Before a photographer shoots a picture, he checks for certain basic components -- a worthy subject, appropriate light. But above all he composes the shot; that is, he determines how aspects of the picture interact. The most interesting subject in the world can't compensate for discord -- or blandness -- between the foreground, middle ground, and background.
Opening a restaurant is a similar procedure. The restaurateur must ensure that the elements of his establishment, from decor to clientele to cuisine, complement one another. In the case of Lux Restaurant and Lounge, which opened this past summer, the result is a little out of focus. Not coincidentally, the member of our party who ventured that opinion is a photographer.
Rimmed by raised, high-backed round booths (which aren't as comfortable as they appear), the dining room looks as though it could be instantly cleared to accommodate a floor show. Black lucite chairs ring tables shrouded in white linen. Large ovals of etched glass accent the room. And in one corner, a pianist provides grandiose old Sinatra melodies and other dismal ditties from that bygone but still bothersome era. The music is more agreeable when one is sitting in Lux's lounge, itself a not-unwelcome dose of nostalgia.
To our photographer's way of thinking, the Vegas-like setting suited the clientele. Located across from Gulfstream Race Park on South Federal Highway, Lux attracts an ornamented crowd; I haven't seen this many Lincoln Town Cars, pinky rings, and spangled sweaters since I ate dinner at the legendary Mama Leone's in New York City way back in the Eighties. Of course, embellishment is the norm in these parts, where snowbirds molt throughout the season, shedding their tame, woolen plumage. (To be fair, you'll see the same unfortunate display at the Jackie Gleason Theater, where over-enthusiastic arts patrons drip with so much light-refracting finery they practically eclipse the stage.)
It wasn't only the crowd that was overdressed. New World-influenced dishes -- the foreground of the Lux culinary picture -- wore a few sequins of their own and, in terms of composition, seemed at odds with the surroundings and diners. But we weren't displeased with the imaginative fare, even if it did distort the focus of the shot; there were some genuine stars among the spangles.
One star was the nightly prix fixe menu. Not surprisingly, our photographer opted for this offering, which presented a complete picture: appetizer, main course, and dessert. He started with a white bean soup, a flat, brimming bowlful that was awkward to serve -- the waiter's hands shook alarmingly as he tried to pass it to the far reaches of our booth. Once safely down, the soup proved delicious, a just-salty-enough concoction spiked with ham and fresh vegetables.
For the main course, he chose New Zealand lamb chops (wahoo was the other prix fixe selection). Two chops of medium size and thickness were beautifully pink, not overly generous in themselves but certainly adequate for the price ($16.95 for the three-course meal), accompanied by smooth, parsley-speckled mashed potatoes. The night we visited, this side dish performed several duties. For instance, an appetizer of garlicky escargot, sauced with lemon and browned butter, nestled in dollops of these potatoes. Functional as well as tasty, the mash, like shells, protected the tender snails from drying out in the oven. And the piquant potatoes were a fair complement to the mollusks. (Snails practically demand strong flavors like garlic to counteract their slight pungency.)
The potatoes did not work as well with my main course of seared sea scallops. Four scallops, spiced with excess oregano, were arranged like the escargot on the creamy mounds; here, however, the potatoes were herbed with basil instead of parsley. I could not tell the difference. Nor did I appreciate the repetitive presentation -- although scallops and snails belong to the same family, their treatments should certainly differ. Artichoke hearts and hearts of palm, stewed in an unpleasantly strong tomato-and-fennel gravy, partnered the shellfish, overwhelming the plate -- and my palate.
Fortunately, my appetizer was more delicately prepared. The Maryland crab-and-risotto pancake was a moist, inch-thick, pan-fried version the size of a saucer. Two sauces painted the dish -- an anchovy chili syrup that was sweet rather than spicy, and a remoulade that tasted like a thin, mild tartar sauce.
Another successful innovation was the penne primavera with lemon oil, Parmesan, and fresh herbs. The lemon oil boosted the pasta to above-ordinary status, lending it a deep, mellow citrus flavor ordinary lemon could never have achieved. And it was even better as a dressing -- a welcome change from vinegar -- on the salad of arugula and fried pecorino (sheep's milk) cheese. Though I saw no evidence of the cheese having been fried, the combination of sharp pecorino, bitter arugula, and tangy oil was masterful. Ordered back-to-back as appetizer and entree, however, as one of my guests did, the oil's panache became a bit tedious.
The only thing tedious about the veal chop milanaise, with wild mushrooms in marsala sauce, was the endless slicing -- although tender, the pounded chop was rather large. The chewy mushrooms lent an agreeable musk to the dark wine sauce and the juicy, breaded veal. A plain linguini completed the dish.
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A white chocolate tartufo concluded the prix fixe meal, but we substituted a flourless chocolate-and-pine-nut torte. Our mistake. The cake was a slab, resembling the fudge disc that tops a Hostess cupcake. The apple pie couldn't even claim Hostess appeal. The crust was stale and wooden with hardly a flake to be found; the apples were hard and bland.
Service was as uninspired as the pastry. Our waiter had such an attitude that we were tempted to ask him what he really did for a living; he couldn't be making much in tips. He walked away without a word of excuse in the middle of taking our order; he pointed mutely (and rudely) to the prix fixe menu when we asked about specials; he cleared the table of my companion's ashtray without replacing it A ever; and he misinterpreted requests, bringing a large bottle of Pellegrino, for example, instead of the glass of soda water we ordered. His boredom with the whole procedure was unmistakable.
True, with nary a diamond among us, we didn't look much like his other customers. Customers who, it seemed to us, might be more accustomed to steak Diane than items like a main course salad of Asian-style warm skirt steak, or the black bean-crusted lamb chops with Mediterranean-style long bean salad and mint pesto. Still, Lux can't be faulted for trying to bring the New World into the old one. And Hallandale could use a restaurant of possibility and promise. But it could do without the added pomp.