Features from the Back Lagoon
As someone who has earned a living in two pretty damned privileged fields -- writing about food and playing rock music -- I've always felt as if I was getting away with highway robbery, even in months when I can barely pay the rent. One of my grandmothers, after all, paid her rent by stuffing chocolates into boxes eight hours a day on a factory assembly line -- not just when she was young but when she was my elderly grandma and should have gotten to, you know, take it easy playing Judas Priest songs at 140 decibels, like I do. So when I read pieces in which other restaurant reviewers complain about how many meals we are forced to eat, I want to shoot those whiners.
Still, there are times when it's hard for a reviewer to get up enthusiasm for ... bang. No! Hold your fire! This isn't a whiny complaint, merely an observation that at certain times of year, such as during our current sticky summer, it is nearly impossible to get excited about eating at certain places -- such as almost every place on my current list. (This is despite the fact that many specialize in my favorite foods.) But even South Florida's hottest Caribbean-influenced cuisine seems too hot during dog days. Who wants to try to analyze what's in some exhaustingly complex sauce? Feel like getting all dressed up and driving to a concrete-canyon shopping-mall restaurant for a steaming big bowl of pasta, followed by a huge hot helping of heavily sauced veal? And why has every second restaurant that has opened in Miami this sweltering summer been Italian?
It doesn't make sense. So I'll stick to one of the few dining experiences that does: first, a frosty-with-a-capital-F (but not frozen) cocktail festooned with fresh fruit, sipped slowly in a riverfront tropical tiki hut while watching the cool water roll by. Then another. Finally a food followup that says summer simply but scrumptiously, like a perfectly cooked classic lobster.
You can have this experience at Lagoon. In fact you could have had this experience since the mid-Thirties, when Al Capone supposedly was a patron of the restaurant, as well as of the seven bedrooms upstairs; the eatery's current owners claim the place was originally a more, um, multipurpose entertainment complex. The reason you may not have had the experience is that when you whiz by the place on the 163rd Street Causeway, the "Lagoon" sign looks as if it's attached to a huge aluminum structure in which you wouldn't want to hang. This actually is a marina building. Lagoon, a most conducive hangout with comfortable, cushioned wooden booths outside and an old-fashioned knotty-pine interior, is hidden below.
The experience is, however, qualified. Although Lagoon's recent newspaper ads tout the new weekends-only tiki hut, it isn't: No grass roof, no tiki. What Lagoon does have is a roofed outdoor deck, a kick-back, kick-off-your-shoes kinda space that is as psychologically relaxing as a tiki hut. But it's not one.
For another thing, according to the cordially clueless kid desperately trying to run the faux tiki hut at 3:30 p.m. on a recent Sunday, the enticingly exotic drinks listed on the bar menu were not available until 4:30 -- though I'd called in advance (twice, to make sure) and had been told that said drinks were only available in the "tiki" from 10:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. "I don't really even have any idea how to make those things," he confessed. "Want a beer?"
Fortunately co-owner Jimmy Moskos appeared. "You ever gotta problem here, you ask for me. I am Jimmy the Problem Solver." We ordered some rum drinks, a blue lagoon and a planter's punch, plus, the winner, margaritas on the rocks. All were very frosty -- and, in terms of alcohol amount, very, very formidable.
Also formidable in amount was Lagoon's food (which is only fair since this North Miami Beach place charges surprisingly South Beach prices, except for a bargain twin lobster seasonal special). To start there was soft bread and a complimentary old-fashioned relish tray featuring items I suspect haven't changed since the restaurant's opening day in 1936: red kidney-bean salad, pickled beet slices with fresh onion, and smooth but unusually tangy chopped liver spread, plus carrot and celery sticks with classic white potato-chip dip. In terms of quality, the assortment frankly was not something for which I'd pay $12.95 (the tray's price if not everyone at the table orders an entrée), but free it was more than ample enough to make ordering nonfree appetizers, such as the $11 to $16 shrimp or lobster cocktails, unnecessary.
Among entrées live Maine lobsters were a standout, steamed to tender-sweet perfection. Scoring the $19.95 twin lobster special wasn't easy; despite ad promotion the deal was neither listed on the menu nor mentioned by our server. Persist. These one and one-quarter pound babies were simply superb summer fare.
Another line in Lagoon's ad, proclaiming "seafood freshly caught from our own boats daily," had us hoping for some of the catches common to local waters but frustratingly uncommon on local menus, like buttery mangrove snapper or meaty wahoo. No such luck; Lagoon's list is a roundup of the usual suspects. But our grouper and red snapper did indeed seem faultlessly fresh. Unfortunately our two preparation choices were poor. The snapper's oreganato coating seemed all dried oregano and paprika, without a hint of the fresh garlic or red pepper mentioned on the menu; the big broiled offering also was seriously overcooked and undersalted. The grouper's sautéed flesh was moister, but its tiki topping -- described as mushrooms, onions, tomatoes, peppers, and almonds in lemon butter sauce -- inexplicably substituted cauliflower for the nuts, and no lemon taste was discernible. Neither was any salt.
Sides got mixed reviews. In the starch department, a stuffed potato was dry, excessively salted, and tasted not at all of the cheese its vivid orange color suggested, while cottage fries were just weird: four thick oval slices of potato that were real, not reconstituted, but tasted like they'd been prefried -- possibly in Capone's time -- and reheated to leathery toughness. Salads were better but still not entirely successful. A tableside-made caesar salad was crisp and nicely coated, but the dressing suffered from a severe mustard overdose. Additionally, though our server had agreed to substitute a caesar for two of our free house salads, we were charged full freight -- and $15.90 is a lotta lettuce. The two house salads we did get also had a lettuce problem: iceberg. With even common romaine (not to mention the easily available mesclun mixes available at any supermarket here) substituted for zero-personality iceberg, Lagoon's house salad would have been a knockout, owing to delicious dressing (creamy garlic) and generous Greek-style garnishes (feta cheese, imported black olives, cucumbers, juicy ripe tomatoes). Instead it was a waste of very interesting accouterments on a very boring base.
My advice: Ask Jimmy the Problem Solver about this salad problem. Bet you a magnificent margarita he'll solve it.
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