In a capitalist system competition allows the strong to prosper and the weak to fall by the wayside. Thus an aspiring restaurateur might gamble on success by opening his eatery near other eateries, hoping that by offering a superior product and service, he might become one of the winners. A more naive entrepreneur might simply open his operation in such a neighborhood hoping to take advantage of the foot traffic inspired by his established rivals.
And then we have the Tonya Harding paradigm, which the Decorating & Design District's Piccadilly Garden Lounge and Restaurant seems to be following: The best kind of competition is none at all (not that they kneecapped anybody); in this part of town, where come five o'clock the storefronts take on the steely blindness of burglar-proof shutters, Piccadilly Garden is the only restaurant open for lunch and dinner. As in solo, single, all alone.
Lodged in the red-brick Buena Vista Court office and retail building on NE 40th Street east of Miami Avenue, the restaurant is separated from the street by a beautiful courtyard, at the end of which cheerfully painted cast-iron dinner tables and chairs are arranged around a tiered and tiled fountain. Topped by giant air plants, this ersatz Eden is inspiring.
But somewhat misleading. With many of its tables concealed in nooks and crannies, Piccadilly's interior might be a good setting for a five-martini lunch, or perhaps an assignation. The interior couldn't be more of a mismatch: Dim, spidery chandeliers, dark wood paneling, chairs with worn red upholstery, and a musty, water-stained carpet lend the restaurant a clubby British pub feel. The wall of etched glass that separates the kitchen from the dining room isn't clubby at all, though, and the formal pink tablecloths and bud-vase flower sprays are more appropriate to a banquet scene. Perched on the baby grand piano -- another gesture toward elegance -- is a small blackboard inscribed with the day's (misspelled) specials. A wooden bar seats a few dozen and does a decent after-work-drink business.
We started with an order of an unremarkable black bean salsa "salad," scooping up the vinegar-flavored mixture of firm black beans, yellow kernels of corn, red peppers, and tomatoes with salty, commercial tortilla chips. It was the kind of concoction you'd find in the Parade magazine recipe section, along with the Triscuit-Cheez Whiz nachos and barbecue cocktail weenies.
We felt only slightly more optimistic when we turned to our "Piccadilly shrimp" appetizer, four medium-size shrimp A one apiece A curled atop a mound of plain Uncle Ben's-type rice. A nice, pungent mustard sauce blanketed the shrimp; fresh chopped tomatoes and sliced black olives garnished the rice. We realized too late that the shrimp were definitely on the raw side, which is not only unappetizing but also a health hazard: Prone to bacteria, shrimp should never be served underdone.
Entrees are served with a house salad or the soup of the day. On one visit we tried navy bean, a thick and just-salty brew flecked with pink shreds of ham. A lingering metallic aftertaste, though, suggested the soup had been cooked in an aluminum pot. (Beans tend to readily absorb that substance.) A refreshing gazpacho, which we sampled on another evening, didn't have that problem. Stocked with the usual onions, peppers, and cucumbers, the cool soup had a pleasant, lingering kick. The house salad was a wonderful fresh plateful of romaine, shredded red cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, tomato wedges, sliced red onions, chopped black olives, and tiny pitted green olives. A creamy garlic dressing was thin and too sweet; we were happy with the house specialty, home-cured olive oil in a chunky glass cruet containing green olives and cloves of garlic. This touch, unfortunately, did not extend to the accompanying balsamic vinegar, served in its brand-name, store-shelf bottle.
Had all of Piccadilly's offerings lived up to the fish of the day, red snapper franaaise, the meal would have been both simple and stellar. The floury, butter-and-egg-coated fish was finished with a sprinkle of salt and pepper and a generous squeeze of lemon that cut through the richness of the batter; the fish inside was succulent and had a firm flake. Unfortunately that entree sounded the meal's highest note.
A Cornish game hen, marinated in soy sauce and white wine for so long the flesh turned brown, was served on a huge pile of white rice rather than the bed of romaine indicated on the menu. Salty from the soy and dry from the oven, the unwieldy hen was eventually abandoned. Chicken breast grilled with herbs was also rooted in a marinade, this time with the seasoned olive oil and white wine. Juicy and easier to cut into than the hen, the breast was nicely enhanced by the garlicky oil. Black-and-white ravioli filled with delicate crab meat was a far better choice. A blackboard special whose main ingredient was supplied by Oggi, the ravioli was covered by a credible tomato-cream sauce.
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Another special that evening, grilled rabbit, was a disappointment. Though rabbit is a versatile meat, its distinctive texture and intense but delicate flavor amenable to innumerable preparations, it couldn't hold up to the Piccadilly treatment. The entire left half of the animal lay like a side of beef on the plate, looking as if it had been cleaved in two in midstride. Much worse, it was stringy and impossible to eat, the meat clinging stubbornly to the bones. As with the whole hen, the heap of white rice -- garnished with cold and uninteresting tomatoes and olives -- inhibited all attempts at knifework.
Barbecue baby back ribs were yet another strange preparation. A full rack was roasted unbasted in the oven, then served with a mesquite-flavored condiment on the side. In Memphis "dry" barbecue is a specialty, the ribs rubbed with herbs and slow-cooked until the meat falls off the bones. But these were just plain mishandled, dry, flavorless, and burned in spots so they crunched like bacon. The accompanying steak fries were another failure, some so crisp no potato was left in the center, others so soggy they could have used an umbrella.
Vegetables are served with all entrees. On one visit a melange of squashes, red pepper, and string beans was steamed and fresh, rescued from flavorlessness by a squirt of lemon. Another time, though, the same arrangement had been sauteed in enough butter to thicken one's blood.
We were pleased with dessert, a homemade, creamy tiramisu, and with our choice of wine, a robust Round Hill merlot chosen from the mostly California list. But that wasn't nearly enough to rescue this garden from the weeds.