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Where on earth has New World cuisine gone?
A decade ago, it was the up-and-comer, the regional fusion fare set to kick Southwestern's spicy, sassy ass. Diners could stuff themselves from Café Marquesa and Louie's Backyard in Key West to Café Arugula and Darrel & Oliver's Café Maxx in Pompano Beach, with stops at eateries like a Mano and the Colony Bistro on South Beach and Mark's Place and Chef Allen's in North Miami in between. A handful of chefs, two of whom wrote cookbooks with New World cuisine in their titles, were dubbed the Mango Gang, a title the media loved. National food magazines began to pay attention to South Florida for the first time in decades, and the tourist boards of Monroe, Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties were collectively thrilled.
In capable hands, New World cuisine played out as a combination of indigenous fish and meats elaborated upon with products from the Caribbean and Latin America. But since the islands and South America boasted fare that had in turn been directed by native Indian tribes and fine-tuned by European settlers and Asian and African labor forces, New World cuisine was actually a conglomerate of long-held flavors and ingredients -- fusion fare by definition. In one dish, the knowledgeable diner could trace trade routes that were centuries old.
600 Fleming St.
Key West, FL 33040
Region: Florida Keys
2601 E. Atlantic Blvd.
Pompano Beach, FL 33062
Region: Pompano Beach
Then, the backlash. New World cuisine became a gimmick, corrupted by restaurateurs and chefs of dubious talent who latched onto the theme without educating themselves. Critics emerged, citing too many flavors on the plate and needlessly esoteric menu descriptions. Like fusion, New World cuisine became a dread descriptor to industry professionals, and members of the Mango Gang defected, claiming they'd been unfairly pigeonholed. These days, while you can still get wonderful meals at places like Café Maxx and Chef Allen's, dishes have gone, like the rest of the world, more global in conception, and chefs are more likely to categorize their fare with nonspecific, all-inclusive titles like "modern" or "contemporary." To my knowledge, only Norman Van Aken of Norman's in Coral Gables still embraces the New World tag line.
The current dining climate is probably why Half Moon Bay in Lighthouse Point, only a couple of months old, was such a surprise to me. I don't know if chef Dario Marquez or owner Jim Dunn would actually go so far as to label this unexpectedly sophisticated restaurant "New World" -- no one returned my call. But to my mind, the colorful Caribbean décor and inventive but not outlandish menu at Half Moon Bay recall the best of the New World days.
It probably helps that Marquez is a highly experienced local. He developed menus for the Morrison restaurant group, including such eateries as Mistral, Reeds River House, and Evangeline, where he was top toque. You can see some remaining fondness for Evangeline's New Orleans focus in Marquez's current dishes: Trademarks like the starters of oysters lagniappe, stuffed with spinach and chayote and topped with shrimp sauce, and vibrant seafood gumbo have survived the transition. Jambalaya too makes an appearance, though it's tweaked to a Caribbean bent with chicken that's been roasted in jerk spice. Indeed, the jambalaya, which also features clams, shrimp, and zesty andouille sausage, should be considered one of Marquez's finest accomplishments. Unlike many jambalayas, where everything is cooked together and some ingredients become overly dry, this one featured moist chicken, tender seafood, and firm sausage. As with a good risotto, even the grains of rice retained a hint of their separate identities while bonding, at the same time, into a cohesive whole. Only Scotch bonnet pepper freaks will have a quibble with the thyme-tomato sauce here, but hey, you can always add hot sauce if you like your food fiery.
Rice is a favored side dish here, spiked with almonds and coconut or telltale annatto and pigeon peas. The former accompanies main courses such as the "Creole blaff of Caribbean red snapper with Guadaloupe vanilla prawns" -- a classic New World menu-ism, if you ask me -- while the latter goes with items like the Atlantic mahi-mahi baked in a banana leaf with cilantro-tropical fruit sauce. We found the pigeon-pea rice to be ideal for soaking up the caper-olive-tomato sauce that napped a "shrimp asopao," which was less similar to the Puerto Rican soup for which it was named and more of a paella. Regardless, the shrimp themselves were wonderfully fresh and exuberantly flavored.
Only two entrées offer starches other than rice, which is a shame, given that the roasted sweet potatoes that partnered the sugar-spice pork chop would have any Southern mama drooling in envy. They were perfect for mopping up the apple cider-tamarind glaze that crisped the top of the inch-thick chop and offered a nutty-sweet foil for the tropical chutney that garnished the plate.
Be warned that portions are large and that the breadbasket features a variety of homemade treats (the location used to be a bagel bakery and remains in operation as a wholesale baking supply company). In addition, the house's frozen rum drinks -- made with purified water, mind you -- like the banana daiquiri or Bahama mama, not to mention the tropical punch, carry quite a caloric load. They're more intriguing than the wine list, though, which lists a handful of been-there-done-thats from California, with one notable exception: the sticker-shock value of a Far Niente chardonnay for $95, which isn't much more than the asking price at Costco.
If you must have an appetizer, I suggest sharing either the shrimp pizza, a thin-crusted, garlicky pie that is satisfyingly rich without being heavy, or the macadamia-crusted goat-cheese salad. Fresh spinach, tart Granny Smith apples, and a savory raspberry vinaigrette deviate from the Floribbean festivities, yes, but the difference is a pleasant counterpoint to the more tropical notes. And key lime desserts might take a back seat to liquid endeavors like the island espresso, a shot of double-strength coffee edged with Nassau Royal and coconut rum. But seeing as how no entrée tops 20 bucks, the servers are pleasant if a bit baffled by menu descriptions, and the dishes are honest and appealingly executed, Half Moon Bay adds up as the ideal place to revisit the old New World.