Danish Delight

In most people's minds, The Little Mermaid is an animated film based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. But to some of us, The Little Mermaid is also a wonderful Danish restaurant on NE Fifth Avenue in Delray Beach, albeit one with a fairy-tale history all its own. Especially if you take into account that a bona fide fairy tale usually has a tragedy at its center.

Once upon a time, in 1985 to be exact, The Little Mermaid (the restaurant, not the movie) was born. Since then, according to the congenial and garrulous owner Gail Isaksen, she and her husband John, who is the chef, have had four catastrophes to overcome. The first was personal: The couple's son, John Jr., was born with medical problems. (He has since grown out of them.) The second was structural: A fire next door not only left water and smoke stains in the restaurant, it also left customers believing that The Little Mermaid had burned down.

The third and fourth disasters were of a business nature. In 1990 the Isaksens decided to open a second Mermaid complete with a smorgasbord a few miles away on Atlantic Avenue. Though Atlantic has since prospered, the Isaksens were just a little too early in their efforts; they dropped a bundle on the eatery and got out. "We were ahead of our time," Gail Isaksen says wistfully. "If I had the money, I'd do it all again." She even keeps a menu from the Atlantic restaurant propped up in the Fifth Avenue location.

She keeps a souvenir from the fourth situation as well, but not to remind her of fond feelings. It's a Palm Beach Post article about Robert Salinga, to whom the Isaksens had sold their restaurant last fall -- a sale from which they never saw any money. Salinga, it seems, had been wanted for tax evasion in his home country of Germany. And worse, they say, he was criminally defrauding them, using their corporation's name to secure goods and services he never paid for, thus ruining their credit. And, Gail Isaksen insists, "He was mean to the customers." Salinga was arrested -- on the Mermaid's premises, no less -- and subsequently deported, and the Isaksens took back their restaurant in January. Though he's still dealing with creditors, John Isaksen takes some satisfaction in the knowledge that Salinga is serving time in a German federal prison.

Getting his customers to return is another story. The couple still can't accept credit cards, owing to their ruined rating. And regulars have been so slow to trust the management that the Isaksens have taken out big ads in local newspapers that read, "We're back!"

If you were a regular, you'd be able to tell the Isaksens had returned to the homey 90-seat restaurant simply by the decor -- rare prints and drawings illustrating Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales that you can only get in Denmark and which the pair had taken with them when they left. In fact John Isaksen was born in Odense, the town where Andersen lived and wrote. Then there are the clever appellations for menu items, all titles of Andersen stories: "The Swine Herd" for grilled pork tenderloin with red cabbage, "A String of Pearls" for skewered shrimp marinated in ginger and served with a mustard-fruit sauce, and "The Emperor's New Suit" for lightly breaded veal cutlet with horseradish, anchovies, and capers.

Appetizers escaped the whimsy, perhaps because only four of them are listed on the menu: French onion soup, gravad lax (cured salmon), shrimp cocktail, and escargots in walnut-garlic butter. But they don't escape John Isaksen's expert preparation. The gravad lax starter attested to his manual dexterity, the thinly sliced cured salmon beautifully presented on a bed of lettuce. Lacy as carpaccio, the salmon was delicious when layered over whole-grain bread spread with a dill-spiked honey-mustard condiment. A squeeze of the lemon garnish lent a fresh, tart taste to the fish.

Crusty rolls appeared with the escargots. "I hope you're bread dippers," said Gail Isaksen -- who handles reservations and seating, waits on tables, and chats up customers (and I do mean chats). "This stuff deserves it." She was referring to the richly textured walnut-garlic butter that had been baked onto the snails, practically obscuring their dark, meaty tenderness. And she was right: The minced walnuts made a fragrant spread for the home-baked French-style rolls.

French onion soup seemed superfluous, given that the soup of the day is served with all main courses. On the night of our visit it was tomato-vegetable, exceptionally well stocked with carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, and more. My only complaint here was that all the vegetables had lost their color and texture, an indication that the soup had been cooked and then reheated again and again. I had no such quibble about the freshness of the caesar salad, also served with entrees. Crisp romaine and croutons were accented by a homemade dressing made with real anchovies. Though redolent with garlic as well, the dressing wasn't mixed with Parmesan cheese -- this grated flavor enhancer was served on the side, allowing customers to season as they please.

John Isaksen doesn't use any machines in his kitchen (if you don't believe him, ask to see for yourself; he loves to give tours), so main courses may take a while to appear. He's also very particular about his preparations. For instance, if the rack of lamb (dubbed "The Shepherds and the Sheep") hasn't marinated for 72 hours, he'll refuse to serve it. We were fortunate enough to hit the eatery at the 72-hour mark and were treated to eight joined riblets that had been perfumed with a veritable flock of rosemary, garlic, and thyme. The lamb, roasted to a delicate medium-rare, was accompanied by a filling trio of side dish "shepherds": herbed roasted potatoes, sauteed shredded red cabbage, and a host of (somewhat soggy) garden vegetables that included cauliflower, broccoli, and squash, all dusted with fresh dill.

The vegetables and red cabbage also partnered the roasted half duck ("The Ugly Duckling," naturally), which boasted succulent meat under a crisp plum-color skin. A gravy boat of special "duck sauce" (stewed apples and prunes) contrasted splendidly with the game bird, and two starches, boiled potatoes and roasted candied potatoes, lent the dish an authentic Danish air; these garnishes often show up with goose in Denmark.

Six fish dishes are offered, including red snapper baked with shrimp and red snapper baked in a paper bag with butter and vermouth. I was more interested in the fish that swim in northern climes, including Norwegian salmon grilled with Bermuda onions, and English Channel Dover sole. I got lucky with the sole, which had just come in fresh; Isaksen can't always get it here in the States -- not even frozen -- because the competition for it in Belgium and Holland is so great. I paid market price ($25.95) for the pleasure of consumption, but it was worth it. First grilled, then baked, the whole fish was boned (and beheaded) after cooking. The sweet, boneless flesh was then layered with spinach rife with pearls of garlic and decorated with the paprika-coated backbone of the fish. (The server will remove the bone for you and will also slice up your rack of lamb if you wish.) Yellow rice and the medley of vegetables seemed negligible in comparison to the sole.

I'm sorry to report that the meal didn't end happily ever after; the night's only real disappointment was dessert. By the time we'd finished our main courses, they'd all but run out of everything. Gail Isaksen did unearth a cream puff and a dollop of chocolate mousse for us, but I found the custard lumpy, the pastry stale, and the mousse heavy. She assured us that the selection of homemade Danish sweets will increase with the customer count. I can understand her reasoning, but I can't help but think it's a shame to skimp even when clients aren't a certainty. After all, it can't be right to leave a story unfinished just because you don't know how many people might read it.

If the rack of lamb hasn't marinated for 72 hours, John Isaksen will refuse to serve it.

The Little Mermaid.
505 NE 5th Ave., Delray Beach, 561-276-6900. Dinner Tuesday-Sunday 4:45 to 9:30 p.m.

Escargots
$5.95
Gravad lax
$7.95
Roast half duck
$15.50
Rack of lamb
$21.95

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