Lost at Sea
They called it the "storm of the century." But that was in 1993, and by now we know we were in for bigger, badder storms before the end of the millennium. Still, that unnamed freak March tempest killed as many people in Florida as Hurricane Andrew and left $500 million in damage, even dropping snow in the Panhandle, by the time it finally moved out of Florida. It took with it a 40-foot sailing ketch called Charley's Crab. No scrap, no bit of flotsam, no article of clothing was ever found from that boat, and after two desperate SOS calls, the four people who were sailing it just off the coast of Palm Beach were never seen or heard from again.
Chuck Muer was trying to get home from the Bahamas in time to make a party that night. It's a weird irony that his lost body may have been devoured by the descendants of the same fish Muer purveyed into a $65 million fortune with his chain of seafood restaurants.
I like to imagine him now in some Alfred Prufrockian incarnation as "a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas." Muer started out in the '60s with one restaurant in Detroit and eventually parlayed it into the C.A. Muer Corporation, with a half-dozen Charley's Crabs in Florida and 20 restaurants like The Grand Concourse and Gandy Dancer flung in a wide arc across the U.S. But since his death, Muer's family enterprise has been swallowed up by a much bigger fish. A few years ago the whole caboodle was sold to Landry's Restaurants, which owns, among other things, Rainforest Cafe. Charley's Crab is now a Jonah in the belly of one humongous whale.
So what happens to a $65-million family seafood chain when it merges with a $746-million megalo-corp of more than 300 restaurants?
There are four Muer outposts left in Florida -- one Charley's Crab each in Palm Beach, Deerfield, and Lauderdale, and Chuck and Harold's in Palm Beach (Muer opened Chuck and Harold's on Royal Poinciana Way, in partnership with Harold Kaplan). The food at Chuck and Harold's is still good enough. But judging from our last meal at Pal's Charley's Crab in Deerfield Beach, others may not be faring as well.
Muer's original idea was to create a group of upscale but comfy seafood restaurants in waterfront locations. Some were set in carefully renovated historic buildings. Steve Ellman, who once worked as a waiter at the Charley's Crab in Jupiter (Landry's closed that restaurant a couple of months after taking it over) remembers Chuck Muer as "a real glad-hander."
"The company was run on the Japanese model," he says. "We were all supposed to be part of the big happy Chuck Muer family. A lot of that 'power of positive thinking' kind of thing. The food was pretty good, not brilliant or particularly inventive, but it drew on family recipes."
Some of those recipes, like the ones for their chunky gazpacho, fish paté, cole slaw, and black bean soup, achieved a level of local notoriety. Ellman thinks that ex-Muer employees filched the gazpacho recipe, whose secret ingredient was rumored to be Seven Seas Italian salad dressing, and gave it to C.R. Chicks (whose gazpacho, incidentally, is still terrific.) Other Muer graduates went on to open their own restaurants -- like Spoto's in West Palm Beach .
Pal's Charley's Crab is looking pretty dowdy these days. The waterfront building built in the '50s for Pal's Captain's Table was turned into a Charley's Crab in 1988, and it hasn't been renovated for years (one clear sign of distress: a few of the letters on the building's big neon "Pal's" sign are burnt out). Inside, the restaurant showcases a wall of sliding-glass doors overlooking the Intracoastal, and it's a pretty view, particularly with the bridge lit up at night. The furnishings are retro-'80s-hotel-lobby, from the tropical-psychedelic carpeting to the faux-painted-bamboo chairs; you feel like you've been thrown back into some awful adolescent family vacation, when dinner meant over-baked fish fingers at the Day's Inn. On a recent Sunday night the place was two-thirds empty at 8 o'clock; the occupied tables ranged from stylish young couples to old coots; a pianoman was playing easy-listening pop. We made a dash for a small outdoor patio, which was marginally more pleasant and screened from the screaming children at the restaurant next door by a bit of tall fencing.
Things started out pretty well at Pal's with a basket of warm jalapeño biscuits and poppy seed rolls served with soft butter and crab-boursin spread. Appetizers include cold king crab legs with mustard sauce or hot ones cooked Szechwan style ($12), cherrywood smoked salmon ($12), a crab and avocado timbale ($14), baked oysters ($14 for a sampler of six), crab cakes ($11), and Mussels à la Muer ($8) in garlic, white wine, and herbs. The gazpacho is still on the menu ($5), and so is Charley's chowder ($4). Several dozen entrées include shrimp Danielle ($17) broiled with garlic butter and sliced almonds, coconut shrimp ($18) with pineapple chili dipping sauce, half a dozen species of fresh fish cooked any way you like ($22), naked or, for an extra $6, with a choice of four "signature toppings."
Charley's serves very good quality seafood across the board. I've eaten so many sub-par scallops and shrimp at other restaurants lately that bad fish is starting to feel like the latest groovy South Florida trend -- but you don't have to fret about bleach-infused scallops or freezer-burned shrimp here. Our hot appetizer sampler ($25) included two small but tasty scallops in the shell smothered with dynamite sauce -- a mixture of creamy crab and basil drizzle; two mini crab cakes decorated with a swirl of mustard sauce; and a half dozen juicy, flavorful king crab legs cooked in a gingery Szechwan broth. The crab legs were delicious, spicy, and sweet. The scallops in their creamy sauce were rich but fairly undistinguished -- you can't taste any basil in that "drizzle." The crab cakes didn't really rise above the welter currently crowding the menus of most seafood houses. For $25, we each had one scallop, one small crab cake, and three crab legs -- no bargain for us, but surely a whopping boost for Landry's profit margin.
Our waiter arrived with our Martha's Vineyard salad. Composed of red onion, pine nuts, blue cheese, and raspberry vinaigrette, what could have been a rainbow-hued salad looked like wet, gray felt. As a conceptual art object by Joseph Beuys it would have been pure genius; as a plate of something to eat it fell short of edible. Maybe somebody'd tossed that blue cheese and raspberry dressing into the lettuce many hours ago... the thought didn't bear examination.
I don't know, am I getting too picky? I don't even pay for my own meals, but I'm still finding the prices at restaurants these days outrageous. If you're going to charge $28 bucks for a plate of halibut with asparagus spears and rice, I want it to be damned near perfect. I'm not going to make allowances just because the fish is pretty good -- I want everything to be fricking delicious. And as far as I'm concerned, it should come out looking and smelling great, too. I figure at least ten of those 28 dollars ought to go for a bit of artistry on the plate, a squiggle or a swoop of sauce. Something! My halibut tasted fine. But the entire plate of food was almost all one color, from the wishy-washy overcooked asparagus to the greyish rice to the paleish fish with its pinkish sauce. Served on a white plate, it was practically an exercise in camouflage. I'd paid an extra $6 for the dynamite sauce, and I'd be willing to bet there wasn't a full tablespoon of the stuff lobbed on top of my fish. Come on, man!
Ms. A's mahi mahi ($22) wasn't as insulting, if only because she hadn't paid the price of a movie ticket for a thimbleful of sauce. She had hers sautéed with butter, and it was really very good, a luscious, thick fillet cooked perfectly -- with a squeeze of lemon, it was divine. Still, she had the same color- and taste-free asparagus and rice as I did.
We finished up with molten chocolate truffle cake ($7.95), a head-clearing rush composed of gooey cake and semi-sweet chocolate sauce in a pool of crème Anglaise accompanied by a scoop of vanilla ice cream. The waiter informed us apologetically that the presentation had collapsed on its way from the kitchen, so it came to the table looking like it had already had a rough night. What a shame. For eight bucks I would have liked to have seen what it was really supposed to look like, in all its teetering, towering glory. Total bill before tip: $121.50 with two glasses of wine.
OK, I'm a bitch! Hurricane Katrina has left me in a terrible mood. My two favorite restaurants in the world may be closed forever, and I'm completely helpless to do anything. I'm left scarfing down mushy asparagus and gray salad at a waterfront restaurant in Deerfield Beach, remembering the now-vanished deliciousness of a flaming plate of bananas Foster at Brennan's in the French Quarter or the incredible fried apple pie at Camellia Grill and wondering whether those handsome, honey-tongued waiters in their snazzy white chef's jackets ended up somewhere safe and dry. Then across my desk comes this saving grace from Spoto's Oyster Bar. I can go order their spicy Cajun-style shrimp étoufée topping on any fish in the house, and for each topping I buy, Spoto's will donate $7 directly toward the Hurricane Katrina Disaster Relief Effort. Spoto's is located in downtown West Palm on Datura Street or at 4560 PGA Blvd. in Palm Beach Gardens. They're clearly more generous with their sauce than Landry's. Now I can ease a little long-distance suffering even while weeping into my gumbo.
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