Most workers, regardless of what trade they ply, will accumulate some "tricks of the trade," the sort of insider shortcuts that only savvy veterans are privy to. One of my favorites in the restaurant-reviewing biz is "the hard-boiled egg trick." Here's how it works:
Choose a restaurant, like, say, Café Papillon on Lincoln Road. Peruse the menu until you find a dish with hard-boiled eggs, and then say to the waiter (who turns out to be a well-intentioned lad with nary a clue on how to wait tables): "I'd like a salad Niçoise, please." When the salad arrives, take a good look at the egg -- the yolk will be coated with that gray-green sheath that has "uh-oh" written all over it.
You may not realize that a properly hard-boiled egg has a bright yellow yolk and soft, pleasing taste, because there is a preponderance of overcooked hard-boiled eggs on the salad plates of South Florida. This occurs because of a regrettable rule of thumb that has insidiously spread among inexperienced kitchen workers, one which has them leaving eggs in boiling water for fifteen minutes, or twenty, or half an hour, or however long it takes until they feel thoroughly secure that the eggs are done. The chef's role, among many, is to pay attention to such details, to look at the egg before it goes out to make sure it's properly prepared. If there is no chef, it becomes the cook's job, with managers and owners the next line of defense in checking, if nothing else, the visible quality of the food. It's just one rubbery green hard-boiled egg I'm ranting upon, but (and this is where the "trick of the trade" comes in) a restaurant negligent in particulars such as this will almost always be oblivious to other details as well.
That certainly proved to be the case with Café Papillon. One needn't look further than the same Niçoise salad to see what I mean. The tuna that covered the greens was nicely flecked with oregano, but thirsting for a sprinkling of olive oil or some other appropriate moistener. There were canned kernels of corn, not exactly a Niçoise mainstay; no green beans; and the tomatoes could have used at least three more days of ripening. The balsamic vinaigrette, served in a bottle that looks like it's been refilled for years without ever being cleaned, tasted like cheap balsamic vinegar oversweetened with sugar. The consistency was grainy, too -- nasty stuff. And another detail that, just on a visual level, should have been caught.
A sandwich of "marinated artichokes, grilled eggplant, and roasted peppers with pesto sauce" was inoffensive enough, though the only marinade these chokes ever soaked up was the water they got canned in; the peppers, too, had obviously spent time in tin. The ciabatta bread that sandwiched the vegetables was fresh and crisply crusted, as were slices of baguette served alongside salads and a richly satisfying minitureen of white bean soup with pieces of vegetables in a Campbell's-like tomato-vegetable broth.
Papillon opens at 8:30 a.m., its 60 umbrella-shaded tables a cool oasis for sipping cappuccinos and crunching on croissants. If you want eggs I suggest the scrambled, which are prepared in proper if perfunctory manner. The only other option would be a Provençale omelet "filled with tomatoes, mushrooms, basil, and fresh herbs," which arrived pancakelike, meaning not just round, flat, and unfolded, but browned to a flapjack color as well; a crackly, Melba-like toast comes on the side with a small clump of greens. The coffee was luncheonette-weak, the $1.75 price almost Starbucks-strong. With that cup of coffee and included gratuity, breakfast was $10.00.
That's not cheap, but prices improve as the day wears on. Almost all the sandwiches and salads at lunch are $5.95 to $6.95, and dinners are a real deal, with pastas and most entrées below $10. We weren't impressed with penne Papillon, whose white mushrooms, moist morsels of chicken, and al dente pasta were betrayed by a thin, bland cream sauce, but Papillon finally floated high with a tender and robust beef stew. This is the most expensive item on the menu ($13.95), but the Papillon dinner special offers two main courses with a bottle of house wine for $29.95 (the inexplicably teeny wine list offers only eight "premium" selections). If only this restaurant would pay as much attention to the details of its food and wine as it does to the monetary concerns of its customers, Café Papillon would be a precious commodity to the local community. Maybe it'll get the yolk.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.