By Nicole Danna
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A customer who doesn't honor his or her reservation is a restaurateur's biggest pet peeve. So I do my best to play by the rules, which vary from eatery to eatery. I provide a name (a pseudonym, of course) and a phone number (a real one). I call if I'm going to be a few minutes late, and I don't expect my table to be held for more than fifteen minutes. And I give the restaurant a ring if the size of my party changes.
On a recent Saturday, I booked a table for six at Blue Moon Fish Co. in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, a popular and highly recommended eatery. When a couple who'd previously canceled on me found a baby sitter, I suddenly had a party of eight. So I called the restaurant and told them I'd be bringing two extra patrons.
The manager told me that he couldn't guarantee our table, but he'd see what he could do. We decided to take our chances and show up anyway, figuring he'd work something out. Sure enough, when we arrived, he'd taken care of the situation, adding two more chairs to an outdoor patio-furniture table that comfortably seats a party of six. His only concern was whether we'd find the arrangement acceptable.
4405 W. Tradewinds Ave.
Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, FL 33308
What's more than acceptable is a manager's willingness to please his customers, a practice employed throughout Blue Moon Fish Co. And as it turns out, the seventeen-month-old eatery, located on the Intracoastal, is an excellent place for a big group. The 50-seat interior is anchored by a mahogany bar on one end, an open kitchen featuring a raw bar on the other. Marble floors, brass ceiling lights, and glass partitions etched with scenes of sea life accent the dining room. But the real action takes place on the foliage-lined deck, which has 300 feet of dock space for patrons' boats and, in some cases, yachts. While the deck is an excellent place to watch the sun set, we were somewhat blinded until it just about kissed the horizon.
The chef-owners are Baron Skorish and Bryce Statham, a couple of thirtysomething guys who trained at prestigious culinary institutes and share a wealth of experience. They also espouse a New American culinary philosophy followed by some of the area's finer chefs -- Mark Militello of Mark's Las Olas and Oliver Saucy of Cafe Maxx among them. This approach, more than anything, keeps Blue Moon Fish Co. speeding along like a motorboat.
As the name suggests, the kitchen specializes in fish and shellfish, and executive chef Daniel Cournoyer turns out some delicious dishes. But the moniker falls short of explaining the kitchen's more exotic interests, ranging from Cajun to Hawaiian. We particularly enjoyed a cool Hawaiian raw-bar starter called tuna "poki." Marinated in soy sauce and sesame oil, strips of the supple, ruby-colored fish were fancifully served in a martini glass attached to a plate. The tuna was spiked with cucumbers, scallions, fresh ginger, and Thai chili paste and garnished with a julienne of sesame-spiked squash, a dab of wasabi, and a molded cone of sushi rice, coated with black-and-white sesame seeds.
Occasionally the kitchen combines regional influences. Case in point: the coupling of Dungeness crab and Louisiana crawfish, two types of shellfish rarely used together. They worked well in tandem, the shredded crab countered by a succulent crawfish cake. Pan-fried, the cake was garnished with a cayenne-cilantro cream and a firm black bean-and-corn salsa. Meanwhile, a lobster empanada, a flaky pastry deep-fried and filled with chunks of buttery shellfish, was given both Southwestern and Southern flair with a flavorful plantain, roasted corn, and pecan hash dressed in a vibrant ancho chili sauce. Though the server had described both of these starters as rather small, they were quite the opposite, thanks to their accompaniments.
Like the lingering sun, the kitchen seemed to be in no rush the night we visited. A lengthy pause between courses may augment digestion or ill will; we were caught between the two when our entrees were finally presented. Letting go of our irritation, we grasped our forks, which the sushi-quality yellowfin tuna practically demanded. Served rare and crusted with sesame seeds, the tuna was washed with ginger, wasabi, and a cilantro-soy vinaigrette. Stir-fried bell peppers, squash, and celery brightened the tuna, but overall the dish was just a trifle bland and tasted like a repeat of the tuna "poki." Also vaguely Hawaiian-flavored, Chilean sea bass was terrific, the thick fillet topped with browned macadamia nuts and napped with a mellow roasted-red-pepper butter.
Very few dishes reflected the subtropics, however, and even local fish was treated with a foreign sensibility. Pan-seared yellowtail snapper, for example, was accented by dilled, sauteed artichoke hearts and goat cheese-infused mashed potatoes. The side dishes sound a little heavy for the delicate, crisp-edged fish, but they actually gave the sweet-and-mild snapper some heft. A roasted pepper and a pile of spaghetti squash completed the plate for all of the main courses.
While the seafaring patrons are in their glory, however, landlubbers do not suffer. A New Zealand rack of lamb was sumptuous, eight riblets roasted with herbs and then sliced off the bone. Fragrant rosemary-cabernet sauce and rich mashed potatoes garnished the lamb, while a tawny port sauce and crispy potato pancake boosted another entree, a thick filet mignon. The beef looked overdone on the outside but was beautifully medium-rare inside, exuding juice when sliced into. Gorgonzola, crumbled over the meat, provided pungent contrast. Our only real complaint was the wedge of potato pancake, the skin of which was burnt and looked as weathered as an old fisherman.
Main-course portions are sturdy -- and pricey -- enough to make starting with a salad incidental. But greenery is often as important as an ocean view, and besides, the kitchen was willing to split the salads for us. The caesar was a rich, cheesy version, the fresh romaine and snappy garlic croutons generously coated with Wisconsin Parmesan. We preferred the other two offerings. Simple mixed greens, sprinkled with a white balsamic vinaigrette, were earthy and lively, as if just picked. Crostini spread with herbed Boursin cheese added creaminess to the abundant lettuces, as did the spiced balls of goat cheese, rolled in crushed pecans, in the baby spinach salad. Housed in pale green endive spears, the three goat-cheese "fritters" contrasted with a topping of caramelized onions and an only slightly nutty walnut-oil vinaigrette.
The Blue Moon staff was excellent from soup (a brick-red lobster bisque) to nuts (the "icky sticky caramel tart" filled with Ben & Jerry's Chunky Monkey ice cream, which is stocked with walnuts and bananas). Our server was professional in her demeanor and right on the money with her recommendations, which included the signature souffle dessert. She timed it perfectly, bringing the fluffy sweet directly from oven to table, where she poured a Godiva chocolate liqueur into the center. It's the kind of sinful sweet that made me want to swim, rather than drive, home. In fact, the $19 price tag had all of us wanting to jump in the drink.
The entire meal was a dive into both decadence and pocketbooks -- just as the dressed-up clientele expects it to be. Parties, big or small, should expect to pay top dollar, an almost-fair trade for the all-around primo experience. But, aside from one that books a table, that's about the only reservation I had about Blue Moon Fish Co.
Blue Moon Fish Co., 4405 W. Tradewinds Ave., Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, 954-267-9888. Open for lunch and dinner daily from 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m; Friday and Saturday until 2 a.m.
Dungeness crab and Louisiana crawfish cake