You can't help but wonder about a place that shamelessly circles its dining room with its own flattering press clips. Reviews and write-ups from the New York Times, USA Today and at least a hundred lesser publications feel like an old-school, analog version of the self-aggrandizing Facebook status update: annoying, unnecessary and, ultimately, kind of pathetic.
Generally we expect more grace and humility from an octogenarian, but it's worth noting that while The Palm celebrates its 85th year in New York, the classy-but-casual Tampa location is only 10. (Where else would you expect to find it, then, than loitering outside a shopping mall?)
Of course, at a restaurant where the motto is "the place to see and be seen," it should come as no surprise that ego shares equal billing with whatever the kitchen is cranking out. The Palm's walls have always been a canvas for needy narcissists to find validation, selling the illusion of self-importance through cartoonish caricatures of local "movers and shakers."
Let's just say it seems unlikely that Jack Harris would make the wall in New York City. It's a long way from Manhattan's Midtown to Tampa's West Shore.
Still, there's a reason snowbirds, retirees and The Yankees head south -- and The Palm, too. So, ever hospitable, we stopped by recently and climbed into a comfy booth, tastefully framed with dark cherry wainscoting, and squinted at the unwieldy Italian-American menu through dim lighting.
We began our meal with the carpaccio of beef tenderloin. The impossibly thin, raw beef looked like it might have been painted on the plate by an Italian master's brush, accented beautifully with flecks of black pepper and a swatch of Parmigiano Reggiano, mottled with arugula and finished off with olive oil and lemon. It tasted every bit as good as it looked, a symphony of simple flavors and diverse textures.
The watermelon salad was another pleasing appetizer, a pile of frisée mixed with grilled fennel, pickled onions and feta cubes. We also couldn't quibble with the mostly tender and surprisingly greaseless "Point Judith" calamari fritti, lightly fried and tossed with cherry peppers.
After that, though, things got a bit uneven.
Our 9-oz. filet mignon, ordered medium-rare and topped with a Cabernet compound butter, arrived slightly overcooked and overwhelmingly salty, as if the kitchen had tried to overcompensate for a relatively bland cut that's known for being more tender than tasty.
A few briny bites in, we discovered why the steak looked so lonely on its plate. The executive chef turned up at our table wielding both an apology and a forgotten side of garlic-lobster mashed potatoes. It was a nice gesture, but he really shouldn't have: Despite the generous chunks of lobster, the potatoes had separated -- water and starch -- as if they'd been frozen. And the garlic? It must have ducked into the bar for a cigar and a Manhattan.
Steak, lobster and classic Italian fare are the three branches of The Palm's simple, unpretentious culinary reputation, and while the former disappointed, the latter two fared considerably better.
After a server expertly extracted every morsel of meat from the shell of our 3-pound Nova Scotia lobster, we were left to sit back and savor it, from sweet, tender claws to succulent, meaty tail. It’s served de rigueur with drawn butter, and available up to 6 pounds -- or bigger, if you call ahead and don't mind tougher, stringier meat. We also tried the jumbo lump crab cakes from the night's special menu. Lightly breaded and loaded with crab meat, they were moist without being mushy and boasted a rich flavor that was balanced nicely by a spicy chipotle tartar sauce and slightly tart mango salsa.
Considering The Palm started as a southern Italian eatery, we paid a subsequent visit to try the Chicken Parmigiana. Humble but hearty, the dish is served here in a massive portion that's lightly breaded and doesn’t have the moisture pounded out of its poultry.
A la carte sides can undermine attempts at affordable dining, but we didn't regret ordering the delicious creamed spinach or the fresh, brightly flavored string beans, enlivened by bits of pancetta, pepper flakes and pine nuts.
The dessert menu was mostly unremarkable, but we can absolutely recommend the Bag of Warm Doughnuts, which requires no explanation other than to say that it's, well, a Bag of Warm Doughnuts -- and that they're homemade, dusted with cinnamon sugar, served with chocolate and raspberry sauces and what the hell are you waiting for?
The wine list offers a surprising number of highlights amid the ho-hum, but even the usual suspects are marked up beyond reason. (Ninety-eight bucks for a bottle of Etude Pinot? Really?!) We settled for a round, full Luigi Bosca Malbec, which somehow seemed like a bargain at $72.
And therein lies the rub. At the end of the meal, when nothing is left on the table but wine stains, pie crumbs and a leather-bound booklet containing the bill, it’s tough not to feel like -- at least for the money -- you might have done better. Even 1,200 miles south of the big city.
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