Sea of Blah
Ramada Inns don't vary much from city to city. Sure, some are newer and spiffier than others, and the accents of workers will differ among regions, but a single corporate philosophy guides them all -- and unfortunately their respective dining establishments as well. The philosophy is based solely on the bottom line, which, when applied to those restaurants, translates as: "Why bother hiring talented chefs who can create flavorful meals using fresh ingredients when, for a fraction of the cost, you can hire minimum-salaried kitchen workers to take premade frozen foods, heat them up, and disguise the lack of quality with embellishments?" This sort of thinking is probably the reason Ramada Inns have never earned a reputation for fine dining, and why, when we headed to Fountains by the Sea in the Ramada Plaza Beach Resort, we did so with diminished expectations.
Some things here are homemade, like the conch chowder, a peppery version of the tomato-based soup, which was short on potatoes, long on succulent conch and piquant flavor. One person at the table deemed the broth too spicy, but those of us with stouter palates enjoyed it. We skipped "chicken zingers," a breaded breast-strip version of Buffalo wings served with celery spears, blue cheese dip, and hot sauce, and also bypassed baked beef sausage with mustard and horseradish (mostly to avoid a bypass) but ordered all three remaining appetizers on the meager menu: shrimp cocktail, conch fritters, and crabcakes. The five shiny and well-chilled jumbo shrimp, draped over the edge of a parfait glass and served with a lemon wedge and cocktail sauce, lacked firmness. They seemed awfully similar to the preshelled, precooked sort sold at Costco. Two breaded, hamburger-shape crabcakes were also prepared long before they ever made their way to Ramada's kitchen, the staff needing only to carry them from freezer to fryer, place on a bed of shredded lettuce and diced red peppers, and add two plastic serving cups to the plate, one filled with tartar sauce, the other with mayo-based Dijon sauce. (Both cups were sealed tight with clear plastic lids, a good idea for keeping preportioned dips odor-free while sitting in the fridge but quite unnecessary to bring out to the dining room.)
I'm not certain if it was the Ramada reputation or the less-than-stellar quality of the shrimp and crabcakes that were to blame for my skepticism toward the conch fritters. The eight small, darkly fried balls tasted just fine, but were they, as the menu claimed, an "original recipe from the Bahamas"? Or were they prepared from a powdered conch-fritter mix I've seen used in restaurant kitchens, wherein water and eggs are added to make batter à la Bisquick? Hmm.
Salads sustained the sappy tone set by the starters. The caesar salad featured romaine lettuce in the midzone between limp and crisp, a dressing focused more on garlic than anchovies or lemon, cheap Parmesan cheese, and spongy croutons. Our original modest expectations were sinking quickly, but I figured at least the simplest of salad descriptions, "hearts of palm on a bed of mesclun greens with lemon-chive infused dressing," could be competently realized. I was wrong, but the kitchen did manage to get two out of three correct, lacking only the lemon-chive infusion. In its place we were given a choice of Russian, ranch, blue cheese, oil-and-vinegar, and other such supermarket selections.
Main courses were better, probably because the kitchen crew actually cooked them from scratch. Straightforward preparations of salmon, swordfish, scallops, and shrimp made up the seafood offerings, along with a thick, crisp plank of pecan-crusted orange roughy, the sweet, white flakes of fish pan-sautéed to just the right degree of succulence. At first I couldn't tell if "port tenderloin tid-bits," described as "skillet roasted on high flames with crushed garlic, chopped shallots, and bite sized potatoes," contained beef tenderloin with port wine or was simply a misspelling of pork. Turned out to be the latter -- small, overcooked white cubes of pork and small, brown cubes of potato seasoned with garlic, cumin, and other savory spices.
Filet mignon "à la Miller" also had me flummoxed, and not just because I don't know what "à la Miller" means. Why bother describing the steak as "stuffed with house pâté, with green peppercorn sauce" if you're going to serve it with neither? The bare beef, with brown gravy served in a sauceboat on the side, was grilled to a properly rosy medium-rare and was tender enough to cut with a butter knife (good thing, too, because there was no steak knife in the house), but it would have been better if left as a thick filet instead of being butterflied into two one-inch discs. Restaurants often do this to speed up cooking time, but the steak loses some of its depth of soft, buttery texture in the process. Entrées come with choice of starch (baked potato, French fries, or two scoops of smooth mashed potatoes), and a bland, less-than-vibrant stir-fry of snow peas, red peppers, canned straw mushrooms, and water chestnuts.
One factor in the Fountains' favor: It's a lovely place to sit outdoors for lunch, the breezy ocean vistas a vast improvement over the duller, loungelike ambiance at night. Also on the plus side: The skimping on food and labor costs keeps menu prices down. Appetizers run from $6.25 to $7.95, main courses $12.95 to $21.95. Of course, you get what you pay for.
Desserts such as Snickers pie, apple pie, hazelnut or plain cheesecake, and chocolate-strawberry layer cake are, like most commercially prepared baked goods, packed with an inordinate amount of sugar, a process that keeps cakes moist for long periods of time. (These desserts probably came out of the oven weeks earlier.) Still, it's possible they'll satisfy those with a serious sweet tooth.
Insipid as our experience was, there might still be hope for Fountains by the Sea. Veteran food and beverage manager Jimmy Farber took over some two weeks ago; he promises a total revamping, with a "beachfront upscale casual" ambiance and a menu featuring "a lot of seafood and steak." Our advice to Farber: Don't be afraid to scrap everything and start from ground zero. Unless he makes some profound changes, I can't imagine anyone not absolutely trapped in the Ramada ever choosing to eat here a second time.
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