I've been accused of writing this column out of spite. She harbors a secret, unfulfilled wish to own a restaurant, some gossips whisper, and that's why she can be so hypercritical.
Truth is, I would like to own a restaurant. But it's no secret. My friends (who open my refrigerator before they even say hello to me when they visit) know one of my greatest joys is feeding people. I have ideas, possible investors, and partners. I also have time, and plenty of it. I feel about having a restaurant the same way I do about having children: I'm just not ready yet.
So I don't find myself writing this way about Ocean Drive's Les Deux Fontaines because I'm chartreuse with envy. I do it because I'm frustrated and aggravated at anyone's having to fork over money for a meal at a place that gives such a bad name to the service industry.
The restaurant, located in the Ocean Front Hotel, has been currying favor with me since the summer of 1994, when it opened as a French restaurant. Though the 300-seat indoor/outdoor brasserie -- part of a stunning renovation of a 1936 apartment building into a 27-suite hotel -- was beautifully terraced, response to the (pricey) food was lukewarm. A new chef (Jean-Pierre Petit, formerly with the Grand Bay) and seasonal menus didn't appear to help boost the restaurant's mediocre reputation. But at the beginning of this summer, the eatery reduced prices dramatically and switched the culinary theme from French to (still French-influenced) seafood.
"Come and try it," I was invited, begged, and cajoled week after week via their publicist. Articles lauding the restaurant were mailed to me. (The most lengthy was in German, so I couldn't read it.) Notes were penned: "The owners feel slighted that after over a year since opening, you've never reviewed them."
All right, I said to myself. I'll go; these people are so desperate to build a local client base that the least I can expect is a solicitously served meal.
Au contraire. Everyone -- from busboy right up to owner -- seemed not to care about me as a customer. In fact, I left with the distinct impression that no one at Les Deux Fontaines gave two clams if I ever brought my dining dollars back again. Rude, arrogant service is certainly not the way to disguise hitches in food preparation.
An incident near the beginning of the meal served as an omen. On a night so gusty I had to clamp my skirt around my thighs to avoid flashing passersby, a busboy was attempting, over and over again, to light paper-bag luminaria on the tables. The inevitable occurred, of course: One of the lamps caught fire. After briefly attempting to beat down the flames with a dishrag, the busboy just laughed. "It'll run its course," he said to the customers who had been watching his endeavor with some concern. And then he went right back to lamp-lighting.
More promising was the appearance of appetizers and hot fresh rolls. Pungent caesar salad dressing (heavy on the Parmesan and anchovy) coated chopped pale green romaine lettuce. Sweet and cool, the salad bore only one flaw: stale croutons. From a list of raw appetizers that includes smoked salmon, tuna carpaccio, grouper ceviche, domestic littleneck clams, and Canadian Malpeque oysters, we chose another cold plate, salmon carpaccio. This was refreshing, lacy salmon as tender as sashimi arranged in leaf-thin slices. Shaved fennel, capers, chopped chives, and a swirl of lemon juice and olive oil garnished the mild fish, while three slices of country bread toast added a rustic, hearty note.
A potato-leek soup of the day stood out on this menu because it lacked any ingredient from the sea. It was delicious. The vegetables and broth had been pureed, resulting in a smooth, mellow, slightly creamy bisque. A seafood combo appetizer, however, comprising two each of mussels Provençal, clams casino, and oysters Rockefeller, was uneven. Though dosed with garlic, the mussels tasted fishy; the clams, topped with garlic butter and a crisp slab of bacon were mild beneath all the heavy flavors; and the oysters were small but tasty, garnished with minced spinach, bechamel sauce, and a crust of cheese. The real problem with this starter was how it was presented: Rather than pose the shellfish on the traditional rock salt, which is chunky and doesn't melt easily, the kitchen substituted table salt. The result was a dissolving base that ill-served what it was supposed to support.
Crab cake (note the singular) was billed as an entree but would have worked better as an appetizer. The meaty pan-fried round featured a good deal of crab and was nicely flavored but was simply too little food for a main course. A zesty mustard sauce and a side salad of mixed greens with the house shallot-and-herb vinaigrette dressing supplied lots of flavor but not much additional substance.
Bouillabaisse, a fish stew offered for one or two, was a menu holdover from Les Deux Fontaines's strictly French days. Medium-size shrimp and handfuls of tiny clams and mussels complemented a pair of fish fillets, grouper and dolphin, that had been poached to flaky tenderness. The sauce, billed as a hearty low-fat broth, is just that -- unless you mix in the grated Parmesan and not-very-spicy rouille (a mayonnaise spiked with garlic and chilies) served on the side.
Disaster struck with the main feature. The menu highlights a mix-and-match option: ten kinds of fish (sea bass, pompano, snapper, grouper, dolphin, salmon, swordfish, tuna, catfish, and monkfish) prepared in any number of ways: grilled, baked, steamed, broiled, poached, blackened, or sauteed. Each fish, regardless of how it's cooked, is then served with a lazy Susan assortment of sauces, including rouille, tapenade, tartar, and pesto.
"Did the pompano come in today?" one of my guests asked innocently.
"I don't know," the waiter said. "But I assure you all of our fish is fresh."
Indeed, the menu reiterates this claim, adding that everything is filleted on the premises. Well, I don't know where the fish I ordered went under the knife, but I can assure you, the poor thing died in vain, and most likely quite some time before I became acquainted with it. The pompano fillet, ordered grilled, was dry and unappealing, leaving a bad aftertaste that was only slightly eased by portions of the above-mentioned sauces, which were not brought to the table until we'd asked for them. One bite each of the accompaniments -- an undercooked broiled tomato half topped with Parmesan and a scoop of listless white rice -- was more than enough.
The baked snapper one of my companions ordered was even worse, if only because, as the busboy who set it down with a flourish said, it was "grouper."
"I didn't order grouper," my guest replied.
"What did you order?"
"Then it must be snapper."
Though I'd never seen a snapper so steaklike before, we were game. Briefly. It wasn't snapper, it had been grilled before it had been baked, and therefore it was so overcooked that the exterior crust poked at the roofs of our mouths like a dentist's tool. We sent it back with a brief, three-pronged statement: "This is awful; it is not the fish we ordered; and it was not cooked the way we ordered it." And a request: "Please bring a house salad instead."
While the staff was ostensibly examining the carcass, the waiter showed us his minicomputer (a nifty high-tech way to take an order), claiming it as proof the fish was snapper. He then adjourned to the kitchen and returned with the fish itself, saying, "Afraid not, madame. This is how you ordered it."
It took three more reminders to coax the requested house salad out of him.
All the unpleasantness might have been alleviated by the man who came to our table and introduced himself as the owner. (Days later, when I called the restaurant and identified myself, this same man explained to me that he was not really owner Bernard Gautier but was in fact manager Khalil El-Daher, who stands in when Gautier is absent, which happens to be about 99 percent of the time.) Apparently he'd been made aware that there was a problem. "I'm sorry," I expected him to say. "What can I do to show you that we're really worthy of your future patronage?" What I got instead was an oily little smile. "The kitchen enjoyed your comment, madame," he said. "We are sorry the fish wasn't to your liking. But this is how we do things."
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"The fish was overcooked," my guest replied flatly.
"No," the (ersatz) owner corrected. "It wasn't to your liking. This is how we cook it."
"Then you cook it badly."
Shrug -- and a bill for both the snapper/grouper and the replacement salad, plus a seventeen percent tip figured in, as the menu had promised.
The range of that menu suits the eatery's Riviera-like location, and its prices make for a welcome break from the customary South Beach gouge. But while I always try to extend the benefit of the doubt to a new kitchen -- a chance, given time, to make good on the promise of its talent -- even putting aside the current mediocrity of the execution, no amount of cajoling could persuade me to subject myself to this sort of arrogance ever again. Les Deux Fontaines is all wet.
Bouillabaisse (for one)