When I walked into Chanson restaurant at the Royal Blues Hotel in Deerfield Beach and saw a huge saltwater fish tank built into the ceiling, my first thought was, “I sure hope that thing doesn’t break.” (See Gulfstream Park casino, 2012.) By the time my group finished a recent meal, my thinking had changed.
To be sure, it would be a shame if the elegant oceanfront dining room got soaked. But my group felt as if we had taken a metaphorical soaking, an overpriced and pretentious journey by sea and land that left us scratching our heads. A complimentary starter that looked like sawed-off lizards' feet turned out to be a high point. Other plates were prettier, but much of the meal simply did not taste good.
Consider the $20 “Sexy Tartare” appetizer. Minced chunks of raw top-sirloin steak sat on a dish with greens, strawberries and a quail egg that required DIY pouring. The dish supposedly had red chili peppers, their spice meant to play off the strawberries’ sweetness. We didn’t taste any heat, just fruity and chewy, graying meat. About the only one who might find this dish sexy is Borat.
Chef Florenzo Barbieri, who arrived from Italy earlier this year, defended his creation in a follow-up interview, explaining that he likes to put fresh spins on traditional classics. “We’re in evolution,” Barbieri says of the kitchen. He is reshuffling his staff of seven and is in the midst of remodeling the kitchen to suit his “modern Italian” cuisine.
The current setup isn’t conducive to pastamaking, something that he wants to expand. That would be a good thing, because the only dish I truly liked — besides a $14 salad with vibrant vinaigrette — was his “buttons” with grouper, a silky ravioli dish ($15) stuffed with grouper, pistachio and carrot juice in light carrot sauce. It was the only dish all night that felt like it had a soul.
Chanson (pronounced chance-OHN) has already been through a succession of chefs, and seems to be grasping at what it wants to be. The first chef was Asian, the second German. Barbieri says the kitchen was originally designed for sushi and Japanese-style cooking.
Edward Walson, a film and theater producer who works with Woody Allen, opened the boutique, 12-room Royal Blues Hotel in November 2014. It has a rare South Florida distinction of belonging to Relais & Chateaux, the international fellowship of individually owned hotels that pride themselves on quality and luxury.
Chanson has its virtues. The beachfront location is beautiful. The cocktail program under earnest young mixologist Diego Sena Ribeiro is good. Sommelier Krystal Kinney is a pro, friendly and helpful with an intriguing wine list that contains many boutique bottles collected by Walson. This is a great place to drink. The eating? That’s a work in progress.
Barbieri, 37, has spent most of his career in Europe, most recently in a Florence kitchen with Michelin-starred chef Peter Brunel. Brunel, whose signature dish is flourless potato spaghetti, is from the culinary camp who like to deconstruct the familiar and reinvent the wheel. Barbieri has the same tendencies. He has a sous-vide machine and says things like, “I don’t like to use flames — I like pine-char inductions.” My head almost exploded when he talked about how he only uses the liquid surrounding the seeds from a tomato for a fish dish and launched through the intricate steps necessary to make the $46 duck breast special that I had (“it’s three times cooked, first with a torch, then sous-vided for 45 minutes at 56 degrees [Celsius], then seared at the finish”). Then, he said, “I’m trying to do simple things.”
That sliced duck, by the way, tasted like lifeless mush, served atop two bad, reddish sauces and accompanied by weird, hardened mushrooms that tasted as if they had been pulled from the Petrified Forest. Where were the strawberries when I needed them?
I’m hoping Barbieri looks in a mirror and finds his culinary soul, and taste buds, before it’s too late. He was born in Connecticut to Sicilian parents, and the family hopscotched the globe in his early years due to his father’s job with a British company. Barbieri spent part of his youth in South Florida, attending elementary school in Sunrise. When Walson offered him the Chanson job last year over dinner at Mario Batali’s Del Posto in New York, he considered it heaven-sent. He moved his wife and young daughter from Tuscany to South Florida.
Barbieri likes to surprise diners, and my group didn’t mind the adventurous start to our recent meal. The startling sight of those clawlike, steamed Spanish percebes as an amuse-bouche were an instant conversation piece. Nobody at my table of world travelers, including a restaurateur from Jamaica, had encountered them before. Percebes, a crustacean also known as gooseneck barnacles, have to be cracked and then peeled. A sweet nub of meat is hidden beneath the gnarly shell. Barbieri says they were left over from a special Spanish winetasting event that week. They were simple and delicious.
It’s too bad the rest of the meal couldn’t follow suit. Housemade rolls were good, but the fancy Laudemio vintage 2016 olive oil from Tuscany for dipping left a bitter, almost acrid, aftertaste. A ceviche starter ($24) of wahoo, shrimp and scallop was another exercise in overthought, with Barbieri preparing each component differently instead of melding them in one harmonious sauce. He lightly steamed the wahoo, killing the fresh flavor, and the dish tasted more of mellow olive oil than spiky citrus.
Many dishes were not only haute, but also very hot, with servers warning us not to touch them. Barbieri’s predilection for torches hopefully explains that.
Fish entrees also fell flat, more mush than simple seared goodness, including a reconstructed snapper Caprese ($30) served with a mysterious, green Italian “basil sponge.” I didn’t know whether to eat it or scrub my plate with it. Unfortunately, I ate it. Tuna pistachio ($36) was marinated in olive oil and herbs, then briefly baked at high heat. Barbieri says it is supposed to have crunch from the pistachio, sweetness from onion and sourness from peperonata, but my tablemates agreed there was no crunch and no balance. It was a study in disappointment.
Desserts from pastry chef Stephanie Feldman, a veteran of Cafe Boulud in Palm Beach, were offbeat and had some good elements, including a lavender-infused olive-oil cake with Key lime curd, served in a wide jar and topped with meringue ($12). The Key lime curd was a bit too sour. It was only fitting that our meal at the Royal Blues Hotel ended on a sour note.
45 NE 21st Ave., in Royal Blues Hotel, Deerfield Beach
954-857-2929 or RoyalBluesHotel.com
Cuisine: Modern Italian and Mediterranean
Cost: Expensive to very expensive. Appetizers and salads cost $12 to $24. Main courses $24 to $46. Desserts cost $10 to $12. Seafood tower $75. Five-course tasting menu $90.
Hours: Breakfast and lunch 8 a.m.-3 p.m. daily. Dinner 5:30-9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Closed for dinner Sunday-Monday.
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Inventive craft cocktails from an earnest young mixologist. Interesting wine list with many hard-to-find boutique bottles.
Sound level: Conversational
Wheelchair access: Ramp to entrance
Parking: Free lot in rear