By David Minsky
By Nicole Danna
By Sara Ventiera
By Candace West
By Emily Dabau
By Doug Fairall
By Candace West
By Laine Doss
When restaurants fail, they don't always do it spectacularly. Sometimes it's just a slow, gloomy slide into mediocrity, and if you happen to be sitting over dinner at one of these joints, the feeling is akin to the plummeting sensation you get at the track when your valiant steed not only falters out of the gate but ends up eating mud for the entire six furlongs. You don't hate the beast, but you'd sure love to horse-whip the jockey, the trainer, and the dimwit breeder who combined to invent and market this swaybacked nag. At least if you weren't feeling like a candidate for the glue factory yourself. When sports teams blow it, their male spectators suffer sudden drops in testosterone, I hear. But I've got news for you: Failure is contagious for food writers too. There's nothing like a half-empty restaurant and a plate of overpriced swill to make me feel like a real loser.
Partially, I think, it's the breach of hospitality: Restaurateurs should endeavor to honor the illusion that customers are guests, even though we're paying. And it's very bad manners to sicken your guests. Or unless you're a surrealist to feed them unpleasant things: shrimp that smells like stilton cheese, gray vegetables, bitter pie. We're all a bit finicky and paranoid lately anyway, what with a new E. coli scare practically every week. Now there's news from Consumer's Report that 83 percent of broiler chickens sold in grocery stores are crawling with salmonella and campylobacter bacteria. There's listeria in our HoneyBaked Ham and sick-making strawberries in our Jamba Juice smoothies. Myself, I've been made ill from fish and shellfish served in restaurants so often it barely fazes me anymore experience is a hard taskmistress.
The worst crimes I usually don't even write about. There was the time my partner and I, sitting at a fairly swank restaurant in downtown West Palm Beach, got a sudden whiff of raw sewage and craned around to see where it was coming from. It took a minute for us to realize that the scent was emanating from the plate of osso buco a waiter had just put in front of me (that restaurant is now thankfully closed). I once had a fish fillet that was attractively striped with blue kitchen cleaner. Scallops that taste of bleach are, sadly, too common. I've seen sophisticated diners, frozen mid-chew, literally spit food out of their mouths like persnickety infants encountering a puréed carrot. But more often, it's the minor disappointments the flaccid, fusty trout, priced at a cool $30, that somebody's hoping to unload before tomorrow's fish delivery; the soup created from a powdered base; the gummy bread served with cheap olive oil; a "puff" pastry lacking the faintest whiff of air those are the things that beat you down over the dinner hour. Do they think we've been kicked so often we've started to, you know, like it?
In search of a moderately priced meal, I've been to a couple of restaurants in a row lately bound to engender depression in anybody not propped up on Prozac. But even a good serotonin reuptake inhibitor isn't likely to help you forgive and move on after a meal at the N9Nz (pronounced "nines" as in, I presume, "dressed to the..."), a place billed as "the new hip hangout" (DJs, late-night menu, plasma TVs), its website featuring lots of buxom lasses with glistening cleavage. Talk about bait and switch! When four of us arrived at 7:30, there was no one in the place under 80 except our server. And the fogies definitely clashed with all that leopard print and exposed brick. Somebody had evidently created the idea of a hip hangout down to the shimmery beaded curtains, but there the fantasy ended.
Not that I care glistening cleavage would have been a distraction anyway from the real issue, like what delectable morsels of bliss "Chef Elso from Guatemala" had in store for me. In his web picture, poor Elso had looked as if he were about to burst into tears, and now I know why. It must cause him real suffering to serve the musty crab and raunchy shrimp we found in our shellfish salad ($18), especially after he'd started us off so nicely, with a little bowl of perfectly decent hummus and olives and toasted bread. And we'd been fine with our escarole bean soup ($8), soothing white beans and greens in a creamy broth; and positively ecstatic over our shrimp cocktail ($12) and grilled baby artichoke salad ($9). None of the above is rocket science, of course, but the shrimp were enormous and tasty and naturally married well with "bloody Mary cocktail sauce," the standard mix of ketchup and horseradish. The artichokes were the marinated kind from a bottle or can (hearts, not babies), and they'd been grilled and set over a bed of frisée with a few leaves of radicchio. I normally hate frisée, but in this case, the heat and oil from the artichokes had softened and sweetened it, and all of this was nicely contrasted with the bitter radicchio. I was happy as the proverbial (fresh) clam until I tasted that seafood salad.