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Bad Latitude

Joe Rocco

You've really got to feel sorry for the wait staff at Latitudes Beach Café. They're trying so hard to make the best of things — these adorable 20-somethings with their Eastern European accents and their cheery good looks. I wish I could wave my magic wand and transport them elsewhere — to the set of some indie romantic comedy, to the NYU campus in Manhattan or a J. Crew catalog shoot, to an internship at Jane. Anywhere but here. Because if Latitudes were a war zone, these handsome kids would be on the front lines facing a formidable enemy without armor, radios, or bullets, at the mercy of commanders who... oh, never mind. At any rate, they're marching to orders from a kitchen they have zero control over, and it's a kitchen that decidedly does not have their backs.

Something has gone horribly wrong behind the scenes. Latitudes has everything working for it otherwise — like one of the most beautiful beachfront settings in South Florida. There are a thousand restaurants that would kill for this location at the Marriott on the Hollywood Broadwalk; it's just unutterably romantic. If you arrive around sunset and sit on the patio, you'll see the ocean, stretching infinitely on three sides, change from gray-blue to turquoise to robin's egg speckled with gold, and from there to navy and thence to black, while a sliver of moon crawls up the sky and the horn player wails through bossa nova standards behind you. The refurbished three-mile Broadwalk is as snazzy a beachfront promenade as I've seen anywhere — with its new pavers, benches, and iron lamps, it rivals Santa Monica or Nice, with maybe a little bit of Jersey shore thrown in (those patched-up '60s motels and trinket shops) to keep it real.

I know the restaurant had a bumpy start — reports of botched breakfast omelets and martinis served in wine tumblers were coming fast and furious when the place opened last summer. I can't speak for the omelets, but the Marriott crowd is now sipping its cocktails from real martini glasses. I'd also heard that the servers were completely untrained back then too, but they've evidently been schooled since. Our guy knew the wine list and the menu backward and forward, and he couldn't have been more solicitous. If the food at Latitudes were even halfway edible, this place would rock.

I'm willing to give a chef a lot of rope when it comes to experimenting with flavors and textures — it turns me on to see that somebody cares enough to want to surprise and delight me, to issue a challenge, to show off a little magic. So I wasn't necessarily put off by the description of a "white tomato cappuccino soup" ($6), the first item on this vaguely Caribbean menu, even though it sure enough sounded different: "Bisque of vine ripened tomato, cream, shallots, garnished with a basil cinnamon froth." OK, so, cream of tomato soup with basil, the obvious pairing, livened up with a little cinnamon. Since basil tastes something like cinnamon anyway, this could work, right? No reason to think I was necessarily stepping into the gastronomic equivalent of the Twilight Zone.

Sure, there were some flavor pairings on the menu that might have given us pause — a shrimp and hearts of palm "fondue" made with blue cheese, key lime-infused frisée, and Italian white truffle oil. Or seared ahi tuna with a sweet orange-mint dipping sauce. Salmon with roasted fennel, cipollini onions, and lemongrass butter. Chicken breast stuffed with mango and chicken mousse. Or a "savory lobster cheesecake salad." If these concoctions sound vaguely disgusting, I was willing to give the kitchen the benefit of the doubt. Look, if crazy famous chefs like Wylie Dufresne at WD-50 can serve eggnog ice cream topped with caviar and pumpernickel croutons, far be it from me to throw cold water on the Marriott's resident genius.

My lawlessly wedded spouse was less sanguine. She smelled trouble from the second she poked her nose into the list of "First Tastes."

"I've worked in hotel kitchens," she declared. "I think I know what's going on here. I have one word for you. Flav-R-Churn."

My spouse has never fully recovered from the years she spent serving commercial butter substitute to geriatric banqueters at a resort in the Poconos. The banqueters hated the food, the wait staff hated the banqueters, and at the end of every service, the whole staff, the tables, the carpet, everything was slick with a greasy layer of trans fats. Something about the Marriott was bringing it all back in a rush. "Are you sure we have to eat here?" she begged plaintively. "Can't we just walk down and get some real Caribbean at Sugar Reef?"

We argued back and forth for a while about who was going to eat what. We decided to split the damage. I'd brave the tomato cappuccino if she'd try the portobello fries with roasted garlic sauce and herb oil ($8). And I'd agree to spring for the "prime, dry aged, grilled bone-in strip loin" ($34) if she'd eat the "Rasta Pasta" ($22), which promised jerk chicken with parpardelle. It would help, obviously, that we were both starving — a healthy appetite goes a long way toward softening most culinary blows.

But whoa now. Even days later, I'm completely baffled by that tomato cappuccino soup, which arrived piping... not. Imagine a bowl of sweetened canned condensed milk. In terms of temperature, it is tepid. On top, someone has squirted some of that gross puréed green herb junk that comes out of a tube. And, set in the center like some kind of prize, a single large shrimp.

Eeewww! A sweet, room-temperature shrimp milk pudding with emerald squiggles! I mean, were they kidding? Had anyone in the kitchen actually tasted this stuff? There wasn't the faintest hint — and I mean not a whiff or a whisper — of tomato, much less the musky sugars and acids of vine-ripened fruit. Nothing tasted even remotely like a real leaf of basil. The primary and only flavors were canned milk and sugar. I couldn't bring myself to touch that shrimp.

My partner made a little bit of progress with her portobello fries, soggy strips of mushroom heavily battered and squirted with the "gourmet" equivalent of Flav-R-Churn. (That must have been the "roasted garlic sauce." It tasted like mayonnaise that had been sitting out at room temp for a long, long time.) There was a kind of marinara dipping sauce also and "herb oil," which, I suddenly noticed, was all over the menu.

Still, we thought, how could they screw up a dry-aged steak and chicken pasta, right?

Let us count the ways:

Like our appetizers, the steak, potatoes, "roasted" squash, pasta, and chicken were all served at room temperature. Coolish but not cold. Warmish but not hot. Scary, but still terrifying.

My steak, which I'd ordered cooked medium rare, came out with a cold purple center. (Hello, grill man? Ever heard of an instant-read thermometer?) It was a corpse-like, flaccid grayish on the outside, without either a good caramelized crust or grill marks. It was flavorless, soggy, as if it had been frozen and thawed out in a microwave.

The roasted potatoes and chunks of zucchini that accompanied the steak were cold, greasy, and damp.

The chicken breast with the oh-so-jolly-sounding "Rasta Pasta" had no jerk seasoning on it. Cut-up white meat had been set on slimy, overcooked, cold parpardelle, which in turn had been heavily seasoned with dried oregano and some kind of cream sauce. There were slivers of "roasted" red peppers, presumably straight from the bottle. The menu listed "calaloo" as well, but I'll be damned if I could identify anything in this dish that even remotely resembled the famous Carib stew made with greens. Maybe that was the oregano seasoning?

Somebody was pulling our leg, me thought. We were being made fools of, at great expense, by this joke of a menu with its "lobster cheesecake" and shrimp milk soup, its fennel confit and "piquant picka peppa mayonnaise" and kumquat glazes. It was as if the chef had figured out what all the trendy flavas of the season were — that truffle oil, that boniato mash, that cinnamon froth — and executed a smashing, deliberate parody of the whole "New American" cuisine conceit. Had this been high satiric theater instead of dinner, I would have given it a standing ovation.

They say a post-prandial stroll is a great digestive aid. We were going to need all the digestive help we could get.

We flounced off the terrace and down the Broadwalk. "The best thing about that meal," my darling opined, "was walking away from it."

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Latitudes Beach Cafe

2501 N. Ocean Drive
Hollywood, FL 33019

954-924-2202

www.hollywoodbeachmarriott.com


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