Here in South Florida, we all have our ways of noting the arrival of spring. Some return to the beach, and others, like my husband, hide in the house to avoid hay fever. As for me, I dig up one of my favorite poems by Jane Kenyon. It's called "Philosophy in Warm Weather," and it begins, "Now all the doors and windows/Are open, and we move so easily/Through the rooms.../All around physical life reconvenes." I love the poem not for its cadence or language but because it reminds me to do something I've avoided lately: Dine outside.
The trouble with dining outside is finding a restaurant that has made it through the season. Eateries that depend on terrific views or open-air seating lose a ton of business when the weather turns. Especially if the food isn't up to par.
RJ's Landing, located on Seabreeze Boulevard just off Fort Lauderdale beach, didn't exactly survive. Though its location is unparalleled -- dockside, in a marina packed with yachts -- the eatery started to go downhill after chefs John Murray and Dave Conklin and manager Jeff Parker left a couple years ago. Then the restaurant was sold in 1998 and promptly went bankrupt, closing down early this year. The cafe that took over the spot, called St. Somewhere, "went nowhere," as Meg-an Gaines, day manager of the revitalized RJ's Landing, put it.
That's right: RJ's Land-ing, open now for two months or so, is back. This time, property manager Mike Zuro has decided to run it with the help of partner Hal Cerra, who's had shares in various other Fort Lauderdale restaurants, including Bistro Mezzaluna. And while the interior has changed somewhat -- a dive shop now exists in place of the dining room, so Zuro had to redesign another part of the building to accommodate bad-weather diners -- the old chefs, managers, and bartenders have returned. Judging by the cheerful service, the staff seems happy to be back. In a world of corporate downsizing and job-hopping, I admire that kind of loyalty.
I wish I could praise the fare just as much. Some items, like the dolphin fingers appetizer, were tasty if not particularly creative. The lightly breaded fish sticks were crisp and meaty, and the tartar sauce was a pleasant, if typical, accompaniment. I also thought the chicken Havana entree, half a chicken marinated in mojo (garlic and lime) and roasted, was a generous, moist portion, even if the mojo was barely apparent. The accompanying black beans and rice constituted an enormous pile of aromatic legumes and grains.
Snapper New Orleans, one of the house specialties, also won me over with its pan-fried suppleness and its creamy hollandaise sauce. But I was disappointed by the shrimp on top of the snapper; they'd turned. Likewise the coconut-fried shrimp, a starter, were also on their way out. Flaked coconut batter and orange marmalade sauce couldn't disguise the heavy iodine flavor of the four jumbo crustaceans.
The meat entrees were the most frustrating. The New York strip steak could have been delicious with its cabernet demi-glace, but it was tough and chewy instead. Barbecued ribs were basted with a hickory-infused sauce, but they were as burnt as a boat that's been firebombed.
I'm enthusiastic about RJ's Landing's setting, which is incredibly pleasant and could be a draw in itself. And I believe that, in time, the RJ's Landing that profited for nine years could reappear. But first the cooks of old who've returned need to start paying attention to the food.
South of RJ's Landing, J.Q. McFarlan's, located on the Intracoastal in Hollywood, suffers not from seasonal vagaries but from an identity crisis. The shacklike place, which opened in December 1998, is named after Irish cook-adventurer John Quinn McFarlan, who landed on the island of Montserrat in the Caribbean. But the decor is more Jamaican than Monserratian; the fence that rims the 100 seats outside on the dock is painted with the reggae colors green, red, and black. Meanwhile, the fare -- bland conch fritters and unappealing coconut-fried shrimp -- seems more cliched-Caribbean than Irish-influenced. The only vaguely Irish entree, fish and chips, had more of a Mrs. Paul's edge to it than a beer-battered crisp.
Owner Jessica Haley explained that she and her partner Terry Fitt weren't attempting to evoke the culinary aspects of Ireland. "In my opinion Irish food is pretty bland," she said. Haley comes by her prejudice naturally: Her family runs two restaurants in Chicago called Blarney Island and Port of Blarney, neither of which serves Irish cuisine. Nor are Haley and Fitt targeting any specific tropical island. "The Caribbean is just a way to open it up," Haley told me. "It gives us the opportunity to add spices."
The result, of course, is that the menu is unfocused, offering everything from an overly spiced jerk chicken breast to a platter of clam strips. A tropical salad featuring mango and papaya over lettuce was dressed with a coconut sauce so sweet my teeth ached, and the chicken that topped it tasted like it was tenderized to the point of disintegration. The house specialty, a shrimp burger, was anything but special. Tiny breaded shrimp were laid in a single layer across a bun, and served with a plastic cup of tartar sauce.
In fact, the best item we sampled was a special that evening: chili. The chunks of ground beef and kidney beans were moistened in a flavorful tomato sauce. But look, if you're going to serve some kind of a stew anyway, what's so hard about making an Irish beef stew or, for that matter, the Monserratian specialty of goat water (goat stew)? It's one thing to appropriate a history for your restaurant. It's another thing to make good on it.
Same goes for setting. J.Q. McFarlan's and RJ's Landing both have built-in appeal. But no matter how much spring fever I have, no matter how much physical life all around is reconvening, no matter how many doors and windows are open, I'm simply not going to dine somewhere on the water and pay for mediocre food when I can sit on the beach for free.
RJ's Landing, 515 Seabreeze Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-763-5502. Lunch and dinner daily from 11 a.m. till 1 a.m. J.Q. McFarlan's, 1200 N. Ocean Dr., Hollywood, 954-927-2655. Lunch and dinner daily from 11 a.m. till 2 a.m.
RJ's Landing. 515 Seabreeze Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-763-5502. Lunch and dinner daily from 11 a.m. till 1 a.m.
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J.Q. McFarlan's. 1200 N. Ocean Dr., Hollywood, 954-927-2655. Lunch and dinner daily from 11 a.m. till 2 a.m.
Fish and chips
Jerk chicken dinner