A walk into the Little Chalet in Boca Raton immediately transports you to a quaint Alpine lodge sans airport hassles or extended flights. Bric-a-brac collections of copper pots, mini fondue sets, birdcages and illuminated ceramic villages adorn walls and shelves. Antler chandeliers, wide-planked wooden floors and a field stone fireplace set an après-ski stage.
The thoughtfully executed décor feels authentic. Clandestine leather booths, flattering swag lighting and a jazzy piano player covering classic renditions of Gershwin and Guaraldi add to the atmosphere. Live music in restaurants can be hit or miss, but in this case it accentuates the environment rather than overpowering conversations. Cloth table linens, fine stemware and personalized, engraved steak knives add a polished, Old World appeal.
All this, coupled with an even flow of attentive yet unobtrusive service, made for a relaxing dinner. This is in part due to the owners' hospitable approach, which encourages guests to enjoy their meals at a leisurely pace.
The Little Chalet, which recently celebrated its first anniversary, has roots in a Brazilian business that opened in 1972. That year, Antonio Marcellini and his wife, Taisa, opened a gift shop in Belo Horizonte, the capital of Brazil's state of Minas Gerais. The shop specialized in products from Gramado, a Brazilian mountain resort town with a Bavarian influence prompted by German settlers.
Among the Alpine-inspired inventory were fondue sets. As the story goes, in the evenings the store transformed into a piano bar for locals. At the request of friends, Marcellini began making fondue. Before long, the bar took on a life of its own, and in 1979 Chalezinho — Portuguese for "little chalet" — was born. Concert venues and event spaces followed, with multiple locations opening in São Paulo. Sons Ralph and Ricky Marcellini joined their father's business in 1997, building on the concept by adding prime meats and seafood to the menu. Today, the brothers plan to open Little Chalets across South Florida.
We started our meal at the restaurant with risotto bites ($13), which had just enough breading to maintain the scoop of cheesy arborio-rice filling with a spoonful of tomato sauce. It was a pleasant beginning. The evening's special scallop ($21) appetizer exemplified the chef's forthcoming new menu. Sitting atop a succotash of toothsome lima beans, sweet corn and salty pancetta, the scallops' delicious caramelized crust gave way to translucent centers. A spinach salad ($12) hit all the right notes, with tart cranberries, earthy goat cheese and crunchy pecans dressed with a judicious drizzle of balsamic vinaigrette. Other classic starters include beef carpaccio ($17), garlicky French mussels ($15) and a rustic onion soup topped with Emmental cheese ($10).
A veal parmigiana ($35) was exceptionally executed with a light, crispy breading. It was devoid of globs of mozzarella, and instead boasted shaved Parmesan with a generous serving of angel-hair pasta in tomato sauce. Two double French-cut lamb chops ($39) were simply seasoned and roasted exactly to temperature. But perfection was lost on a stiff polenta that lacked creaminess, suffering from either too much time under a heat lamp or not enough liquid. It needed a pinch of salt.
Pappardelle and short ribs ($22) were cooked al dente, and the rich ribs were moist and tender. A garnish of finely grated pecorino Romano complemented the ragu, but at this price I'd have liked to see a more appealing presentation and maybe a fresh herb. The most popular of the prime beef options is the chalet Swiss filet ($48), a prime ﬁlet mignon stuffed with prosciutto, catupiry (a Brazilian cream cheese) and beef béchamel, and served with potato roesti.
Pescetarians have several options, including honey-glazed salmon ($32) with roasted fennel, purple cabbage and rice pilaf; sesame-crusted tuna ($35) over sautéed peppers, onions, mushrooms and spinach with citrus soy sauce; and the fish of the day (market price).
When it's time for dessert, head straight to the chocolate fondues ($23 petite/$35 grand) with dippers of pound cake, brownie, marshmallow, fresh fruits, pretzel sticks and pirouette cookies. A vanilla-bean crème brulee ($11) tasted like it came directly from the fridge and was too cold to appreciate. And no speck of vanilla bean was to be found. Raw sugar on the edges of a thin and not so crispy brulee made me wonder if it was prepped in advance rather to order? The brigadeiro cheesecake, ($13) is a riff on the traditional chocolate Brazilian dessert made with condensed milk and chocolate sprinkles. Although too sweet for my taste, my fellow diners enjoyed the semifreddo center yet were unable to cut through an overly thick, frozen graham crust. A warm bread pudding ($10) proved a better balance with moist, eggy cubes of tender cinnamon bread. To maintain that balance, I'd have preferred the very sweet and generous amount of vanilla sauce served on the side. Dessert menus in plastic sleeves seemed out of character with the rest of the experience.
The Little Chalet may be pigeonholed as a fondue and steakhouse restaurant, but it goes far beyond that. As it continues to tweak its menus to find a winning formula in a new market while remaining true to its concept, satisfying varied tastes and filling seats, minor shortcomings will be offset by charming ambiance and genuine hospitality.
The Little Chalet
485 S. Federal Highway, Boca Raton
Cuisine: European, specializing in prime meats and fondue
Hours: Dinner nightly. Brunch to launch in January.
Credit cards: All major
Sound level: Conversational
Outside smoking: No
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Lot and valet
Kids: Highchairs, booster seats, kids menu, Sundays kids eat free.