Borne to the Purple

As for the Purple Dolphin's entrees, there are some hits and some misses, although mostly hits. One serious miss, however, is the grilled vegetable lasagna. The round noodles were as thin as wonton skins, and so were the grilled vegetables. All I could taste were wild mushrooms; the rest of the flavors were so unidentifiable that I had to ask the waiter what else was inside. I accepted his word that the dish contained cauliflower, zucchini, and yellow squash. I didn't bother inquiring about the invisible ricotta and parmesan cheeses, whose aromas I detected. Three cold and naked florets of broccoli encircled the plate, but the tomato sauce they sat in was smooth and sweet, made from fresh yellow tomatoes. Shaped like a cylinder, about three inches by three inches, the lasagna is not ample enough to be billed as a main course. (Which brings to mind Woody Allen's comment about a restaurant where the food was lousy, and, worse, the portions were too small.)

Other entrees are more substantial, and at these prices ($15 to $19) they should be. Key West yellowtail snapper, for instance, consists of two generous filets that are floured, sauteed, and served with a lobster, artichoke, and basil risotto. Buttery radish sprouts, redolent with a spicy, earthy flavor, are bunched atop the moist fish. But a basil coulis puddled on the plate is pasty, and the risotto dry and gummy, as if made earlier and rewarmed -- a kitchen no-no. While lobster morsels were easily distinguishable from chunks of artichoke hearts (at least visually), the flavors were too uniformly subdued, the textures unanimously mushy, and the overall effect listless.

Florida dolphin (regrettably not purple) was much better. It arrived dressed in orange and teal, the colors of the football-playing Dolphins. (Well, orange and green, but close.) The sauce was made of carrot and orange juices reduced with ginger, the accompaniments a smattering of heavily garlicked and sauteed baby spinach leaves and bright snow peas. The dolphin was perfectly prepared, a hefty rectangular slab of thick grilled fish with translucent flakes.

Skirt steak is grilled with equal aplomb. Parlo uses the flap from the top round and marinates it in pureed herbs and sherry; it arrives at the table as a triangular wedge of juicy, scarlet-red beef with garlic-herb butter melted on top. Sweet potatoes, plantains, and yuca are cubed and roasted together in a timbale, producing a brittle cylinder of the starches on the outside and a steamy-soft interior. Other accompaniments, pencil asparagus (actually, thinner than a pencil) and sugar snap peas, are cooked just right and lightly glazed with butter; two very large baby carrots (or, perhaps, two very small adult ones) could have used a few more minutes in the steamer, but it was gratifying to get three fresh vegetables with one entree.

A whole free-range chicken comes with its bones removed so that flattened, it looks like a toad. And flattened it is. The cooking method involves weighing down the bird with a brick while roasting it in a cast-iron pan. This creates a crackly and gorgeously bronzed skin, with moist and tender meat. The flavor is so infused with basil, rosemary, and thyme that I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the chicken had been raised in an herb garden. Crisp wisps of shoestring potatoes on the side are seasoned just to the cusp of oversalting; arugula leaves dressed in vinaigrette contained enough sand to serve as a reminder that a postdinner stroll on the beach was an option.

Michael Martins is in charge of producing the restaurant's exquisite pastries, which are wheeled into the dining room to repeated receptions of "oohs" and "aahs." The whimsical garnishes of ribbons, corkscrews, and spoons spun from colored sugars make the desserts look like daintily wrapped miniature gifts. Martins previously worked the ovens at the esteemed Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, and won the 1996 National Oreo Cookie Bake-Off with his mudslide dome. The dark chocolate dome with an Oreo cookie mousse interior is available here, but I prefer other desserts, such as a delicate key lime tartlette with just a puff of whipped cream; passion fruit-glazed blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries with toasted coconut croutons; and a light chocolate cake that comes with a warm, oozy center of Valrhona chocolate and roasted Manzano bananas. Coffee, served in a French press, is a delicious cap to the evening.

Completing the triumvirate of kitchen talent here is sous chef Kenneth Williams, who previously worked at Turnberry Isle and the Grand Bay. As a student at the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, New York, I was taught that a sous chef is second in command to the chef. By the time I was teaching classes at New York City's French Culinary Institute, my kitchen experience had shed some light on a more realistic definition: The sous chef does all the work and gets none of the credit. Also deserving of praise is floor manager Nelson Walters, who was exceptionally adept at remedying a few service lapses -- an uncleared soup bowl, a delay in presenting the bill -- by an otherwise attentive and personable wait staff.

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