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If you want to get inside the head of Mike Jones, the man behind Jetsetter Lounge, you need to fire up your time machine and travel back to 1965. That was the year that 6-year-old Jones visited the New York World's Fair. And like tens of thousands of other space-age tots, including this writer, Jones' sensibility was forever warped by the vision of an eye-ball-shaped 7Up Pavilion, a dizzy ride through GM's Futurama, and a 12-story "Unisphere" symbolizing "Man's Achievement on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe." How bright the future looked from our knee-high perspective! Life was powered by General Electric. The Earth we gamboled upon was polished to a mirrored sheen courtesy of Johnson's Wax. We'd flown a Pan Am DC-8 to get there, cosseted by stewardesses wearing baby-blue uniforms and pillbox hats. They'd served us Pepsi-Cola on board while we fiddled with our Eastman Kodak instamatics and Mom sank back into her seat, alternately inhaling a Clipper Cocktail and a Tiparillo.
The 1964-65 World's Fair was a sprawling monument to the marriage of corporate commerce and physics, a science-fiction fantasist's vision of what a wonderful world this would be, once people like Jones grew up to set it in motion. Pictures of the World's Fair taken from the air look like reconnaissance photos of a distant planet, far advanced, peopled by beings who knew how to craft an environment to unfold like origami or utterly reconfigure itself at the push of a button. Forty-one years later, you can walk into the Jetsetter Lounge in Lake Worth and wonder where the hell our beautiful dream went wrong.
Jones threw open the mod lime-green doors at Jetsetter a couple of weeks ago. He's refurbished the old Kristine's on Dixie Highway, a bit of 1950s architectural fluffery tiered like a wedding cake, with white and turquoise paint. And he's filled the place with midcentury modern furniture in primary colors. There are plastic chairs shaped like balls and flowers and bacteria, swooping curved couches, Knoll netted metal barstools, and atomic clocks. In the long dining room, Eero Saarinen's fiberglass tulip chairs are arrayed around tables topped with impeccable period glasses, triangular plates, and spacy flatwear. Outside, a secluded palm garden centers on a wood-burning stove (obsessively tended by Jones) under the baleful stares of looming Polynesian gods.
There is nothing remotely like Jetsetter Lounge anywhere that I can think of it's simultaneously outrageously cool and sinfully comfortable and already filling up with regulars: tattoo artists, youthful politicians, punk rockers, ex-sex-columnists, public radio figures, visiting physicists. Jones' peripatetic career has served him well in this endeavor, from early days with Banana Republic to his later work with the Discovery Channel and the Nature Company. Jones himself looks part mad-scientist, part jazz musician, part Mr. Clean, with his shaved head and retro eyewear; he dresses his cocktail waitresses in 1960s geometrics and gives them neon-lit trays loaded with drinks called "Polynesian Passion" and "Geisha Girl." His dreamily lit rooms shimmer like the sunny side of an orbiting moon.
The dining menu, of course, is "World's Fare" all the way as if the Hong Kong, Polynesian, Indonesian, Japanese, Indian, Brazilian, Jordanian, and Danish pavilions had been crammed into one room. You can begin your global tour with a bowl of African peanut soup ($3.95), work your way west via Egypt and Greece (Pharaoh's Treasure lamb chops are $25.95; Athenian Garden vegetarian plate is $14.95), and end it with a Jetsetter sundae ($9.95) from which alcoholic fumes emanate like heat waves over the Sinai. Taken as a whole, this is a vision so exacting that walking into Jetsetter Lounge is like putting on a pair of 3-D glasses: Life with one luscious, extra dimension.
I'm not going to promise you that this culinary circumnavigation of the globe won't occasionally get bumpy. When we had dinner at Jetsetter, the place had been open a scant week still much too early for an entirely fair review. And Jetsetter is Jones' first foray into the restaurant business, although he's worked steadily in hospitality and entertainment for most of his career. What I can offer here is merely a prediction of one potential future for Jetsetter the one in which the place becomes a successful restaurant in addition to the coolest lounge/club in the Palm Beaches (it already is, hands down) and a peerless neighborhood hangout just a walkable mile from my very own house.
The Friday night that four of us dined, our world's fare, through four appetizers, five entrées, and two desserts, plus miscellaneous cocktails, ranged from really excellent to very edible to ho-hum to kind of awful.
The meal started out with an eccentric and fun plate of hot, salty pretzels to dip in mustard sauce and some fluffy banana muffins spread with mango butter. We washed these down with a couple of cocktails served in giant tiki mugs (for $19.95, you get to take the mugs home.) Our waitress had recommended a plate of woka sake scallops ($9.95), a regular item missing from the menu apparently due to a computer glitch. These were as cool and slick as their surroundings you douse the raw scallops, on the half shell, with a jigger of sake/vodka mix and they go down very easy. We also liked the salty, crunchy Mombasa Bay fish cakes ($7.95) with their peanut dipping sauce, although the Kenyan we had in our party remarked that he'd never seen anything remotely like this dish in his native Africa. Summer Samba empanadas ($6.95) were tasty pastry pockets filled with shredded beef in a rather gooey sauce, served with a sweet habanero chili mango salsa. A Calcutta kebab of curry spiced chicken grilled on a sugarcane skewer with pineapple chutney was flavorful in its application of spices but too dry. That chicken should have been well-marinated. And all the fruit sauces were too cloying for my palate.
Any resemblance on this menu to something somebody might actually cook in her respective country is purely coincidental. I have no problem with that if ever a restaurant had an excuse for whimsy, this one does. But not all the kitchen's experiments are successful they tend to rely on primary flavors (sweet, hot, sour) the way the décor relies on primary colors. The tendency to lean on the same flavors over and over is even more pronounced in the entrées. Carnival in Rio chicken ($13.95) is smothered in a goopy sauce of "passion fruit and cachaca" the sugarcane liquor obviously doesn't cut the passion fruit; it kicks it up into a full-blown candyfest.
Our favorite entrée was the tiny Pharaoh's Treasure lamb chops. There were at least half a dozen of these, cooked a perfect medium rare, drizzled with an assertive, herby yogurt sauce and cradled in a bed of fluffy, large-grained couscous studded with raisins. Delicious. Bangkok grouper ($18.95) came as a generous broiled fillet doused with fresh ginger, a side of fragrant jasmine rice, and steamed broccoli, the "daily veg." The grouper was delicately flavored and fresh, but like several of our other dishes the steak, the chicken skewers it was slightly overcooked and had lost its juice. And while I applaud the healthful values of plain steamed broccoli, I want to be wowed when I'm dining out; a little bit of herbed butter and sea salt would have gone a long way, especially as the broccoli came with every entrée.
Surf and Turf on the Barbie ($25.95) wasn't up to Barbie's exacting standards, especially at this price. A desiccated old skirt steak, with a decidedly off flavor, was paired with barbecued shrimp (these too tasted like they'd seen better days). Still, the sweet potato fries that came with them were completely divine crisp, salty, and savory. A mountain of these with, say, a Mayan Mojito ($8.95) would be heaven itself.
We split on desserts: red velvet cake ($4.95) and cookies with milk ($5.95). For some reason, you're supposed to state your desire for cookies when you order your entrée, as if the cookies had to be fattened, slaughtered, skinned, and roasted (a good cookie takes time to prepare, ya know?). Anyway, the cookies chocolate chip came out hot, along with four of those mini milk cartons you used to get at school (Jones seems to adore details like this.) It's cute. And everybody but me devoured the cookies and pronounced them wonderful while I secretly nursed my evil opinion that they were a disgrace to the upstanding reputation of cookies everywhere. I want Jones' chef to skip down the road to Rhythm Café, taste its chocolate chip cookies, and figure out what he's doing wrong. I also want him to look up Paula Dean's recipe at foodnetwork.com for red velvet cake and follow it to the letter with no substitutions.
Verdict? What comes out of the kitchen is still uneven, but I predict Jones who's clearly a maniac for detail will get it right. He may have to pare down the menu and offer more appetizers and fewer entrées. Or he may just need to refine some of his ideas, tone down the sugar, and avoid overcooking his meats. But with a concept this snazzy and a fare that's already more than fair, this hipster is going places.