New World Conceit

After I read the latest article to extol Miami's New World restaurants -- a spread in the November issue of Gourmet magazine -- I thought (and not for the last time, I suspect): Nice piece. But what about Fort Lauderdale?

Long before local voters resolved to change Dade's name to Miami-Dade County, the national press was viewing South Florida as one big Miami. The result is that Miami -- and by extension all of Dade -- gets the glory, while Fort Lauderdale/Broward seems like a goody-goody older sister, nice enough but overshadowed by her vibrant sibling. But the truth is that while the two regions have very different identities, we happen to share a cuisine, and many Broward chefs working with New World ingredients are just as deserving of praise as their counterparts in Dade.

With that in mind, I was optimistic when the Fort Lauderdale Marina Marriott sent me a press release and menu heralding the opening of La Marina, a "New Florida" eatery that would replace the hotel's popular and very good Riverwatch restaurant. Chef Jim Ameen, influenced by his wife's Cuban heritage, was said to be hard at work accenting local seafood with the flavors of the tropics, a combination he'd come to know well at home. Unfortunately, when I visited La Marina, instead of finding a nail to hammer home my point about the virtues of Broward's New World cuisine, I discovered a loose screw.

With its location (the hotel overlooks the Intracoastal) and foreign name, the six-month-old restaurant gives no exterior hint of its culinary identity. In fact, the casual observer might think it's Italian. Inside, the pleasant decor -- leaf-pattern rugs, etched glass, captain's chairs, and wood-paneled, peaked ceilings -- evokes a vaguely nautical mood. Nor did the whitefish dip and the basket filled with sun-dried tomato, sourdough, and herbed dinner rolls have any particular culinary affinity. But the New World claim becomes obvious with a perusal of Ameen's menu. Though steaks, filet mignon, and prime rib are offered -- this is, after all, a hotel restaurant -- most items have a South Florida/Caribbean flair.

A pork burrito proved to be a crisp flour tortilla filled with plantains, a puree of black beans, and shredded pork that had been marinated in the traditional mojo of garlic, oil, and citrus juices. The intriguing hint of garlic was complemented by the starchy sweetness of the plantains, but the burrito's shell had been overbaked, amplifying the dryness of the stuffing. A condiment of mango salsa spiked with diced red bell pepper, minced cilantro, and whole black beans was tasty, but not juicy enough to counteract the splintering burrito.

Shrimp robusto, another appetizer accompanied by the same salsa, yielded disappointingly similar results. A sun-dried tomato tortilla was smeared with mojo-flavored black bean paste and rolled with shrimp, then baked to a too-crisp finish. Melted pepper-jack cheese united the shrimp to the tortilla shell but also overwhelmed the puny shrimp, making it hard to discern any of their flavor.

Individual ingredients didn't matter so much in the Floribbean bean dip; though presented sectioned in a crock, the guacamole, sour cream, and a puree of black beans accented with plantains were clearly meant to be mixed and eaten together. Melted jack cheese wound throughout the sectioned dip, which was tasty in spite of the fact that the guacamole was runny and too tangy, as if the avocado were less than fresh. But while the packaged tortilla chips that surrounded the crock were not the tricolor ones billed on the menu and cheapened the dish to some extent, the kitchen had made an effort to dress them up with a salsa cruda of red onion, tomato, and yellow bell pepper.

In the who-does-it-better category (for those of you who are keeping score), dinner salads are an important point, if merely for the fact that most Broward restaurants offer them with entrees while most Dade restaurants do not. True to Fort Lauderdale form, La Marina provides a "tropical caesar" salad before all main courses. Sadly, the mere presence of a dinner salad doesn't make it worth consuming. Here chunks of melon and mango made the romaine lettuce refreshingly fruity but couldn't do much for a watery dressing that didn't smack of either garlic or anchovy. Shredded Parmesan was rubbery and oddly flavorless, and croutons, though apparently homemade, were soggy from refrigeration.

Seafood dishes named for Caribbean islands dominate the entrees -- hence menu entries such as shellfish linguine "Trinidad" (mussels, shrimp, clams, and scallops served in a tri-pepper tomato sauce) and blackened swordfish "Antigua" (garnished with a Gran Marnier citrus salsa). Jamaica receives two mentions, honey salmon "Kingston" (dressed with a mango and two-mustard puree) and Jamaican banana snapper. For the latter, a large yellowtail fillet had been dipped into a banana-flavored batter, then lightly sauteed and placed atop a combination of rice, black beans, and bits of red bell pepper. The snapper was flaky and sweet, but the coating was limp and too moist, and a so-called mango smoothie sauce was cloying enough to make the dish taste like dessert or breakfast fare. Fortunately a second garnish, spicy red pepper puree, was sufficiently piquant to balance the candied flavor of the fish rather than emphasize it.

"Rio" stuffed flounder fillets, two of them, were filled with a combination of sourdough breadcrumbs, Dijon mustard, feta cheese, roasted pine nuts, and minced artichokes. The zesty filling was fragrant and powerful, the flounder soft and supple. But the tops of these rolled fillets had been burned, and the cilantro-enhanced tomato sauce on which they were served was cold. (Never mind the fact that none of the ingredients seems to have the least bit to do with Rio, or any of South America, for that matter.)

The restaurant lists two chicken dishes, one a breast dipped in egg batter and sauteed with mushrooms and artichokes, the other a more Caribbean-sounding adobo-rubbed breast. The latter plate actually comprised three small breast halves, pan-fried to a crisp yet juicy golden brown. But again there was a problem here -- an overuse of salt that rendered the poultry all but inedible. An interesting garnish of red, yellow, and green jalapenos mixed with guava jelly sugared a rice-and-bean pilaf beneath the chicken, adding a bracing sweetness that countered some of the salt that leached off the main course.

The old-timey roots of the erstwhile Riverwatch were evident in a faultless slice of prime rib that turned out to be the best main course of the night. Served with a baked potato and a sour cream-horseradish dip, the beef was tasty enough to make me wonder whether Ameen and his new executive chef Eddie Williams ought to consider abandoning the New World for the Old.

Desserts definitely need some work. The apricot chiffon cake we ordered was a square of sponge cake dipped in chocolate and refrigerated, which made it look like a petit four. The interior was pure mush, reeking of alcohol. Not exactly a sweet worthy of Gourmet's attention, though it might work for the Wine Spectator.

Though some hotel restaurants succeed when they attempt to impart a little regional flavor, most fail. My high hopes for La Marina were based on the quality of the restaurant it replaced. But despite the playful menu, the restaurant seems to have fallen into the predictable hotel trap: By shooting for the lowest common denominator, Ameen has reduced a vibrant cuisine to garish local color.

La Marina (in the Fort Lauderdale Marina Marriott)
1881 SE 17th St, Fort Lauderdale; 954-463-4000, ext 6783. Breakfast and lunch daily from 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner from 5:00 to 10:00 p.m. (Friday and Saturday until 11:00 p.m.).

Pork burrito
$6.95
Prime rib (ten ounces)
$17.50
Stuffed flounder
$17.95
Banana snapper
$20.75
Apricot chiffon cake
$4.25

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