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Take Indigo, the upscale pan-Asian restaurant in the charming but inept Riverside Hotel on Las Olas Boulevard. There is, in fact, the whiff of a hint of a semblance of a real clue here: that a hotel with tony pretensions on Fort Lauderdale's main drag ought to have a restaurant that draws the smart, sexy, free-spending crowd. You know, the one that shops Tommy Bahama, sports only discreet body piercings, patronizes its neighborhood Lexus dealer, and keeps the local economy humming when that gurgling noise you hear in the distance is the sound of our collective financial future being flushed down the commode.
Unfortunately, this fine kernel of a clue founders in a sea of cluelessness: clueless dishes, clueless décor, and spectacularly clueless service.
Where to begin?
Let's try the décor. Granted, the 60-something-year-old Riverside is a grand old dame, if one whose sags and bags and excess mileage have started to creep through the veil of cosmetic enhancements. Think Elizabeth Taylor staring blankly into the cameras at whatever celebrity nonevent her mortician/publicist has managed to arrange. But within reason (admittedly a concept foreign to many local eateries), a restaurant's design ought to say something about its food. In the case of Indigo, the small, narrow, cramped room with its blandly Victorian accouterments and overwrought, coffee-shop ambiance says its Asia-by-way-of-South Florida cuisine is boring, derivative, and about as contemporary as three-button spats.
And, for the most part, it's not. Chef Michael Smith has some interesting ideas, some of which are decently realized. Others. . .
Well, let's just say they could use a clue.
If Indigo management took inspiration from the extraordinarily well-chosen and fairly priced wine list, we might be talking the second coming of Chinois on Main here. There are bigger wine lists, and there are cheaper wine lists, but there are few tighter, more affordable, more compelling rosters of fine wines anywhere in South Florida, especially when it comes to California bottles. Not just the biggies: Jordan, Montelena, Matanzas Creek, Kistler. But the really cool ones: Flowers, Miner, Pahlmeyer, Hanzell. And at prices that ought to make your average three-times-retail markup extortionist want to shave his head, dump his mistress, move to India, and join a nunnery.
The 2000 Flowers Chardonnay ($42) is a lovely marriage of nuance and restraint. No California fruit bomb with enough oak to panel your den, it speaks softly in tones of peach and citrus, with a mild acidity and delicate finish that lingers on the palate like a lover's caress. It may be too delicate for the robust food, but consider it foreplay, and lie back and let it work.
Of course, it might help if the staff had even the vaguest, most obscure idea of how to serve fine wines. Our cheerless waitress, who teetered on the knife's edge between barely contained annoyance and ennui, brought the Flowers out lukewarm, dumped a good three fingers in a glass to taste. Then, when asked to go easy on the pouring until the wine chilled to something below body temperature, she splashed almost the entire bottle in our glasses and huffed off, though not before jamming what was left in a marble sleeve that might have cooled it off by breakfast the next day.
That pretty much set the tone for service. Now, I know as customers, we're an ungrateful, demanding lot, taking up servers' valuable time that could be spent curing cancer or scarfing Doritos in front of the television or costarring with Jack Nicholson in the latest Hollywood epic. But in our own churlish, simple-minded way, we'd like to be treated as something other than an infectious disease, maybe just as pleasant, reasonably intelligent people out for a good time with no thought of sucking your soul through the straw of our festive little tropical drinks. Honest.
Luckily, the food began coming out, offering some rather tasty clues to a certain level of competence in the kitchen. Wild mushroom puffs were a sensitive take on Indian samosas, thin, golden pastry packets encasing a mildly curried shrimp-mushroom duxelle so good it hardly needed the sweet-tart mango-papaya chutney served alongside. Singapore-style uncooked shrimp rolls, called po-piah, were a fine rendition of one of the world's great hot-weather dishes, just some greens, rice noodles, and gently poached shrimp rolled up in chewy, translucent, rice-paper sheets.
The menu breaks out noodles and salads with what reads like interesting choices of both. And you could do a whole lot worse than Indigo's Singapore-style noodles, a bowl practically overflowing with slippery rice noodles, shrimp, and tender bits of chicken in a piquant lime-chili broth that was somehow refreshing and filling at the same time.
Then came the green papaya salad with tea-smoked duck. Not only did it arrive without a clue but without any green papaya (or tea-smoked duck, but that's another story). Now, anyone who's done Thai Cuisine 101 knows green papaya salad: the unripe fruit, shredded into thin strips and dressed with lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, garlic, and chilies. It's great stuff -- crisp, tart, sweet, spicy -- a Thai classic.
Indigo's version, a big pile of chopped romaine and radicchio tossed with roasted garlic-chile-lime vinaigrette and garnished with slabs of very ripe, very orange papaya, wasn't bad. It just wasn't green papaya salad. A polite question to our waitress, who by now had settled on annoyance over ennui, produced a fair amount of consternation and gnashing of teeth -- and the eventual response that the papaya was green on the outside.
And by the way, the missing duck? A minor kitchen screwup, sending out chicken instead of quacker. Note to diners: get the duck. It's fabulous, moist and succulent and worth the hassle over the damn salad.
The rest of the meal went like this: Snapper baked in banana leaves was OK, though with none of the elusive, fruity perfume and flavor those shiny green leaves can impart. Grilled, heads-on prawns were a knockout -- four fat suckers, big as a fist but oh-so-much tastier -- bathed in a wickedly pungent marinade redolent of sweet spices and propped up on a bed of fried rice with tricolor peppers.
I'd love to tell you about dessert, maybe some luscious caramelized bananas flamed with rum, or coconut-scented sticky rice with sweet, ripe mango. But no. Cheesecake, tiramisu, crème brûlée, and key lime pie. Wait a minute, did I miss something? Weren't we just in Asia?
Tell you the truth, by this point, it was a relief to go, even into a night so hot and humid that you could reach up and grab a handful of air and wring it out like a wet towel. Dining at Indigo is frustrating, because the place has a lot going for it: great location, skill in the kitchen, that stellar wine list. All it needs is -- repeat after me -- a clue.