Romeo in Love
As you pass by Romeo's Café on Coral Way, the place appears to be your average neighborhood Italian restaurant, the type with straw-wrapped bottles of chianti on red-and-white-checkered tablecloths. There is nothing about the façade, in other words, that even hints at the unique and extraordinary dining experience lurking behind it, though the cluster of people waiting outside to get in is surely a clue that something good is going on. How good? Let's just say that in the underwhelming realm of restaurateur resourcefulness, Romeo Majano is a genius.
When calling for reservations I was told, by Romeo, that 9:30 would be the only available time on an upcoming Saturday evening. (I knew it was Romeo because he said "Hello, this is Romeo.") We showed up at 9:25 and found a dozen people waiting on a pleasant, enclosed outdoor patio. I entered the tiny premises and saw 9 tables -- about 28 seats in all -- every one of which was occupied. Romeo checked my reservation and politely informed me that seating would take place in a few minutes. (I knew it was Romeo because his chef's jacket said Romeo F. Majano.) I joined the growing crowd outside, skeptical that we'd be seated shortly. Four people exited right behind me though, followed by four more, six more, and more and more, all in ebullient moods, as if drunkenly leaving a rousing party together. Then I understood: There are two seatings, one at 6:00, the other at 9:30. The first seating was going home. Hmmm ... that's different.
The room is dark and intimate. Most of the illumination derives from flickering tabletop candles in tandem with dim spotlights shining on paintings and religious artifacts on the walls. I needed to hold the wine list up to a fish tank by our table to read it, a compact selection of mostly Italian and California bottles, many affordably priced from $27 to $36. A waiter soon came by with a flashlight, but lack of reading light ended up being less of a problem than one might suspect: The wine list was the only menu presented. Very different.
Romeo roams from table to table and introduces himself and his restaurant in a sincerely personable manner. He lets you know that the food is northern Italian and freshly made per order and that he is devoted to "quality over quantity." Then he asks a few basic questions about the diners' likes and dislikes: "Do you eat ostrich?" "How about lamb?" "You like fish?" "Can't have garlic? No problem." With this information he prepares a set dinner menu for each table, which is more or less the same for the entire room, with substitute dishes served to those who, for instance, may not want ostrich or lamb. It is made clear at the start that if for any reason you're not thrilled with a particular item, the waiter will gladly and promptly bring you something else. During the course of the evening, Romeo will return again and again to see how everything is going.
No menus means no torturous time spent on decision-making, which in turn frees you to sit back and relish your glass of wine and conversation with whatever Juliet may be sitting across from you. As the waitstaff pampers and lovey-dovey music cascades from overhead speakers, it will probably occur to you that Romeo's is about the most romantic restaurant imaginable. This isn't to say you have to dine here with someone you love, but at least be certain you enjoy the person's company -- the leisurely paced six-course meal takes about three hours to complete.
The meal unofficially begins when formally dressed waiters place crisp, dried croutons on a bread plate; old-timers will refer to these as "Melba toasts," which happen to be quite tasty when spread with butter. These toasts get replaced without having to ask, and glasses of water and wine are refilled almost religiously by a trio of courteous and impeccably professional waiters. Giving everyone the same dish at the same price takes away the servers' task of selling, which affords them more time to concentrate on serving. This system similarly simplifies running the kitchen, making it easier to provide both quality and pristine freshness of product. Genius, I say.
What would come next? There is always a degree of anticipation in regard to waiting for a course to arrive, but the unknown usually consists of wondering how the particular dish you've ordered will be prepared. At Romeo's each dinner features six culinary blind dates. Would we start with soup? Salad? Seafood? Who knew? The suspense added a noticeable degree of excitement to the meal.
The first course turned out to be a transparently thin salmon carpaccio as refreshingly delicate as ocean mist, sparklingly and sparingly sprinkled with capers, minced onions, olive oil, and sea salt. Next came a plate composed of two luscious ravioli domes, one plumped with four cheeses in Gorgonzola-dominated cream sauce, the other filled with fontina in a brown sauce imbued with the earthy aromas of truffles and fresh rosemary.
The grouper dish that followed was a textbook execution of one of the easiest and most delicious means of preparing a fish. First the thin steak-cut of grouper gets seared on both sides, the pan then deglazed with white wine that reduces into sauce consistency as the fish finishes its quick cooking. The fish gets plated, the sauce finalized with a dab of butter, squeeze of lemon juice, and smattering of fresh herbs -- in this case parsley, oregano, rosemary, and thyme. Field greens tossed in sesame oil made for a sensible side and fulfilled the salad requirements of a proper meal.
Romeo sauntered by to ask if we enjoyed the grouper, smiled and nodded at our kudos, and moved on. If there were any doubters in the room to begin with, at this point they were duly impressed and more than willing to unquestioningly submit their trust and control of the evening to the chef. A ring of white risotto on a black plate arrived in his wake, the center of rice mounded with morsels of filet mignon rapidly sautéed with onions and crunchy snippets of asparagus in a savory brown sauce again perfumed with truffles and fresh herbs.
The main course of lamb, two neatly trimmed New Zealand chops, were flawlessly grilled to medium-rare consistency -- we were never asked about temperature, so I suppose if you like your meats rare or well done, you should volunteer that information at the start. The chops were bathed in a buttery Barolo wine sauce subtly shaded by the piney scent of rosemary, with a small, crisp thatch of sautéed carrots, green beans, and bean sprouts on the side. Like every course preceding it, the lamb was simply prepared and inarguably delicious.
Dishes that we didn't get to sample, but you might, include smoked mozzarella with asparagus sauce, potato stuffed with buffalo meat, fettuccine with goose and truffle oil, and mahi-mahi with coulis of watercress and cilantro. The six-course dinner is a steal at $50. Lunch, a more time-efficient four-course meal, is priced, unbelievably, at a mere $20.
Oh Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo? Oh here he is, coming by to ask: Do we like chocolate? Well, yes, of course. Shortly afterward a "chocolate soufflé, in chantilly sauce streaked with strawberry coulis," came hot from the oven and redolent of richly rewarding bitter chocolate flavor. Served outside the mold and sans runny center, this was more a soufflélike cake than an actual soufflé but nonetheless an exemplary finish to a darn near perfect restaurant experience.
Savvy romantics take note: Valentine's Day is just a month away, and as of this writing there are still tables available. Take someone you want to woo here, and I guarantee they will fall in love -- possibly with you, definitely with Romeo's Café.
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