By David Minsky
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I didn't invite my friend on our latest foray to the Seminole Hard Rock because she would have ruined our fun. But I felt her spirit wafting alongside us as we handed our keys to the valet ($7) and pushed through the throngs into the casino, where several acres of ashen-faced souls were hunkered down over the poker tables, squinting through the cigarette smoke at their losing hands. My personal hell's an enclosed space filled with strangers and the ting-ting-aling of a hundred thousand slot machines, but the door at the end of this gantlet opened onto what could have been my very heaven if all went well a big jazz club with a first-rate sound system and a menu serving competent, upscale food.
Jazziz Bistro opened at the Seminole Hard Rock in 2004 after Michael Fagien's plans for the original bistro in partnership with Dickie Brennan in New Orleans fell through. If their long-term goals hold, though, Fagien and his wife, Lori, will make it the first of a nationwide chain. The Fagiens began their career in Gainesville and took their little homegrown magazine, Jazziz, from what was basically a garage-zine to national level in short order. In the 23 years since, they've parlayed the business into Jazziz Omnimedia, now based in Boca Raton, producing everything from Jazziz to cookbooks equipped with CDs (easy-listening music for chopping onions) to key chains and wallets.
Burt Rapoport is their partner in the bistro venture. Rapoport is to restaurants as the Fagiens are to jazz Rapoport the sultan of South Florida restaurant "concepts," the Fagiens the earls of easy listening. All three share the kind of hyperkinetic marketing personality that can blather unself-consciously about the "development, imaging, and positioning of the venue's jazz-based entertainment theme" on the bistro's website, when one yearns for prose I don't know with just a little more bebop, a little more soul?
Yes, this is a jazz club. But we were hardly expecting the next incarnation of Snug Harbor snug this place is certainly not. It's a sprawling space with outdoor seating overlooking the central square, an excellent locale for girl- and boy-watching. Directly inside, tables are set up around a snazzy bar, glistening with liquor bottles, where you can catch the onstage act via flat-screen plasmas posted around the room and hear the live music with a minimum of warp. The main dining room, where customers pay a $10 cover added to the dinner bill, offers straight views of the stage from every seat. The only table left when we got there was directly under the band, though; we turned it down in favor of a marginally quieter high-top near the door. The beautiful girls handling the front desk, who must seat many hundreds of people a night, were exceedingly nice.
Jay Prisco runs the kitchen. Prisco is a longtime associate of Rapoport's, and the two of them have put together the Menu Most Likely to Succeed: small plates in the $10 range ceviche, calamari, spinach dip, plus a half-dozen Asian-themed bites; a welter of salads chopped, caesared, or festooned with bacon and gorgonzola; fish fillets, steak, chicken, pork, and sandwiches. There's not much on the menu that's going to rock your world, but there are little touches of wasabi and andouille, of chili dipping sauce and crab-fried rice to make you feel a little exotic, in an adult-contemporary kind of way.
I love the mix of people Hard Rock attracts. A high proportion of good-looking young people are sort of muddled in among the slouchiest gamers and slummingest, washed-up rock stars and dizziest tourists, with every color of skin from heat-rashed snowbird to café latte to ebony well represented. People dress up and dress down and for the most part mingle effortlessly and with good will toward their fellow travelers, secure in the knowledge that everyone is being fleeced equally. One table over from ours, two fat, middle-aged ladies were composing their travel diary ("Ruthie won $20, and we celebrated with chicken lettuce wraps and spinach dip"); across the way, a dozen high-rolling studs with their gorgeous babes were digging into multitiered appetizers; at our elbow a sixsome, the balding male half of the contingent blabbing into cell phones while the girls tossed their dark manes and exchanged baleful glances ("This was your idea"). Food runners roamed between tables, desperately hoping to rid themselves of the plates they were carrying who'd ordered the god-damned toga rashi beef tenderloin skewers? Who got the chops? And where the hell do these crispy popcorn shrimp go? Jazziz Bistro is a condensed, noisy microcosm of what it means to be fed and entertained in America in the year 2006.
The crispy popcorn shrimp ($10.95) and the Shanghai pork dumplings ($8.95) were ours, as it happened. I watched one poor guy try to unload them at four different tables, then give up and flee back to the kitchen. After a while, he came out again and put them down in front of us. These small plates had cool touches a whole big mess of shrimp, peppery and salty and steaming hot, were served in a paper bag, exactly right for the spirit of the place. These are ideal jazz-club junk food; spear them with your fork and dip them in a little mustard sauce and these babies are completely addictive. You've got hot, greasy, cool, spicy, soft, and crunchy going on, like a long, deeply satisfying improvisation. The Shanghai pork dumplings came spilling out of a cutely overturned Chinese food takeout container, with tart-salty cabbage salad, and these were really good too.