Livin' the Jai Life
Jai alai was invented by a bunch of mountain-dwelling Basques back in the 15th century. Though derived from handball, it has more in common with modern-day racquetball -- the racquet in this case being a cesta, or curved wicker basket attached to the player's right arm (this is not a sport for lefties). The object of the game is to hurl a ball (pelota) against the front wall of a three-wall court with enough speed and spin that the opposition cannot catch and return it on the fly or first hop.
Havana premiered the first jai-alai court of the new world in 1902, known as El Palacio de los Gritos ("The Palace of Shouts"). Twenty years later, Babe Ruth visited El Palacio while vacationing in Cuba and became so enamored of the sport that he began playing it dressed in a decidedly nontraditional uniform of silk shirt and flannels. When it came to shoes, however, Ruth wore the obligatory rope-soled sandals. "Squid," the Babe explained, "must be eaten in its own sauce."
Which brings us to the Clubhouse at Dania Jai-Alai, a restaurant within the 220,000-square-foot Dania fronton. Built in 1953, this is America's second fronton and the oldest still standing; the first was erected in 1924 on what is now the parking lot of the Hialeah racetrack. In its heyday, Dania drew top rat-packy stars from the Miami Beach entertainment scene. These days, the musty old arena mostly pulls celebrities along the order of Larry King, Ed McMahon, and Louis Anderson.
The 325-seat restaurant looks just as it did when it premiered, except 50 years older. Perhaps you'll exult in the antiquated ambiance, but I wouldn't bet on it -- unless your idea of a desirable dining room is one that resembles a lackadaisical Las Vegas lounge long past its prime. Five levels of loge-like seating with a neon-lit clubhouse bar on top, overlook the jai-alai court and crowd below. A television monitor atop each table allows diners to view the action and place bets.
Far more surprising than watching the team on which I wagered $2 flub its shots was the quality of the food. Admittedly, expectations were low, and the Clubhouse's claim of being "the finest restaurant of any pari-mutuel facility" did little to raise them. The shrewdly compact menu starts off with just three appetizer offerings (plus a daily double of nightly specials). Our waitress suggested shrimp cocktail; she and the rest of the veteran service team possess lots of personality and are of the quick-to-chat, quick-to-refill-water school often encountered at coffee shops and, well, Vegas lounges. They have the routine of service down pat. As any jai-alai player will tell you, experience counts.
The shrimp cocktail featured four large crustaceans clinging to the rim of a martini glass filled with cocktail sauce. The shrimp were fresh, as in freshly defrosted, but the spongy rather than sprightly texture suggested their having been cooked, flash-frozen, then defrosted, as opposed to the better method of freezing them uncooked, defrosting, cooking, and chilling.
If you want, I can run that by you again in slo-mo.
There are eight games to an evening of jai-alai, each lasting about eight to 14 minutes. There are eight wings to a plate of garlic or buffalo chicken wings, which, with traditional celery stick and blue cheese dip, takes about half that time to eat (they are faster still if shared). Final call for starters is a mammoth mound of crisp onion rings, the very thin variety that are floured, not battered. These are ideal for sharing at a table of four to six, though fried onions seem more apt as a starch accompaniment for main courses than as a means of whetting one's appetite.
Though the starters didn't exactly form a trifecta of perfection, the entrées were clear winners. So was French onion soup with a cushiony cap of beautifully bronzed, melted Gruyère cheese. The sweet onion-flavored broth beneath was not too beefy, greasy, or salty (the usual culprits marring less successful renditions).
You won't want to cancel those reservations at Morton's to eat the Clubhouse steaks, but dollar for dollar and pound for pound, the prime rib of beef here can compete with most. We chose the 12-ounce rather than eight-ounce cut, but the two-inch slab that arrived had to weigh twice that. Warm and tender, the delicately marbled meat was missing only the bloody sizzling qualities that come from a rib sliced shortly after roasting. A hefty 14-ounce rib eye also gratified, faultlessly cooked medium rare, as requested, and tarted up by tangy blue-cheese butter melted on top.
Main courses come with a generous house salad and the familiar team of steak house dressings (ranch, blue cheese, French...). There is also a choice of baked potato or French fries with most dishes, except, curiously, for the prime rib, which is accompanied only by horseradish.
Carrot-flecked rice pilaf and a snappily cooked medley of snap peas, carrot strips, cauliflower, and broccoli chaperoned the "catch of the day," a plump paprika-dusted filet of pristine salmon broiled to a pearly coral pink inside and lapped in lemony compound butter. Shrimp scampi scored points as well, six jumbo crustaceans of the same stripe as those waterlogged ones earlier found 'round the cocktail glass but vastly improved by a sauté in garlic butter and lightly crushed teardrop tomatoes. Better yet, the shrimp and sauce came tossed in long corkscrew strands of firmly cooked pasta.
Desserts satisfied in similarly simple fashion. Hitting the spot were conventional standards like tropical sorbet, hot fudge sundae, warm apple pie à la mode, and a creamy lemon-drop cheesecake with sweet crumb topping.
Bottom line: If you've never gone to see a jai-alai game or it's been a long time, visiting the Dania fronton is a great idea for a novel night out. Dining at the Clubhouse will add some spice.
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