Truth or Consequences
Some may say it's only sixteen words, but exaggeration, deception, and dishonesty are just plain wrong regardless of how few syllables are used. What's that? Oh, no no no -- this has nothing to do with Bush's State of the Union address. I'm speaking about the menu at Pescado, a new seafood restaurant in the Village of Merrick Park. The offending words: hard-boiled egg; fresh cilantro; roasted onion marmalade; mixed mushroom ragout; popcorn shrimp; heirloom tomato salad -- all of which either didn't appear on our plates, or showed up as something quite different than advertised. Whether speaking of mushroom clouds on the horizon or mushroom ragout on the salmon, it always seems to work out better when you just tell the truth.
The 350-seat restaurant is gorgeous. The lounge room features a dazzling nautical theme, with water bubbling in glass panels behind a big copper bar, and all sorts of creative lighting fixtures casting subdued colors and spotlights about the space. The adjoining dining room is likewise awash in rich hues -- on one visit the curved ceiling glowed cantaloupe orange, the next time a deep sky blue. Plush chairs are exceedingly comfortable, the tabletops crisply set, the music -- well, let's say it will appeal mostly to baby boomers, unless you happen to be one of those young people who think Ringo Starr is really cool.
Pescado's food bottomed out right at the top of the menu with soup of the day, on this occasion a "roasted corn and seafood chowder." No big deal that the corn wasn't roasted -- there weren't enough kernels to make a difference, nor for that matter was there much in the way of diced potatoes. There were also just a few shriveled scraps of grilled tuna, but these added a surprisingly potent, and regrettable, grill flavor (akin to a dose of liquid smoke) to what would otherwise have been a decent base. Worse: The main component of the soup was rubbery bands and tentacles of squid. I understand why they call this "seafood chowder" rather than "cream of squid," but I can't figure out what compelled them to offer it to begin with.
I could quibble that the description of the house salad as "local mixed greens" is accurate only if you happen to live near the Dole plantation that manufactures millions of boxes of these same mesclun leaves that are served just about everywhere. And I could gripe that there was no hard-boiled egg in my chopped salad, nor any corn, "roasted" or otherwise, but in fact the remaining ingredients of iceberg lettuce, crumbled blue cheese, bits of bacon, fried onion strings, and a zesty lemon ranch dressing were generously portioned and quite delicious. I didn't try the Mediterranean panzanella salad, but I wouldn't bet the farm that the bread used is authentically "Tuscan."
The menu here is short and changes daily, if only to switch soup du jour and make one or two substitutions. Shrimp cocktail and oysters on the half shell seem to be a constant, as does tuna tartar, a sparkling presentation of sashimi-grade tuna sprinkled with sea salt and lightly imbued with aromatic sesame oil. Accompaniments included pale and minimal slices of mango, a crisp rice cracker, and squirts of spicy chili dressing on the plate -- not quite "spicy Thai chilies," but close enough. If only they'd remembered the "fresh cilantro."
Another appetizer, "popcorn shrimp," is a commonly mislabeled dish. The Cajun original calls for crawfish dipped in batter, which when fried resembles our favorite movie chow. What Pescado and many restaurants are really serving is the somewhat less exotic-sounding "fried shrimp," or "fried teensy-eensy baby shrimp." The serving here features almost twenty of the tasteless little crustaceans puffed to the size of regular fried shrimp via thick, crisp panko breadcrumb crusts. Just to further cut the culinary cord between this and anything resembling the New Orleans classic, the shrimp are served with a piquant tomato salsa; a big, fried tortilla chip; and a limp (from being under the steamy hot shrimp) salad dotted with cubes of queso blanco (and supposedly dressed with "lemon tequila vinaigrette," which, if true, was so stingily spiked as to be incapable of intoxicating a Mexican flea). We finished the shrimp, but never did figure out how to eat them with the tortilla chip.
Shrimp are also to be found in the paella, the pad thai, and as the seafood portion of a "surf & turf." Those are three of the main courses, the other four being New York strip steak, Chilean sea bass, salmon, and fish du jour, which during our visits was tuna. Puzzling that a restaurant called Pescado, in the seafood-rich region of South Florida, uses no local fish.
Be that as it may, miso-marinated sea bass was by far the best choice, a moist fillet in light miso broth with ginger-flecked spinach leaves and "Asian vegetables" (mostly cabbage). A hefty wedge of "chili dusted" salmon was, like the sea bass, cooked to a pleasingly juicy state, but the chili rub was just cheap chili powder with too much salt. Skillet potatoes on the side were decent enough, but "mixed mushroom ragout" and "heirloom tomato salad" were, respectively, an overly garlicked sauté of white mushroom slices (a "ragout" is a thick, well-seasoned stew), and overly garlicked diced red tomato bits scattered atop the fish. The harsh chili, salt, and garlic flavors marred the poor salmon beyond salvation, and had me drinking copious amounts of water for hours afterward.
A twelve-ounce square of attractively grilled New York strip steak, prepared to our requested medium rare, was tender and well textured, with thin crunchy fries on the side sprinkled with Parmesan and spritzed, however unevenly, with truffle oil. "Roasted onion marmalade" turned out to be onion slices bathed in balsamic vinegar, while the "watercress salad" was simply watercress.
Service needs to be polished, which in this case means more familiarity with the menu and wines (a short, globally diverse selection), and greater attention to detail. On our first visit the waiter neglected to hand out the sushi menu, or to even mention they had sushi (on the second visit we were presented with a list of about a dozen creative rolls). Another time our entrées were placed on the table by one waiter as the other simultaneously removed the appetizer plates. Nice choreography, but most diners prefer taking a breath between courses.
Pescado is such a pretty place that if they start taking advantage of the bounty of superb local fish at their fingertips, and, even more important, bring the quality of their cuisine up a few notches, they'll be just fine. The meats and fish are fresh, portions are fair, and the staff hospitable. It's also true that Pescado is far from alone in hyping its food with deceptive descriptions -- it would not surprise me to learn that many menu scribes in this town have gone on to become successful political speechwriters.
Still, regardless of how many do it, there are consequences attached to making false promises. You've just read one.
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