Gloom Service

Restaurants in large airport or convention hotels have a virtually unshakable reputation for being mediocre, a taint that makes them unlikely to attract customers beyond the business traveler or tourist. While some restaurants do manage to emerge from the depths of hotel-lobby obscurity and attract local diners, it's the rare diner who suggests a romantic dinner at, say, the Holiday Inn. And despite hoteliers' recent efforts to improve both PR and talent in the kitchen, even an informed public has yet to take notice.

Almost paradoxically, a big hotel restaurant can be an excellent place for a chef to train: The unpredictability and varying tastes of the clientele is an ideal atmosphere for keeping a kitchen staff sharp. Then again, those same uncertainties can be a restaurant's undoing. Sadly, the latter was the case when I visited the five-month-old Moon Dance, in the Sheraton Design Center Hotel on Griffin Road in Dania.

The concept of Moon Dance, named after the popular Van Morrison song, is promising: young chef, regional cuisine, untapped locale, and an elaborate menu that suggests wines by the glass and beers from the nation's hottest microbreweries to go with particular preparations. Executive chef Andy Williams has trained with the best, including Mark Militello and Norman Van Aken, and the ambitious, mouthwatering menu descriptions reflect their influences. What he lacks is their finesse and, more important, their distinctive resourcefulness. Control over all aspects of the restaurant often emanates from the kitchen; simply cooking isn't enough. By this I don't mean that the kitchen staff should actually serve the meal -- although this is precisely what the chef was doing when we visited. And it wasn't because he wanted his guests to feel special, it was because the restaurant was short on waiters.

It seemed the lone waiter operating in our section of the dining room was working without the help of a busboy, so we could almost forgive the hourlong waits for appetizers and entrees, and his slow response to our repeated requests for bread, a dense, stale corn bread that was finally supplied after the appetizers. But his performance wasn't anywhere near up to the prices on the menu. First he informed us that the kitchen hadn't expected "late" arrivals. (They should have, given the fact that we made a reservation.) Later he requested that we hand him our dirty dishes, and even then he failed to clear the table after each course; random items remained even after dessert was served. And when he ran out of water while in the process of filling our glasses, he announced, "Well, looks like that's it. Let me know if you'd like more."

It was his lack of knowledge about the food, however, that most egregiously affected our meal. He didn't go over the evening's specials until we specifically inquired (we'd seen them listed on a blackboard in the lobby), at which point the following exchange ensued.

Us: Can you tell us about the specials?
Him: Salmon and venison.
Us: [Helpfully] And...?
Him: The venison is served with rice.
(It wasn't.)

The menu managed to compensate somewhat for the waiter's inarticulateness and ineptitude, featuring a brief New World lexicon that defines more than 35 tropical and subtropical fruits, spices, and vegetables. Hot appetizers, chosen from the "First Dance" category, were icy. Tortilla soup was so cold we sent it back for reheating. The floating tortillas were pretty, garnished with a touch of cheese, and the broth was just spicy enough, but still-crisp onions and peppers hadn't contributed their flavors, rendering the stock watery and without distinguishing body.

Also on the bland side, the trilingual tongue twister "chili molido cornmeal-dusted calamari" tasted nothing like the "dried powdered chilies" with which the cornmeal supposedly had been spiked. An uninspired salsa of black beans and roasted corn salsa lacked seasoning, too, as did a toasted-cumin aioli, which was so unassertive as to be hardly noticeable. The squid rings were as soggy as if they had been breaded but never fried. Along the same tired lines, an "upside-down tostada" featured three plantain-encrusted shrimp arrayed over baby greens, crowned by a fried flour tortilla ($9.95). Though the avocado vinaigrette that dressed the salad was nicely balanced, the shrimp, like the calamari, were bready and crunchless, the exterior clinging wetly to the meat. Mrs. Paul's does it better.

The lone success story among starters was a plate of three exceptionally supple medallions of alligator, painted with a guava barbecue sauce and served over tangy Jamaican sauerkraut and delicate Peruvian purple potatoes ($8.95). The wonderful meld of flavors could have been boosted by some extra heat, but this dish was delicious, even cold.

Main courses proved the kitchen was at least consistent -- everything was chilly. Listed under the menu heading "Pick Your Partner," banana-leaf-wrapped snapper was dense and flavorless, overcooking having robbed the fish of any pretense to a flaky, appealing texture. A very fresh tropical fruit mole, though chunkier than expected and tasting largely of papaya, lent the dish a much-needed complexity, and the accompanying fried yucca hash browns were crisp and satisfying.

Grilled tuna was a thin steak, a little more cooked than the medium-rare we'd requested, and sliced into triangles ($19.95). Paired with a sugar-sweet mango puree that was all too reminiscent of a Gerber product, the fish was perched on perfectly spiced housemade kim chee, which added some real finesse to the dish.

In keeping with the menu's dance theme, meat dishes are listed under "Salsa," which seemed appropriate enough -- the marinated strip steak we ordered was served with a smoky, wood-grilled vegetable version. Williams's Southwestern influences shone brightly here, distinguishing him from the rest of the New World crowd, who lean more to the tropical East. The steak was succulent and meaty, all robust flavor and texture. A side of boniato mash was purposely left lumpy and homestyle rather than whipped to a chic froth, a choice we admired. An inch-thick pork chop glazed with an ancho chili-tamarind mixture ($19.95) was also tasty, despite the fact that the meat was tough, not the highest-quality cut. Well-prepared accessories -- zesty black beans and cooling jicama slaw -- contrasted to good, back-yard barbecue effect.

The aforementioned venison special, unfortunately, consisted of gristly, overdone chunks of not-very-good meat served over mushy farfalle (bow-tie pasta), a combination that wasn't abetted nearly enough by a wine-rich wild mushroom demiglace and a fragrant, bright green coriander sauce. "Guess I was wrong," our waiter admitted as he set down the dish. "There's no rice." Yeah, and there's very little tip, too.

For dessert, a white-chocolate brownie was stale and unappetizing, though the double fistful of chocolate mousse underneath was certainly spoon-catching. At least the bridal party thought so, judging by their comments. So did a phalanx of husband-seeking strays from the singles event next door, and the members of a visiting soccer team, all of whom sauntered past the open-to-the-lobby dining room while our meal wound down.

Diners as captive entertainment renders the setting completely at odds with this demanding, urbane menu. Much as I hate to go along with the herd, perhaps public opinion is right about this one A we shouldn't expect too much from a Sheraton Hotel restaurant. Only with indisputable excellence could Moon Dance possibly elevate its surroundings. Andy Williams and company are allowing themselves to be dragged down a level.

Side Dish
One trend Miami needs like a tropical storm: coffee bars. As with so many trends, Miami has come late to coffee bars. Or so it would appear to the casual eye. Simply because Starbucks hasn't made it south yet doesn't mean we don't have our own coffee culture. In fact, Miami, thanks to the Caribbean and South American influence, has an extremely viable hot-beverage history, one I'd pit against Seattle any day.

Still, one doesn't exactly linger over a colada. So it's nice to see that our town has embraced the notion of coffeehouses, those retro repositories of arty ambiance.Maria Custodio Arenas's Cool Beans Cafe is my pick for coffee bar of the month. Tucked away in a strip mall at 12573 Biscayne Blvd., in North Miami, this six-month-old establishment is filled with artwork; one wall is covered with tasteful, poetic graffiti, courtesy of pen-wielding customers. Another point in its favor: coffee in real mugs, not paper cups. "Beanoccino" -- cappuccino flavored with chocolate and coconut -- is the local favorite, a perfect choice for the subtropics. Other cool beans at Cool Beans include spiced Jamaican rum and New Orleans chicory. The cafe also offers a limited lunch and dinner menu and fabulous chocolate desserts, as well as wine, beer, port, and coffee-flavored liqueur.


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