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.

As for the Purple Dolphin's entrees, there are some hits and some misses, although mostly hits. One serious miss, however, is the grilled vegetable lasagna. The round noodles were as thin as wonton skins, and so were the grilled vegetables. All I could taste were wild mushrooms; the rest of the flavors were so unidentifiable that I had to ask the waiter what else was inside. I accepted his word that the dish contained cauliflower, zucchini, and yellow squash. I didn't bother inquiring about the invisible ricotta and parmesan cheeses, whose aromas I detected. Three cold and naked florets of broccoli encircled the plate, but the tomato sauce they sat in was smooth and sweet, made from fresh yellow tomatoes. Shaped like a cylinder, about three inches by three inches, the lasagna is not ample enough to be billed as a main course. (Which brings to mind Woody Allen's comment about a restaurant where the food was lousy, and, worse, the portions were too small.)

Other entrees are more substantial, and at these prices ($15 to $19) they should be. Key West yellowtail snapper, for instance, consists of two generous filets that are floured, sauteed, and served with a lobster, artichoke, and basil risotto. Buttery radish sprouts, redolent with a spicy, earthy flavor, are bunched atop the moist fish. But a basil coulis puddled on the plate is pasty, and the risotto dry and gummy, as if made earlier and rewarmed -- a kitchen no-no. While lobster morsels were easily distinguishable from chunks of artichoke hearts (at least visually), the flavors were too uniformly subdued, the textures unanimously mushy, and the overall effect listless.

Florida dolphin (regrettably not purple) was much better. It arrived dressed in orange and teal, the colors of the football-playing Dolphins. (Well, orange and green, but close.) The sauce was made of carrot and orange juices reduced with ginger, the accompaniments a smattering of heavily garlicked and sauteed baby spinach leaves and bright snow peas. The dolphin was perfectly prepared, a hefty rectangular slab of thick grilled fish with translucent flakes.

Skirt steak is grilled with equal aplomb. Parlo uses the flap from the top round and marinates it in pureed herbs and sherry; it arrives at the table as a triangular wedge of juicy, scarlet-red beef with garlic-herb butter melted on top. Sweet potatoes, plantains, and yuca are cubed and roasted together in a timbale, producing a brittle cylinder of the starches on the outside and a steamy-soft interior. Other accompaniments, pencil asparagus (actually, thinner than a pencil) and sugar snap peas, are cooked just right and lightly glazed with butter; two very large baby carrots (or, perhaps, two very small adult ones) could have used a few more minutes in the steamer, but it was gratifying to get three fresh vegetables with one entree.

A whole free-range chicken comes with its bones removed so that flattened, it looks like a toad. And flattened it is. The cooking method involves weighing down the bird with a brick while roasting it in a cast-iron pan. This creates a crackly and gorgeously bronzed skin, with moist and tender meat. The flavor is so infused with basil, rosemary, and thyme that I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the chicken had been raised in an herb garden. Crisp wisps of shoestring potatoes on the side are seasoned just to the cusp of oversalting; arugula leaves dressed in vinaigrette contained enough sand to serve as a reminder that a postdinner stroll on the beach was an option.

Michael Martins is in charge of producing the restaurant's exquisite pastries, which are wheeled into the dining room to repeated receptions of "oohs" and "aahs." The whimsical garnishes of ribbons, corkscrews, and spoons spun from colored sugars make the desserts look like daintily wrapped miniature gifts. Martins previously worked the ovens at the esteemed Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, and won the 1996 National Oreo Cookie Bake-Off with his mudslide dome. The dark chocolate dome with an Oreo cookie mousse interior is available here, but I prefer other desserts, such as a delicate key lime tartlette with just a puff of whipped cream; passion fruit-glazed blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries with toasted coconut croutons; and a light chocolate cake that comes with a warm, oozy center of Valrhona chocolate and roasted Manzano bananas. Coffee, served in a French press, is a delicious cap to the evening.

Completing the triumvirate of kitchen talent here is sous chef Kenneth Williams, who previously worked at Turnberry Isle and the Grand Bay. As a student at the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, New York, I was taught that a sous chef is second in command to the chef. By the time I was teaching classes at New York City's French Culinary Institute, my kitchen experience had shed some light on a more realistic definition: The sous chef does all the work and gets none of the credit. Also deserving of praise is floor manager Nelson Walters, who was exceptionally adept at remedying a few service lapses -- an uncleared soup bowl, a delay in presenting the bill -- by an otherwise attentive and personable wait staff.

Now if someone asks me to recommend a good dining spot in Key Biscayne, I'll likely tell them to try the place in the Sonesta Beach Resort. When they call for a reservation, let the hotel's desk clerk supply the name and then listen, for the zillionth time, to the response: "The Purple Dolphin?"

The Purple Dolphin. Sonesta Beach Resort, 350 Ocean Dr, Key Biscayne; 305-361-2021. Breakfast from 7:00 till 11:30 a.m. Lunch from noon till 3:00 p.m. Dinner from 6:30 till 10:30 p.m. Open daily.

Spring rolls $5.25
Blue crab bisque $5.00
Marinated skirt steak $16.50
Grilled dolphin $16.50
Valrhona chocolate cake $5.

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