The politicians and the service staff in South Florida seem to have one terrible habit in common: blind endorsement. In both cases, the perennial bluff has gotten so bad that it's impossible to believe a recommendation that either makes.
Local politicos no doubt can speak for themselves -- or have a colleague do it. In the government field, people prevaricate by nature. Good luck to anyone who attempts to fix the situation. But when it comes to fine dining, gratuitous affirmations are usually the result of naiveté. And that, my friends, is easily correctable -- by, say, training.
Case in point: I ordered a bottle of wine from a reasonably priced list at Old Calypso in Delray Beach the other night. At $35, the California Chardonnay I had chosen to pair with the restaurant's Caribbean- and Creole-style seafood items was mid-list, a decent vintage from a well-known winery. Not mass-produced but hardly esoteric either -- which is why I was surprised by three things: the waiter's overly enthusiastic approval of my choice, his decision to open and pour it while I was in the restroom, and the fact that the wine was unquestionably spoiled.
It happens. Indeed, I could tell the wine had gone bad just from the color. But I smelled it to make sure, and when the waiter returned, I sent it back. "It's corked," I told him.
He was astonished. "But it can't be," he said. "It didn't even have a cork. It had one of those plastic things."
Every once in a while, I attempt to do a little training of my own. So I explained to the server that the term "corked" really just means that despite the manner of stopper used in the neck of the bottle, the wine is bad for whatever reason: contamination, heat damage, oxygenation. And I gave him some really valuable advice. "If you want to know what spoiled wine tastes like, try this."
It's not an uncommon practice to sample wine gone bad, if only because it provides a frame of reference. Even wine writers do it from time to time; while I was in Portugal recently learning about the cork industry, several of my colleagues requested tarnished samples of vinho to analyze. Unfortunately, not only do most restaurant training programs fail to provide such a valuable option but they don't even go so far as to insist that the wait staff learns about unblemished wine. My server's response? "It wouldn't make a difference. I don't even know what good wine tastes like." He paused. "I'm more of a beer drinker," he concluded.
Then why commend my choice instead of merely nodding and bringing me the bottle? But rather than belaboring the point, I merely sighed and ordered a citrus-scented Duckhorn Sauvignon Blanc.
"Excellent choice!" my server raved.
Of course it was. The Duckhorn was ten bucks more.
I'm only guessing that the price was the real reason he also recommended the calamari appetizer and the tempura-battered, crab-stuffed lobster tail special for a main course, because both were among the highest in their respective categories. He was especially complimentary toward the squid, which was deep-fried and tossed with hot cherry peppers and spring onions. "I guarantee you've never had anything like it before," he promised. Rash words -- I'd had a vastly similar dish at Capital Grille just the evening before. In fact, that particular restaurant chain is known for the item, a mainstay on the menu. But at least he was correct that the calamari was not only crisp and vibrant with flavors but plentiful enough for a table of four to share. (The menu recommends parceling it out as well.)
As for the lobster, we thought the quality warranted the money, and we were delighted with the succulence of the meat and the crab stuffing. The buttery seafood coordinated perfectly with the Asian notes of ginger and soy with which the dish had been imbued. We were only slightly confused as to why the entire tail, shell and all, had been dipped into tempura batter and sealed in the fryer. To get at the meat, we had to pick off the crust along with the shell.
Blithely ignorant service aside, Old Calypso offers diners many tasty culinary options, ranging from Caribbean (lots of tropical fruit sauces) to Southern (don't neglect the chocolate-pecan pie) to Cajun (dirty rice, N'Awlins spice). We found a sweet, pull-apart Bimini bread to be an ideal partner for house salads that came with homemade dressings like the tart mango vinaigrette. Sea scallops are offered on the menu as fried with a side of cocktail sauce, but you can also get these supple beauties grilled and presented with a mango-papaya dip if you ask. The service may be a bit unthinking at times, but it is always accommodating.
Naturally, fish and seafood dominate the menu, but if conch salad and escargots aren't up your bayou, the French onion pizza is a pleasant way to start a meal. Not overly dominating, the caramelized onions that would normally appear in a soup dress melted mozzarella and Gruyère cheeses, and a hit of rosemary cuts the white-pizza richness. For entrées, blackened dolphin with crawfish etouffée and Bahamian grouper amandine are both sumptuously heavy. Consider instead the "pork prime rib," a kind of misnomer of a char-grilled pork chop marinated in pineapple and Valencia orange juices. I found the bone-in loin to be thick enough to split with a dining companion one evening; the hint of fresh ginger that enhanced the juicy meat gave depth to the citrus. Whatever you choose, Duchess potatoes are a good, creamy sidekick as well as a nostalgic salute to steak Diane days -- a dish, by the way, that is also on the list.
Still, I can't help thinking that one of Old Calypso's biggest attractions is its view of the Intracoastal, along with all that pertains to it: breezy outdoor dining, upholstered bamboo and wicker chairs suitable for, well, bathing suits, and dockage space. Motor or sail up to Old Calypso and you're set for a true South Florida experience: superior seafood and shabby service.
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