Whenever my family went to New York's Chinatown for dinner or dim sum, my neat-freak mother would choose the restaurant with the dirtiest floor. When her astonished children would point out the grains of rice and chicken bones littering the peeling linoleum tiles, she would just smile, shrug, and let the waiter mop the table with cold tea and napkins. She never explained why, but I'm sure her logic went something like this: The dirtier the floor, the busier the restaurant. The busier the restaurant, the better the food. After all, who has time to sweep when Peking duck must be carved tableside?
While that syllogism might hold up in Chinatown, I find the opposite to be true when it comes to fine dining. When you're paying top dollar for what is supposed to be quality fare, as we did recently in the Flambé Room, the new "executive dining room" at Raindancer in Fort Lauderdale, you should expect the floor -- in this case a cranberry-hued carpeting -- to be Hoovered periodically. At the very least, waiters shouldn't brush the bread crumbs from the table directly onto the shag, which is what had apparently been happening all night. But since Hansel and Gretel weren't scheduled to make an appearance, the crumby carpet should have warned me that I was in for a rough night.
The Flambé Room opened right after Christmas, having been extensively renovated by Raindancer's owner, Duane Saliba. Once part owner of nearby Christopher's, Saliba bought the 27-year-old Raindancer about seven months ago. He has been slowly refurbishing the steak house, adding a popular lounge in the front to accommodate folks who can't make the climb to the happy-hour mecca upstairs. He also relocated the salad bar to the back of the dining room which, with its bricked ceilings and walls, rec-room paneling, and red-to-maroon appointments, is cozy but dated.
But while some of the décor and the menu have been revitalized, the typical Raindancer experience remains the same. You enter, you're seated, you order from a menu that offers steaks, chops, and a smattering of seafood. Then you help yourself to the complimentary salad bar, an unimpressive array of the usual garden suspects napped by what taste like commercially packaged salad dressings. Sliced bread, ranging from French baguette to rye, grows stale on one side of the salad bar. Finally, you dine on French onion soup that has been topped by a blob of cheese with the elasticity and globular quality of Silly Putty and follow it up with Danish baby-back ribs that put the lie to their billed "fall-off-the-bone" tenderness.
The Flambé Room was supposed to change all that. On average, main courses are priced five bucks higher than in the rest of the 236-seat restaurant. For that you are supposed to get strictly tableside service: Caesar salad is tossed in front of your eyes. Duck with cherry sauce is sliced and placed delicately on your plate. Rack of lamb is carved and finished in a pan that remains poised over a portable burner.
But none of that happens -- unless you dine with the owner himself, who happened to be dining in the Flambé Room the same night we were. His rack of lamb was carved for him, but the waiter left the dishes that didn't need to be finished sitting on the sideboard while he carved rather than serving them first. In the end the proprietor got up and served his guests their main courses.
When even the owner can't get proper service, you know you're in trouble. Not only was my duck delivered directly to me already carved, it wasn't even the one I had ordered. The regular dining room menu features duck à l'orange, made with what looked like canned Mandarin oranges, and this variety was brought to me instead of the roasted bird with cherry sauce. But as the waiter was so busy pan-searing his boss' lamb, I wound up eating the duck I had been served instead of returning it.
So OK, the duck wasn't carved tableside. Nor was my husband's veal chop, stuffed with a Lilliputian ration of sun-dried tomatoes, spinach, and mozzarella cheese and already butterflied. But we could have overcome the disappointment had anything else been served with courtesy and grace. For instance, when we asked for bread, our server told us to get it ourselves from the salad bar. We pointed out that other tables had received baskets of bread without stretching their legs to fetch it; our guy heaved a mighty sigh and said, "Fine, I'll do it."
We were also informed to help ourselves to the salad bar, despite the menu that promises a choice of caesar salad or "Judy's strawberry salad" as part of a prix-fixe meal. Forget the strawberry salad. When I asked the waiter what it was, he replied, "We're out of it." For that matter forget the caesar too. My husband requested the caesar over the salad bar and wanted to know if it was tossed tableside. "No," the waiter replied somewhat incredulously, as if we were foolish for even thinking it might be. He was also huffy when my husband inquired as to the status of his as yet nonexistent salad long after I had finished the greens I'd chosen from the bar (to which, by the way, I'd had to ask directions). "You're supposed to eat it after your appetizer," he sneered, referring to the escargots in garlic butter he brought to the table a good 15 minutes later.
Our dessert choices were the signature bananas Foster and cherries jubilee -- both of which would have involved allowing our incompetent boor of a waiter access to flammable liquids. Given our dissatisfaction to that point with what was supposed to have been executive dining, we made an executive decision: We left, vowing never to come back.
But in the end, I felt the nearly three-decades-old Raindancer itself, if not the Flambé Room, deserved another chance. Too many people I know treasure it as an old Fort Lauderdale dining destination. Aside from our particular server, the staff seemed uniformly friendly, although not sophisticated. And finally what parent can resist a restaurant that offers prime rib or lamb chops on the children's menu?
Thus I returned, and I did find some saving graces in Raindancer. The daily specials yielded a plate of lightly fried frogs' legs, which were fresh and meaty. A cut of prime rib was rare as promised and barely fatty. My children were treated not just like citizens but like treasured future diners with wallets of their own.
My remaining quibbles have to do with quality and preparedness, though. How could a restaurant have shrimp scampi available when the kitchen had run out of shrimp cocktail? Why serve baked Brie en croûte with grayish Brie that smells like government cheese? Why not make lobster bisque that tastes like, well, lobster? Why not ask patrons if they'd care for dessert before bringing the check?
Perhaps instead of futilely attempting to upscale Raindancer, Saliba should look to fix, as he is with the edifice itself, what is already broken. After all, Raindancer's motto is "An American Dining Experience." Does he really want his restaurant to be the one that gives American dining a bad name?
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