This summer is going to be a test of survival for our restaurants. Labor costs have gone up. Food costs have gone up. Utility costs have gone way, way up. What has gone down? Disposable income. So smart restaurateurs, those who have eateries that will make it in the long run, are looking at running things with greater efficiency: fewer employees to do more-thorough jobs; simpler menus to cut back on unnecessary waste; hours pared down to peak dining times. And those restaurateurs who remain oblivious to the economic climate will see their restaurants go the way of the dodo bird. Case in point: The ten-week-old restaurant and nightclub Gryphon in Cooper City, where the employees are numerous and superfluous, the menu is extravagantly wasteful, and the hours are ridiculously long.
To start with, the bouncers, positioned at the door, serve about as much purpose as do cops in donut shops. They greet you pleasantly enough, but that's because, aside from the conversations they have among themselves, they have nothing to do. They certainly don't direct you to a host, because none exists. Instead the bouncers, bartenders, and servers alike nod at you and tell you to "take a seat anywhere."
"Anywhere" is at one of the two bars or in one of four rooms, which I will call the "dance club," the "VIP room," the "dining room," and the "fireplace lounge." This building, which formerly housed the upscale pub called Churchill's, has always contained a number of dining options. Churchill's became an asset in a nasty divorce last year and was sold to new owners, who kept the number of rooms constant but renovated. As a result, the "dance club" has a wood floor and flashing neon lights; the "VIP room" has medieval busts left over from Churchill's; the "dining room" has French ticking on the windows and carpeting; and the "fireplace lounge" has its gas-fueled namesake and the trappings of a library. Each area has dinner seating, ranging from booths to circular banquettes to cocktail tables with cushioned stools that look more like mushrooms than chairs.
What Gryphon doesn't have, besides a cohesive look, is anyone in charge to seat customers, keep track of reservations and open tables, and police the rooms to make sure all patrons are satisfied. During one visit, after we had patrolled the entire restaurant without any guidance whatsoever, we finally took a seat at the only table for four in the "VIP room" and ordered drinks. Unfortunately it soon became obvious, via balloons and birthday gifts, that we were going to be the only guests in the room not attending a prearranged party. When we asked the waitress if we were indeed inadvertently crashing a private affair, she didn't know. We were advised to ask the hosts (meaning the bouncers), who said yes, all the tables in the room had been reserved, but they weren't sure if there was going to be one private party in the room or two. At which point we tried to move to an open booth in the "dance club," but by the time our server returned to tell us we could sit there, another party that, of course, had been told to "take a seat anywhere," occupied it.
Nor has anyone, it seems, bothered to train the staff in even the most basic tenets of service. During the same visit, our waitress (who, incidentally, was clad in a corset that was apparently causing her slowly to suffocate and was therefore depriving her brain of much-needed oxygen) attempted to take our order without first giving us menus. She brought our kir royales without the twists we had ordered, then failed to notice when said cocktails were empty. We had to request plates to share the grilled potato flatbread pizza we eventually requested, though in the end we shouldn't have bothered -- the soggy, ice-cold focaccia hadn't been cooked long enough for the prosciutto to crisp or the mozzarella cheese to melt. She also didn't have the experience or the nerve to ask why we completely ignored our "Gryphon gravlax," a starter of salmon cured with citrus, tequila, and cilantro, but had she asked we would have told her it tasted suspiciously fishy.
The laissez-faire attitude pretty clearly stems from the top. One of the owners impassively watched our first excruciating experience unfold without even asking why we so abruptly requested our check without ordering main courses. On another evening, she sat at the bar in the "dining room" sipping a glass of white wine while a couple in the adjoining "fireplace lounge," in plain sight of all other customers, engaged in some heavy petting in front of the fireplace. Honestly, if I want to watch a man stroke his date's breasts while I munch on the poultry equivalent, I'll pick up some KFC and rent some porn.
A leadership void also seems to plague the kitchen. The menu has as little focus as the décor, ranging from Thai chicken satay to wild mushroom fettuccine Alfredo with blackened salmon to filet mignon stuffed with Stilton cheese. The pot-stickers (pan-fried pork dumplings) and the smoked pork tenderloin entrée, supposedly marinated with chipotle peppers and apple cider, tasted as if they had been purchased premade from Costco. The latter was also served cool enough to suggest it had been prepared earlier in the day, then sliced and (barely) reheated. An accompanying pomegranate sauce suggested very little of that magical fruit, registering instead as an overwrought barbecue sauce.
Indeed the food here is all about excess, and not in a good way. Complimentary bread sticks (served only upon request) contained so much pepper we couldn't eat them. A bread bowl filled with spinach-artichoke dip was equally as baldly zesty with an inappropriate amount of chili peppers; even the bread was infused with the spice. A main course of five-spice Chilean sea bass was pan-seared with so much butter my cholesterol level went up just looking at it. The fish was served on a "raft of coconut jasmine rice in a Thai lemongrass broth with mixed oriental vegetables and garnished with a lemongrass crab skewer," an over-the-top description that didn't even do justice to the culinary train wreck of Eastern flavors on the plate. Even the "Xango cheesecake" dessert -- a wedge of banana-enhanced cheesecake wrapped in dough and deep-fried -- was crippled by a too-potent draft of amaretto in the puddle of caramel sauce.
Not every dish suffered from such zeal. Arugula salad was enhanced by a hearty smattering of applewood-smoked bacon. And the soup of the day, shrimp-tomato bisque, actually benefited from a heavy hand: The herb-flecked bisque was so rife with the crustaceans you could pick them out with a fork. Unfortunately our enjoyment of the soup seemed to blind our server to anything else, so much so that he didn't even comment on the nearly full plate of smoked pork tenderloin other than to say, "How's everything, folks? Perfect, right?"
When such unfounded optimism is afoot, when weak spots are ignored rather than adapted and turned into strengths, it's pretty clear that Gryphon isn't much of a candidate for survival.
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