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Steep steps in the kitchen of the French restaurant Prunelle led up to a plush plum-color dining room. Actually it was down those steps that Wolfgang Puck and Jeremiah Tower came to thank us, the chefs and culinary staff, for a job well done.
It was in New York City, quite some time ago, and we stared spellbound as they descended that stairway; in those days the Famous Chef was a rare sight indeed. I recall that after they'd gone back upstairs, a few less-than-flattering remarks about Mr. Tower's flamboyant silk scarf were uttered by some of the blue-collar crew. But there was something awe-inspiring about seeing these two pioneers of Californian, and ultimately modern American cooking, in the flesh.
Many years later I am free to enjoy, or not, Mr. Puck's pizzas and dinners, available in the freezer section of any supermarket. He has cashed in big-time on his name and fame, and although those frostbitten meals are regrettable, anyone who's ever worked in a professional kitchen has to be cheered by Puck's ability to turn his considerable talents as a chef into a hugely profitable career. It really happens to only very few.
Florida rock-shrimp cakes $8.95
Spinach and mushroom pizza $7.95
Peppered tuna steak $16.95
I was not cheered at the prospect of heading to Sawgrass Mills, site of his latest venture, the Wolfgang Puck Grand Cafe. The monstrous stores themselves don't frighten me much, but as a person with no sense of direction I need a landmark the size of a sports stadium to find my way around. Fortunately Puck's place is situated across from just that: the Panthers' new hockey arena.
More appropriately, the outdoor tables of the stylish restaurant sit only a narrow, pedestrian-mall walkway across from those at the Cheesecake Factory, which became successful partly by pirating Puck's idea of funneling Asian, Mediterranean, and American Southwestern ingredients into light Californian fusion foods; the Factory merely scaled it down for the masses. Puck is now vying for that same block of consumers in similar fashion, by offering a middle-of-the-road variation on his once cutting-edge cuisine. It is not surprising, then, that the Wolfgang Puck Grand Cafe has ended up with a Cheesecake Factory menu.
In other words this ain't no Spago or Chinois on Main. That's alright -- at these prices it's not supposed to be. That it's a Wolfgang Puck enterprise in name only becomes apparent way before you even get to the food. The commercial quality of the venture is obvious -- Grand Cafes have also opened in Las Vegas and Orlando, on the campus of the University of Southern California, at Macy's in San Francisco and Minnesota, and so on. Another hint that you are not on Sunset Boulevard: The crowd, and I do mean crowd, is not composed of people making the scene (as those hip Californians like to say), but rather families with kids, settling down for lunch or dinner while shopping at the mall, or before a movie (yes, a megaplex is right up the street) or a hockey game. Some diners are also locals, people who actually live in this godforsaken area.
The high ceilings in this Factory-size restaurant certainly give everyone enough breathing space, even if all 383 seats are filled. It is a visually arresting room, with pastel-color walls, variously hued panels of fruit-stained woods, color-flecked black-and-white mosaic columns, a busy bar wrapping around the rear dining section, an open kitchen, and counter up front. By the entranceway a small take-out area, the Express, features a limited selection of menu items to go; it appeared that most people here were ordering pizzas. The firm of Puck's wife and partner Barbara Lazaroff designed the interior, as it does all of his spots, and it's come up with an informal and contemporary look that is, technically speaking, just perfect for the food. Sometimes, though, there's so much money and planning invested in a place that it loses the feeling of being owned by people; the Grand Cafe seems like a restaurant impeccably conceptualized by a faceless corporate entity.
The cheery waitstaff emanated enough personality to compensate for the room's lack thereof. The employees were also well trained and menu-smart, though one waiter was a bit fast-food chattery. His grinning visage twice approached the table to ask, in a hypothetical way: "Not too bad, huh?" Well, no, but did I have to keep reassuring him? In fact the food may not be Puck, but it was not bad at all. A basket of fresh focaccia, olive bread, and Parmesan crisps started us off auspiciously, our optimism reinforced with a smooth and buttery butternut squash soup with a swirl of red pepper purée. Next, a duo of moist, well-seasoned Florida rock-shrimp cakes, their golden cornmeal crusts giving way to steaming hot interiors stocked with sweet nuggets of the crawfishlike crustacean. A velvety corn sauce complemented the cakes well, but the "fire roasted pepper salad," a scattering of wilted spinach leaves and a few strips of too-cold red peppers was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a salad.
An Asian-inspired appetizer of barbecued ribs "ObaChine" style, also available as a main course, was excellent. I couldn't tell you what ObaChine actually means, but I do know that the four short, meaty pork ribs glazed with hoisin, honey, and ginger were sweet, as the ingredients would indicate, and tasted like a flawless version of the ribs you'd like to get, but never do, from your neighborhood Chinese take-out. They were accompanied by an Asian cabbage-and-radish slaw that, except for the radish, was tasteless.