Borne to the Purple

The Purple Dolphin. The phrase brings to mind (1) a psychedelic Sixties rock band that once opened for Moby Grape, or (2) a seedy seaside disco lounge, or (3) Dan Marino after a bevy of hard sacks. In fact, the words are reminiscent of almost anything but a restaurant that you would suggest to someone for dinner without having the person repeat the name in the form of a question: "The Purple Dolphin?"

The same can be said for A Fish Called Avalon (or any restaurant named after a movie comedy), Splendid Blended (in Delray Beach, and not a smoothie joint), and Macarena, whose owner goes to such pains to point out that the place is not named after the dance that I now call it Macarena with an Explanation.

Its unfortunate appellation notwithstanding, the Purple Dolphin, located in the Sonesta Beach Resort in Key Biscayne, serves admirable cuisine, which it calls Florida continental. Don't look for duck l'orange, Wiener schnitzel, or chicken marsala on the menu; the only link between Florida continental and traditional continental is that both offer multinational alternatives to monoethnic dining (like, say, Italian or French). Fare at the Purple Dolphin has a great deal in common with fusion or world cuisine, and a quick scan of the menu for telltale ingredients (goat cheese, mango, at least one fish encrusted with a nut or sesame product) corroborates its fusion/world status.

Before he went Florida continental, Tom Parlo, executive chef at the Purple Dolphin since 1994, trained in the kitchens of some of New York City's most respected hotels: the Ritz-Carlton, the Four Seasons, and the St. Regis, where he worked at the well-regarded Lespinasse. (Parlo will be profiled on an upcoming episode of the Discovery Channel's Great Chefs of America, and the James Beard Foundation has named him one of the Great Hotel Chefs in America.)

The Sonesta Beach Resort isn't in the same league as the Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons, of course, but it is nonetheless attractive. The lobby is rendered in sand tones, with artwork and furnishings providing splashes of sapphire blue, turquoise, purple, and rust. Complementary beachy colors show up in the Purple Dolphin's main dining room, which features twenty white-clothed tables and 80 wicker chairs with pastel-color cushions. A carpeted and softly lighted space with a grandiose flower arrangement at its center, the room also boasts a mural (the subject of which is fish) by local artist Billy Sullivan that stretches across the main wall and serves as a visual focus.

Fourteen similarly dressed tables and wicker chairs dot the adjoining Florida room, but a dark tile floor and a wall of sliding glass doors give it a cold feel, which is exacerbated at night by a view of the (mostly) blackness of Biscayne Bay. Whirling ceiling fans and teeth-chattering air conditioning (which was graciously turned down upon our request) merely make matters worse. It would be just another bland space if not for two tall and tacky light fixtures -- presumably metallic interpretations of palm trees -- that dominate the room.

In fairness I should point out that the Florida room's ambiance during lunchtime is as different from dinnertime as night is from day. Actually the difference is night and day. The glass wall opens up to a sunny outdoor patio scene with alfresco dining, palm trees, a swimming pool, and the ocean. Early evening is the best time to dine on the patio, where a dozen tables offer sunset vistas and caressing breezes. (Unfortunately the patio is used at night only when the restaurant is especially busy.)

There is no best time to indulge in the Purple Dolphin's Florida blue crab bisque, which tastes sublime at any hour. The coral-color, full-bodied soup's robust tomato and crab flavors are boosted by brandy and Pernod, mellowed with butter and cream. No chunks of crab and no gimmicky garnishes, just a simple, supremely prepared bisque. Black bean soup is also simply prepared, perhaps too simply. Parlo has forgone the tradition of pureeing all (or at least a portion) of the cooked beans, and instead serves the still-firm legumes in a bowl of watery, bean-based broth. A circular squirt of sour cream, some minced red onions, a few thin strips of plantain chips, and a hint of cumin provide little kick. This soup cries out for jalapenos, or at least some salt.

Two plump and voluptuous blue crab and Gulf shrimp cakes make a superb starter. The fresh and distinctive tastes of each crustacean are well balanced and their golden fried exteriors are greaseless. Corn relish sweet with red onions, chayote, and diced mango, plus a mound of mashed avocado, make for fun accompaniments.

The spring roll appetizer is also satisfying. The rice paper wrappings are crispy and caramelized, while the minced chicken and shredded carrots inside are bursting with sweetness and piquancy from curry, Thai chili sauce, ponzu vinegar, sesame oil, ginger, and garlic.

Salads such as cobb, caesar, and fresh mozzarella with sliced tomatoes are conventional crowd pleasers. A mix of arugula, endive, and baby greens enlivened with diced papaya and sherry vinaigrette is a bit more daring, but only the hearts of palm salad truly transcends steakhouse status. Fresh, crunchy slices of the ivory-color palm are tossed with chopped red-leaf lettuce, orange, mango, a sprinkling of hazelnuts, thin shavings of Manchego cheese, and a roasted cumin and orange vinaigrette. The multitude of contrasting textures and flavors blend together splendidly.

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