Ever on Sunday

"It's all about balance," my dinner companion, a fellow writer, said to me over cocktails a few evenings ago. She paused to sip her Cuda Red Ale thoughtfully. "Yes," she said, swallowing appreciatively, holding up her pint glass as if to catch and drink the setting sun. "Balance."
My friend was referring to writing, about juggling her corporate and creative lives. But it struck me as she was speaking that the notion of balance is apropos to cooking: Flavors must complement, not overwhelm, each other. And to restaurants: Quality must justify price. An occasional tipping of the scale -- a flawed meal, a dearth (or sudden rush, for that matter) of customers -- might make a successful eatery teeter for a moment or two. But if the restaurant has balance, it will always recover.

South Pointe Seafood House attempts to perform its own brand of balancing act. Located at island's end in South Pointe Park, the nine-year-old restaurant overlooking the rocky, frothy channel of Government Cut used to be Crawdaddy's, a Louisiana-style fish house that was part of the California chain that owns Rusty Pelican. In 1991, Arthur Forgette took over the spot, and he's been making it over ever since: renaming the place after its park setting; selecting executive chef Dana Alan Brizee, who debuted his new pub menu a few months ago; and remodeling the lotsa-wood-and-carpeting lobby to include a microbrewery, installing glistening copper and stainless steel brewing and aging tanks and importing brewmaster Jeff Nelson from California.

Yet despite all the improvements, the 250-seat restaurant still suffers from an identity crisis: part tourist trap, part banquet hall, part brewpub. And it fails to keep its halls filled with merrymakers. When I drink Government Cut Light Ale or Hog Snapper Stout at South Pointe's bar, I usually drink alone, and when I follow that up with a meal in the dining room, I find myself in the sparse company of out-of-towners. I've often wondered how the place stays in business.

I got part of my answer while gazing at the herb garden that nearby elementary school children planted and tend at the side of the two-story building. "Does the chef use the herbs in his dishes?" I asked our server. "No," he said. "But McDonald's just rented it out for a shoot."

McDonald's and others looking for a pretty backdrop may pay the rent. But the real reason South Pointe stays in business as a restaurant is apparent only one day of the week. Because though dinnertime can seem dark and dreary -- the lighting too subdued, the vague scent of mildew in the air intrusive, the service oversolicitous, supplied by waiters who don't have enough to do -- Sunday at noon is the exact opposite: bright with Florida sunshine, elegant but cozy. Intriguing, intertwining aromas of yeasty beer and omelets. Speedboats and water bikes churning through the Cut. And unlimited champagne or mimosas, topped off periodically by pleasant staffers who also replace cutlery and plates as needed. It's the difference between, well, night and day.

For $22 per person, brunch is an excellent Sunday activity (and believe me, it could take all day). Brizee sets up rows of chafing dishes filled with brunch-type entrees; trays of salads and baskets of breads; an omelet, waffle, and carving station; and a dessert table. Go with a good appetite and sample everything -- there are no losers here. Even the stuff in the warming pans is beautifully presented and replenished frequently.

Cheese-stuffed artichoke ravioli in cream sauce was al dente but supple, cheese blintzes with peach sauce hot and creamy in the middle and crunchy outside. Bacon and sausage were meaty, cottage fries crisp. A fragrant seafood paella was rich in mussels, calamari, chicken, and chorizo, and accented with a liberal dose of roasted red peppers. The crowning glory, clusters of Dungeness crab legs with garlic butter, were indeed so glorious that they hardly needed the garlicky kick of the condiment.

A bowl of chilled peel-and-eat jumbo shrimp complemented by a zesty cocktail sauce was also a big draw, as were displays of peppered mackerel and smoked salmon. Antipasto platters of rolled Italian meats and cheeses, artichokes, hearts of palm, pepperoncini, and Homestead tomatoes and mozzarella scattered with basil were vivid. And several salads were delicious -- most notably a saffron linguine with mussels and shredded carrots; a salmon-and-new-potato blend with capers and onions; a green Greek salad featuring red onions, pepperoncini, cucumber, plum tomatoes, feta cheese, and an olive vinaigrette; and a Chinese chicken salad with cabbage and a crackling trim of fried wontons.

Bread baskets contained an assortment of wonderful Parker House rolls, croissants, bagels, Danish pastries, and miniature muffins. The carving station featured a roast beef with creamed horseradish sauce and a turkey breast with cranberry-orange relish, both deliciously prepared. A cook flipped four omelets at a time, an entertaining feat. But it was the French toast -- triangles slathered with an amaretto cream, then battered with cornflakes and almonds and fried -- and the palm-size Belgian waffles that held our attention, abetted by a trio of syrups.

The dessert table was a treasure too, from the bowl of strawberries and sidekick of creamy Brie to the finger-length custard eclairs, napoleons, and chocolate cups filled with chocolate or vanilla mousse to the luscious blueberry cheesecake and tart key lime pie. Though I must admit that by the end of the meal downing even one slice of chocolate layer cake was something of a challenge. I couldn't imagine topping all this off with a beer, as I saw some brunchers doing. The mimosas were quite filling enough.

If only some evidence of brunch remained at dinner.
Like a country club in the chill of winter, South Pointe's dining room lacks the bustling, jolly spirit that infects brunch on Sundays. And sadly, the fare suffers from this ennui as well. High prices -- $19 a pound for Maine lobster -- discourage interest in tackling several courses, and don't always seem justified, given the mediocrity of the main courses we ordered.

One way to minimize dining costs is to eat in the pub area, noshing on a couple of starters as a way of making a meal. This is also a great way to experience the more relaxed vibes of the lounge, rather than the can-be-stuffy formality of the main rooms. The offerings here are culled from the appetizer section of the dinner menu, augmented by a good raw bar selection and filled out with soups, salads, sandwiches (served only during lunch), and snacky stuff such as hot pretzels with beer mustard.

Smoked mahi-mahi fish dip was a good mild blend, a generous scoop decorated with curls of carrots and beets, kalamata olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, and pepperoncini. Packaged garlic flatbreads were a disappointment, however (as was the most surprising garnish of the evening A a long strand of hair). Jumbo shrimp wrapped in bacon with a horseradish and barbecue sauce mirrored the menu description perfectly. A half-dozen shrimp sported a wreath of bacon and surrounded a pool of barbecue sauce spiked with a little horseradish. Though notably fresh-tasting, this dish lacked a unifying element and needed a better sauce, something less dominating. And less expensive: Eleven dollars is excessive for a glorified cocktail. Griddled crabcake was a more substantial bargain, big enough to suffice as a main course. Well padded with breadcrumbs and pan-fried, the molded stone crabmeat was finely seasoned, though a little too salty. We liked the bed of tomato aioli cole slaw upon which it sat but thought it dangerously warm, rather than cool and inhospitable to bacteria breeding.

The dinner menu's seafood selection is appropriately enticing, ranging from grilled salmon on a bed of wilted greens with tomato balsamic vinaigrette and edible flowers to blackened swordfish with sour-orange sauce and red onion marmalade. But several sound too similar, treated with some form of butter (pine nut-basil, mandarin orange, rum-coconut).

In any event, a grilled swordfish steak was ample and juicy, topped with roasted peppers and marinated plum tomatoes. A dab of pine nut-basil butter was melted on one end, supplying not nearly enough flavor for the fat. Al dente broccoli was invigorating, but the powdery seasoning mix that topped it tasted like Molly McButter. (Herbs from the McDonald's garden might boost this vegetable.) Saffron rice pilaf, a vaguely Indian-tasting starch, rounded out the plate.

That rice worked well with sauteed teriyaki tuna, a thick fillet coated with sesame seeds and black pepper. Cooked to a medium pink, the tuna supported a few slices of canned-tasting mandarin oranges that floated, unincorporated, in a pool of butter. Broiled red snapper was another nice piece of fish, moist and flaky. But once again the accompaniments were bland -- an unspicy poblano pepper salsa and a haystack of crisp tortilla strips. Satisfactory, but not sense-satisfying, a description that serves equally well to describe the dessert list, which we waved off.

Like a lot of us, I delight in excess -- a plethora of champagne, an elaborate brunch, a week of solid sleep, a shopping spree, a whole day to write. But I function best on a diet of moderation. Moderate drinking and eating. Some (probably not enough) sleep every night. A new shirt or pair of shoes every once in a while. And a few hours a day to put words to paper. South Pointe Seafood House, balancing on a fine point, might consider taking all that is wonderful about its Sunday champagne brunch and spreading it around to every meal there.


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