Gloom Service

Restaurants in large airport or convention hotels have a virtually unshakable reputation for being mediocre, a taint that makes them unlikely to attract customers beyond the business traveler or tourist. While some restaurants do manage to emerge from the depths of hotel-lobby obscurity and attract local diners, it's the rare diner who suggests a romantic dinner at, say, the Holiday Inn. And despite hoteliers' recent efforts to improve both PR and talent in the kitchen, even an informed public has yet to take notice.

Almost paradoxically, a big hotel restaurant can be an excellent place for a chef to train: The unpredictability and varying tastes of the clientele is an ideal atmosphere for keeping a kitchen staff sharp. Then again, those same uncertainties can be a restaurant's undoing. Sadly, the latter was the case when I visited the five-month-old Moon Dance, in the Sheraton Design Center Hotel on Griffin Road in Dania.

The concept of Moon Dance, named after the popular Van Morrison song, is promising: young chef, regional cuisine, untapped locale, and an elaborate menu that suggests wines by the glass and beers from the nation's hottest microbreweries to go with particular preparations. Executive chef Andy Williams has trained with the best, including Mark Militello and Norman Van Aken, and the ambitious, mouthwatering menu descriptions reflect their influences. What he lacks is their finesse and, more important, their distinctive resourcefulness. Control over all aspects of the restaurant often emanates from the kitchen; simply cooking isn't enough. By this I don't mean that the kitchen staff should actually serve the meal -- although this is precisely what the chef was doing when we visited. And it wasn't because he wanted his guests to feel special, it was because the restaurant was short on waiters.

It seemed the lone waiter operating in our section of the dining room was working without the help of a busboy, so we could almost forgive the hourlong waits for appetizers and entrees, and his slow response to our repeated requests for bread, a dense, stale corn bread that was finally supplied after the appetizers. But his performance wasn't anywhere near up to the prices on the menu. First he informed us that the kitchen hadn't expected "late" arrivals. (They should have, given the fact that we made a reservation.) Later he requested that we hand him our dirty dishes, and even then he failed to clear the table after each course; random items remained even after dessert was served. And when he ran out of water while in the process of filling our glasses, he announced, "Well, looks like that's it. Let me know if you'd like more."

It was his lack of knowledge about the food, however, that most egregiously affected our meal. He didn't go over the evening's specials until we specifically inquired (we'd seen them listed on a blackboard in the lobby), at which point the following exchange ensued.

Us: Can you tell us about the specials?
Him: Salmon and venison.
Us: [Helpfully] And...?
Him: The venison is served with rice.
(It wasn't.)

The menu managed to compensate somewhat for the waiter's inarticulateness and ineptitude, featuring a brief New World lexicon that defines more than 35 tropical and subtropical fruits, spices, and vegetables. Hot appetizers, chosen from the "First Dance" category, were icy. Tortilla soup was so cold we sent it back for reheating. The floating tortillas were pretty, garnished with a touch of cheese, and the broth was just spicy enough, but still-crisp onions and peppers hadn't contributed their flavors, rendering the stock watery and without distinguishing body.

Also on the bland side, the trilingual tongue twister "chili molido cornmeal-dusted calamari" tasted nothing like the "dried powdered chilies" with which the cornmeal supposedly had been spiked. An uninspired salsa of black beans and roasted corn salsa lacked seasoning, too, as did a toasted-cumin aioli, which was so unassertive as to be hardly noticeable. The squid rings were as soggy as if they had been breaded but never fried. Along the same tired lines, an "upside-down tostada" featured three plantain-encrusted shrimp arrayed over baby greens, crowned by a fried flour tortilla ($9.95). Though the avocado vinaigrette that dressed the salad was nicely balanced, the shrimp, like the calamari, were bready and crunchless, the exterior clinging wetly to the meat. Mrs. Paul's does it better.

The lone success story among starters was a plate of three exceptionally supple medallions of alligator, painted with a guava barbecue sauce and served over tangy Jamaican sauerkraut and delicate Peruvian purple potatoes ($8.95). The wonderful meld of flavors could have been boosted by some extra heat, but this dish was delicious, even cold.

Main courses proved the kitchen was at least consistent -- everything was chilly. Listed under the menu heading "Pick Your Partner," banana-leaf-wrapped snapper was dense and flavorless, overcooking having robbed the fish of any pretense to a flaky, appealing texture. A very fresh tropical fruit mole, though chunkier than expected and tasting largely of papaya, lent the dish a much-needed complexity, and the accompanying fried yucca hash browns were crisp and satisfying.

Grilled tuna was a thin steak, a little more cooked than the medium-rare we'd requested, and sliced into triangles ($19.95). Paired with a sugar-sweet mango puree that was all too reminiscent of a Gerber product, the fish was perched on perfectly spiced housemade kim chee, which added some real finesse to the dish.

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