Thursday, June 14, 2001

Hands down

Posted on Thu, Jun 14, 2001 at 4:00 AM

At some point in any discussion of the new Palm Restaurant at the Hard Rock Hotel, the 75-year history of the original and its 22 other branches are bound to come up.

Yes, the first Palm, circa 1926, was opened in New York as a Northern Italian restaurant, and, yes, the corporation is still run by descendants of the original owners. It's impressive that the business is still thriving, but I want to be wowed by the food, not the resume.

Notwithstanding the celebrity caricatures stenciled seemingly everywhere on the walls, Palm describes itself as a "white tablecloth restaurant." What goes on the tablecloth is a mixture of fine, uncomplicated dishes and slight near-misses. Try the "Monday night salad" ($8.50) to start. The name came from whatever was left over from Sunday getting finely chopped and served on Monday, and it's a great blend of tomato, ancho-vies, pimentos and greens in a perfect balsamic dressing. Save some bread for spreading.

Among the appetizers, a sampler combo of "shrimp Bruno" and crab cake ($12, but not listed on the menu) was not as successful: The plentiful serving of sweet lump crab was way too loose to qualify as a cake. As for the breaded fried shrimp served with mustard sauce, I liked the shrimp and the sauce but could have done without the breading.

In a day when chefs like to layer flavor upon flavor until it's impossible to tell what you're eating, Palm sticks to simple combinations. The mackerel ($30) -- one of that night's specials -- came sitting atop a smooth and subtle lobster velouté sauce and dressed with spicy fresh tomato and cilantro salsa. The fish was moist and mild, perhaps seconds from being overcooked but certainly enjoyable.

If you like a good cut of meat, Palm is up there with the best. The double-cut lamb chops ($29) are done to perfection and, like everything else, come in a very large serving. Steaks are enormous and, with true New York daring, are served with a side of Hollandaise.

This isn't the most expensive place in town, but it ain't cheap either. Entrees can run up to $60 for the 36-ounce New York strip "double steak," designed to serve two, and side veggies are priced separately.

The original Palm always had a reputation for waiters with attitude; although efficient at bringing your dinner, they weren't always happy about it. I don't know if that's still true in New York. But service people at Palm Orlando are quick, pleasant and well trained, with a level of casualness that is more friendly than intrusive. And in a break from standard Universal fare, free valet parking is right at the door. Don't be put off by the rock-memorabilia theme of the hotel environs; the Palm's well-prepared food is worth checking into.

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