By David Minsky
By Nicole Danna
By Sara Ventiera
By Candace West
By Emily Dabau
By Doug Fairall
By Candace West
By Laine Doss
At least that's what I thought before I dined the next evening at Moonraker on the Water, on the Intracoastal at Oakland Park Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. Formerly the highly regarded Continental dining and dancing landmark called Yesterday's, Moonraker is displaying so many bugs that, if it were a computer, it surely would have crashed.
I admit that as Yesterday's the 25-year-old eatery was a little outmoded. Prime rib and broiled seafood seemed less than adventurous going into the year 2000, as did the live band playing bar mitzvah music throughout the dinner hour. Long-time proprietor Peter Beck, who also owns a handful of other restaurants in Broward and Palm Beach counties, was probably wise to look to the future or, as he put it in a press release, to take "the 'yesterday' out of Yesterday's." He changed the name to Moonraker; updated the Continental menu by going global; renovated the multitiered dining room by adding rattan chairs, green-and-tan-striped banquettes, cherry-wood tables, and light fixtures in the shape of moons; and relaxed what used to be a pretty formal dress code. Diners still have to valet their cars, but they can actually wear jeans here now. And while the music is still live, it's more karaoke than bar mitzvah these days -- the band is electronically augmented.
What I can't figure out is why the two-month-old eatery appears to have regressed rather than moved forward. The name is bad enough, suggesting 007 (shades of the '60s) rather than '00. But where service used to be as exquisite as the manners of Bond, James Bond, the staff now seems as appallingly untrained as Austin Powers. The hostess scolded a customer at the top of her lungs when she spied him trying to take a chair from another table. "Sir!" she screamed. "We'll do that for you!" As it turned out, she had to move an entire table, balancing it precariously over the heads of several other diners, to accommodate this man's party, which was already milling around the dining room. If she'd asked them to wait in the bar while she readied their spot, she could have seated them where it was convenient for the restaurant without resorting to such disruptive gymnastics.
Then, immediately after that scene, she passed another table, where a woman had just gotten up to go to the restroom. The hostess immediately snatched her napkin, and I thought she was about to fold it, a nicety that the finer restaurants provide. Wrong: She bent down and wiped a drop of water off the tile floor with it. Granted, she did bring the customer an extra set of silverware wrapped in a napkin, but gauche, baby, gauche.
Perhaps even more coarse is that the restaurant actually charges for a loaf of bread, a fact that is written on the menu but didn't accompany the waiter's offhand "How 'bout some bread?" The bread was then brought on a tricornered china plate rather than a wooden board -- hardly conducive to cutting.
But our server wasn't just forgetful or oblivious; he was also maladroit. For instance, draft beers like the Newcastle Brown Ale are billed on the menu as being 20 ounces, yet they're served in promotional pint glasses emblazoned with the Newcastle logo. When we pointed out to our waiter that pint glasses hold only 16 ounces, he said, "Oh, they must have given you the wrong glass" -- not "Let me get you the missing four ounces, or the right-size glass." And when we ordered another round, the beer was again brought in the same type of pint glass.
Fortunately for us, though, our waiter was blessed with bionic ears that overheard us discussing amongst ourselves whether or not to order the shrimp-and-crab quesadilla entrée as an appetizer for the four of us to share. How else to explain the appearance of a food-runner, holding aloft said quesadilla along with our loaf of bread, when we hadn't even placed our order yet?
We kept the quesadilla, which turned out to be lukewarm and had a strong fishy taste the guacamole, sour cream, and salsa toppings couldn't hide. Our other starters, which we ordered after the quesadilla's arrival, magically appeared before we could even finish the darn thing. In fact, food was whipping out of the kitchen so quickly, it felt as if we were on the receiving end of an assembly line. Then again, Moonraker is actively promoting its catering for up to 350 guests in its waterfront banquet rooms, so maybe the staff was practicing its wedding-reception skills on us. Practice harder.
Communication between the wait staff and the customers was also faulty. Our food-runner had brought our starters -- a cup of lobster bisque, a hearty mixture doused with a nice touch of sherry; crisp vegetable egg rolls napped with a sinus-clearing plum-mustard sauce; and a basket of fried calamari and zucchini with both marinara and rémoulade. Then he showed up at our table five minutes later with four bowls of bisque. "Who gets the soup?" he asked us, and the party across the aisle waved their hands. When he came back with appetizers a third time, we just laughed outright at his inefficiency, not to mention his poor memory.
Indeed, it's a shame the staff can't get it together, because the kitchen is doing an admirable job. With the exception of the quesadilla, the appetizers were served at proper temperatures, and fried foods were remarkably nongreasy. We disliked one main course -- the sesame-crusted yellowfin tuna-steak salad -- but only because the wedge of tuna was so thick with sesame seeds it looked like a bird feeder that you hang in the trees. Otherwise the combination of napa cabbage and Asian vegetable slaw, tossed with soy-ginger vinaigrette, was aromatic, and the tuna itself was tender and rare.
The meat loaf, too, was succulent, served with sage-scented mashed potatoes and sautéed fresh broccoli. Horseradish-and-crab-crusted snapper, a special that evening, was delightfully flaky, the mild fish complemented by a fruit salsa comprising melon, pineapple, and kiwi. A pasta dish called "rigatoni roasted chicken," the best of all, boasted a flavorful amount of balsamic vinegar-glazed poultry strips, along with pine nuts, toasted garlic, verdant broccoli, mushrooms, and vibrant sun-dried tomatoes. An unbilled dollop of goat cheese on top, which our waiter thought "might be sour cream," unified and mellowed the ingredients into a sumptuous dish.
The wine list is impressively inexpensive, too, with labels like the Australian Oxford Landing chardonnay selling for less than $25. Dessert, however, can be disillusioning. Our crème brûlée was ice cold and unappealing, and its burnt-sugar crust tasted like the inside of a refrigerator. Thank goodness the food-runner didn't show up with this particular course three times.
Moonraker, which was named for the reflection of the moon on the water, has a terrific view of the Intracoastal. The panorama is so pretty that most tables face the water, and few people sit with their backs to the floor-to-ceiling glass windows that enclose the restaurant; in fact, if you're seated at one of the lower-tier tables, it can feel as if everyone is staring at you rather than the moon-raked water. You'd think that, with a setting like this, decently prepared fare, and a managing team that's been in the business for a quarter of a century, disturbing glitches would have been caught before they even had a chance to form. But you never know what a new restaurant, any more than a new millennium, will bring to the table.