It's an old but generally sound culinary adage that the quality of a restaurant meal can be predicted by the quality of its bread. That's what was puzzling about my first dinner at Fairwind Seafood Bar & Grill. The bread was halfway decent. On a return visit, however, the bread basket held not the respectably chewy authentic baguette that had started the first meal, but the pseudo-French bread of my suburban childhood: airy insubstantial cotton stuff that had made my seven-year-old self conclude that French food was phony fluff. And that, I'd say, is also a fair description of a "Seafood Grill" that doesn't seem to have any grilled seafood.
Actually I've recently run into a number of self-named "grills" that seem to be putting their mouths where their mesquite should be -- which is understandable, marketingwise: "Grill" sounds so glam and healthy. Still when most of a place's dishes are fried, the grill label seems like trying to hop on the trends train without a ticket. And in fact Fairwind's whole menu listed only one grilled item of any sort, an optional chicken-breast topper on one of eleven starters, a caesar salad. Unfortunately I would not suggest that grilled-food fans try this chicken breast because the salad was simply terrible. The romaine was totally waterlogged except for some severely brown dried edges -- the sort of thing that happens when lettuce is cut with a knife, rather than torn, waaaaay before serving time (not to mention that authentic caesar salad, as invented in Tijuana, uses whole small romaine leaves anyway). As for the dressing, it contained neither the signature egg-rich body nor its Worcestershire tang; the dominant impression was salt. Not anchovy saltiness: salt, period. And if the salad contained any Parmesan cheese, no one at our table could detect it.
Other starters were indeed better, though most only marginally. Best was coconut shrimp, fairly large butterflied, coconut-crusted, and fried specimens that were nicely crunchy outside and still juicy inside. Accompanying "sweet and sour" sauce was neither sour nor particularly sweet, just gummy. Another bland dressing, this time a red number needing citrus tang and horseradish bite, marred Fairwind shrimp cocktail. But the "jumbo" shrimp, though shrimpy in size, were generous in number, a good dozen. Additionally, unlike average steamed-stiff country-club cocktail shrimp, the tender shellfish were perfectly cooked.
Honey-crusted goat cheese sounded like a great idea to those of us with a weakness for the more usual wheels of warm honey/garlic brie, due to the cheese's stronger character contrasting more dramatically with honey's sweetness. Unfortunately, though, Fairwind's cheese had almost no typical goat pungency. But despite seriously unripe slices of plum tomato, an accompanying salad was far superior to the caesar due to a mesclun mix featuring enough toothy greens to be interesting and, mainly, to its flavorful creamy house dressing.
It was hard to figure out what made Hawaiian-style crabcakes Hawaiian, unless it was their pineapple-based sauce, which was appealingly acerbic on one occasion but on another tasted like a bottle of vanilla extract had been upended into our serving. As to what made the cakes crabcakes, that was also difficult to discern. Texturally the patties' only lumps were green and red pepper pieces, not crab. There were definitely many red-edged white seafood strands, but the only reason I assume that these were real crab rather than shredded surimi "crab legs" is that the menu said crabcakes rather than seafood cakes; overenthusiastic seasoning obliterated any delicate crab flavor that the heavy, greasy breading did not.
Chicken wings á la Jack Daniel's were meaty and moist once, dry and stringy another time. Neither time, contrary to menu claims, did the one-dimensionally chili-overloaded wings come with any sauce that tasted even vaguely like bourbon.
While the above appetizers do not seem a tough act to follow, entrées were a comparative disaster. Cajun lobster pasta, described as "succulent lobster meat in a cream sauce over a bed of linguini," was a mound of mushy, astonishingly overcooked pasta drowning in gloppy, overfloured sauce that contained a few small, disgustingly fishy-tasting nubs. These must have been lobster, but more strongly resembled dried-up cat-food leftovers. The stuffed Florida lobster tail's homemade stuffing, spiked with these same lobster/cat-food morsels, consisted mainly of some sort of cheese and was overcooked to the point where its texture compared unfavorably to cardboard. Before Fairwind I'd never met a lobster I didn't like, but a Caribbean seafood platter confirmed my new status as suspicious customer: This seafood lover's dream, which was supposed to contain salmon, dolphin, shrimp, clams, and mussels, substituted for the latter two items (without explanation or notice) squid plus half of a simple broiled spiny lobster tail that was just as outrageously overcooked as its stuffed cousin. As were the calamari rings and the dried-out dolphin, and the tiny hard shrimp. The salmon fillet was fine. But you know, considering the fat content of today's farmed salmon, you can pretty much put a salmon steak in the oven and then go away for the weekend without drying it out.
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Fairwind was not a total disaster. The setting, a Deco hotel's huge, tropically planted court overlooking the Collins Avenue passeggiata, is seductive. And it was also vital to remember the Bar half of Fairwind's name -- and notice that most of the place's patrons were at the bar, not eating. A ten-ounce Cosmopolitan cocktail was a major mood improver.
The eatery's service was also split in a predictable way -- right down the middle of "Bar" and "Grill." The bartender was very helpful when asked for recommendations not on the list of cocktail "specials" (which were all frozen slushy things), delivered a dynamite drink fast and efficiently, and followed up to check my progress. Food servers, on the other hand, were friendly but fairly clueless. An inquiry to one about the difference between two sauces, for instance, elicited the response, "I have no idea," with no offer to find out. Our waitress on another visit disappeared for 40 minutes after our entrées had been cleared, long enough for the whole table to totally lose interest in ordering dessert.
Of a follow-up visit's three desserts, key lime pie had a texture reminiscent of Vaseline. Coconut cake had one of those mass produced-tasting icings so sweet it made my fillings ache. And chocolate seven-layer cake was a soggy tiramisu-like affair that tasted like watered-down liquor; the only discernible hint of chocolate came from a dusting of dry cocoa powder.
Bartender! Another supersized Cosmo! I need to forget.