OK, let's set the scene: It's Wednesday night, right before Thanksgiving, the start of a long weekend that typically means big tourist business in big tourist hangouts. At Las Olas Riverfront, a pay-to-enter party is being held on the ground floor, pushing regular ol' customers up to the second floor, where they can listen to the live music for free. So the outdoor mall, which honestly hasn't seen too much success lately (or ever since its opening a few years ago), seems to be thronged with people on many levels, and the crowd is jovial and spirited.
You might think that new restaurants on the second floor, such as the 25,000-square-foot, 300-plus-seat Cascades, would take advantage of the situation and prop a chatty hostess at the front door to hand out menus and encourage would-be diners to come in and check out the real waterfall in the eatery. You'd think owners and managers would have the foresight to hire enough staff for the night before a holiday. You'd think they'd accommodate last-minute customers, maybe, or even extend their hours. After all, a new restaurant can't afford to turn anybody away. You would think.
As it turned out, of the two new second-level eateries, only one seemed to grasp the basics of creating a welcoming front-of-the house atmosphere. But once the greeters of that place got us in the door, they couldn't disguise their kitchen's shortcomings.
Ol Ol Mexican Grill and Cantina
300 SW First Ave., Las Olas Riverfront, Fort Lauderdale
Lunch and dinner daily from 11:30 a.m. till 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday till midnight. Call 954-527-5969.
At Cascades, we didn't get even that far. When we arrived at 8:45 on that particular evening, the hostess did everything she could to drive us away short of actually telling us to get lost. Though there were plenty of empty tables outside overlooking the picturesque New River, she wanted to seat us inside, at the tapas bar. When we insisted on dining outdoors, she said there wasn't enough staff to keep an eye on us. And when we chose a table for ourselves and sat down, she dragged over a colleague who informed us that we wouldn't be served because the kitchen closed at 9 p.m. But, he said, if we wanted to move to the bar, we could order tapas.
The prospect of ordering tapas from a closed kitchen wasn't at all appetizing. And neither was the way the staff handled us. Why couldn't the hostess have simply informed us at the outset that the restaurant was closed? Skirting around the issue only made us angry enough to not want to pay Cascades a dime of New Times's money. For the record, I'd give Cascades a second chance if I had any faith at all that the owners and managers know what they're doing. But I don't. If they're really foolish enough to close a six-week-old restaurant located in a touristy spot at 9 on weeknights "because it's been really quiet," then they need to go back to hotel-management school. A spanking new eatery shouldn't expect to be anything but quiet; the operators should have first-quarter losses figured into the business plan at the outset; and the marketing scheme should be to gain customers at any cost rather than to drive them away.
Having received the bum's rush at Cascades, we decided to check out the second-floor competition, Olé Olé -- which could teach its neighbor a lesson or two about service and hospitality. At this Mexican restaurant, located in the old Aztec World Cafe spot, hosts and servers wait just outside the front door and usher you inside. They seat you at the best tables rather than the worst. They even escort you to the bathroom, which can be pretty hard to find in this cavernous, pre-Columbian space that still features the huge "rock" (actually plexiglass) columns, pyramids, and temple walls, designed to remind diners of the Aztec and Mayan civilizations. (The 21 TVs are for football rather than history fans.) None of which, of course, has anything to do with the food Olé Olé puts out, which reflects ancient Mexico about as much as the hat dance does.
Sadly, despite the cordial service, you won't learn anything of a culinary nature here, either as a rival restaurateur or as a customer. As congenial as the staff is, the Mexican and Cuban -- that's right, Cuban -- pabulum here is about as unappealing as the décor. If I had to sum up the fare at Olé Olé in one word, it would be cheesy, because the dairy product blankets virtually every item, even the side dishes that come with the fajitas, in a layer so thick it's thermal.
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Indeed, dishes like the huevos rancheros looked to be nothing more than a plate of melted Monterey Jack and cheddar cheeses, which had been heated to such a degree that the oil had separated from the cheese to lie on top like sweat on a brow. In retrospect, however, maybe that wasn't such a bad thing. Once the cheese was dug away, three fried eggs were all-too-apparently overcooked, and the corn tortillas they were sitting on were disintegrating from the weight of about a gallon of ranchero sauce. As for appetizers like the crab nachos, I'd leave the cheese on. If you take both the cheese and the Noxzema-thick layer of sour cream off, then you might be offended by the seemingly faux crab stuff that is billed on the menu as a combo of snow and king crab. Right. More like a combo of pollock and cod.
But at least, like the rather decent versions of fajitas -- "the meal you can hear!" -- nachos and huevos rancheros are appropriate dishes to find in a place that calls itself a Mexican grill. Not so the tuna dip, which the menu freely acknowledges is an anomaly: "We don't know what the heck tuna dip is doing with Mexican food...." Ditto. I'm also not sure why it was served without any accompaniments (cucumber or carrots would work) or even a plate under the small bowl of tuna purée. What the heck indeed.
So-called "Cuban favorites" also proved disenchanting. Bistec milanesa was a thin, tough strip of steak battered, fried, smeared with tomato sauce, and practically gift-wrapped with cheese. Served with flavorless black beans and white rice, the steak congealed a little too quickly for my tastes. The Mexican pizza, a starter, followed suit. The fried flour tortilla was layered with ground beef and tomatoes, then lidded with a block of melted and reformed cheese and a sprinkling of mushrooms, green peppers, and scallions. I've always liked the idea of Mexican pizza, one of those cross-cultural inventions that somehow works when done well, but this time, I was a little thrown by the mushrooms and a crust so soggy it rivaled Domino's.
Having overdosed on the high calorics, we skipped dessert in favor of a Patron margarita, Olé Olé's saving grace and a welcome way to, well, cut the cheese. As far as saving Riverfront goes, however, Olé Olé, along with Cascades, looks like a wash.