hours, the intervals between the three courses stretching longer and longer as the night wore on and the place filled up. In general I don't mind waiting for complex, multi-ingredient dishes with elaborate garnishes. But Lippman's New American creations are simple, if pretty, concoctions. We also tapped our toes for 45 minutes before the appetizers -- three of which required little preparation Aarrived.
A large shallow bowl of chilled gazpacho was done C centsrdoba-style, a delicious puree of tomatoes, olive oil, and vinegar, topped with a pair of grilled jumbo shrimp curled as tightly as lovers. That delicate balance of flavors was equaled, if not eclipsed, by trout escabeche, another dish of Spanish origin. Two fillets of rainbow trout had been "cooked" in a marinade of onions, black olives, and red, yellow, and green peppers. We feared that the dish, which is traditionally prepared with an oily, hearty fish such as kingfish or shark, would be overwhelmed by the strong pickling flavors, but to our surprise and pleasure, the delicate, mellow trout was highlighted to wonderful effect.
The same held true for the lobster quesadilla. Though this crustacean's enigmatic flavor is easily lost, Lippman's light touch prevented mishap. Flattened flour tortillas and a layer of sharp cheese, almost lacy in texture, provided snappy crunch for the soft, buttery lobster meat inside, while a salsa of mango and chives played tart, flavorful counterpoint. The carefully balanced scale was tipped, however, by a salad of arugula, chickpeas, and baby artichokes. The produce was fantastically fresh, the peppery lettuce and halved steamed artichokes perfect. But a dressing of olive oil was too plain to hold this diverse crowd together; firm chickpeas were hard to pin down, rolling under both the leafy salad and the tines of the fork, and a scattering of juice-bearing pomegranate seeds, greens' newest trendy friend, were discovered only after the arugula had been consumed.
We had to employ a similar hunt-and-peck approach to an entree bowl of penne pasta with duck sausage, plum tomatoes, and fresh basil. The slices of sausage were so tender that the unevenly cooked, square-cut pasta and the watery sauce paled in comparison, rendering it impossible to appreciate the dish as a whole. Instead we were forced to consume them the way we did franks 'n' beans as kids: weenies first, then as much of the rest as we could remain interested in.
No compromise was necessary with the main course of grouper, a kitchen substitution for the red snapper listed on the menu. A thick white fillet was pan-fried to an outer crispness, then served over plum tomatoes and a pile of mild, sauteed fennel and chopped leek. Sadly, however, an exceptional fillet of salmon was undermined by the accompaniments upon which it perched. The fish, coated on one side with a thin, crisp mixture of polenta and white and black sesame seeds, was an excellent cut, retaining a delightfully moist, medium-rare center. But the "seasonal" vegetables arrayed underneath -- diced carrots and zucchini drowned in an oddly flavorless basil olive oil -- dragged the dish down with bland heaviness.