Shape Up or Ship Out
A restaurant that lacks business can do several things to remedy the situation. It can a) close down and remodel, then have a splashy grand reopening for the press; b) change its name, hoping to pass itself off as a new eatery and attract unwitting customers; c) revamp and lower its prices; or d) all of the above. Pusser's West Indies chose this last option.
The restaurant is the third U.S. location of a popular British Virgin Islands chain. Pusser's originally opened in late 1996 as Pusser's DownUnder on East Oakland Park Boulevard overlooking the Intracoastal, taking over the then-23-year-old DownUnder and keeping the name to capitalize on the former restaurant's reputation. But the staid, Continental image of the DownUnder didn't serve Pusser's, which got its start providing rum to the British Royal Navy in the early 1700s and is known for a drink called the Painkiller. But limited views of the waterway, a stuffy cigar-and-wine room, and a pricey menu didn't bring in the customers. And a quick name change, to Pusser's Landing, didn't work.
So in April 1998 the restaurant closed for remodeling, reopening in December as Pusser's West Indies. Now, instead of a brick wall, which absorbed the room's natural light, sliding glass doors back the main dining room; black-and-white palm-frond wallpaper complements the remaining brick walls; additional Victorian light fixtures brighten the cherry wood bar and dark wood tables; and a new patio provides plentiful outdoor seating. "We needed to open it up to the Intracoastal," manager Jackie Quint said. "We also wanted to accentuate the West Indies and Floribbean flair."
As far as location and decor, that makes sense to me -- what's the point of running a tropical restaurant on the water if you can't be near enough to take a dunk if so inclined (particularly after a Painkiller or two)? But looks get you only so far. The measure of any restaurant is the menu and its execution. And here Pusser's has plenty of room for improvement.
A number of dishes do reflect the chain's British and Caribbean roots: fish and chips and Trinidadian herb-rubbed fish are two entrees. A bowl of terrific black bean soup, spiked with sausage and garnished with sour cream, was savory and rich. We also enjoyed a combination starter, three each of conch fritters and shrimp-and-corn fritters. The deep-fried balls were a little doughy for my taste, the nuggets of conch and shrimp notably sparse. But they were flavorful with vegetables, and the accompanying cocktail sauce was sharp with horseradish. Following the starters was a delicious main course of sea bass, topped with pungent Cuban sofrito (sauteed onions, garlic, and peppers) and accompanied by rice pilaf and sauteed squash and broccoli. The fillet was sweet and flaky, perfectly cooked, and shone through the too-pungent topping; billed chutneys were missing from the dinner plate, however.
Unfortunately much of Pusser's menu -- hamburgers, pastas, pizzas, and a raw bar -- seems aimed at satisfying American preferences rather than embracing the Caribbean. And neither the penne pasta with roasted artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes, and olives -- and scallops for an additional $2.50 -- nor the Maine lobster pizza was particularly successful. The noodles were tasteless and the pizza, a thick-crusted, individual-size serving, was oddly spicy with a ginger flavor, which overwhelmed the chunks of dried-out lobster. Maine lobster, in fact, rather than rock lobster, a Caribbean crustacean, was all over the menu -- in addition to garnishing pizzas, customers can order it whole or as a lobster casserole.
I wouldn't recommend the latter, which can be ordered as an appetizer ($9.95) or paired with steak, pork, or chicken ($20.95). The lobster meat was ruined by overbaking, and a layer of stringy Swiss cheese was inappropriate; a more traditional light coating of bread crumbs and butter would do better here. As far as grilled or steamed whole Maine lobsters go, the prices are fairly typical -- $18.95 for a one-pounder, $22.95 for a one-and-a-half-pounder. (Local steak houses usually charge about $17 per pound.)
Sea scallops were also well represented, with better results: They proved succulent, if a bit cold, in the appetizer of scallops Mornay, baked with creamy Swiss cheese sauce, and in a stir-fry main course with shrimp and crabmeat. The stir-fry entree was tasty and plentiful, with an assortment of zucchini and broccoli, but the shrimp and crab were woefully overcooked, grainy and disintegrating in the light soy-flavored sauce.
The best bargains at Pusser's West Indies can be found at the bottom of the menu, where diners can satisfy beef and seafood cravings by ordering combos like the prime rib and crabcakes. We weren't happy with the fatty prime rib, which tasted as if it had been hanging around for the amount of time it takes to cross from Great Britain to Virgin Gorda, but the crabcakes were wonderful. Slightly mustardy, the pan-fried cakes were crisp outside and meaty with shredded crab and minced peppers.
At various points throughout the meal, the Painkiller -- a combo of Pusser's famous rum, pineapple juice, orange juice, and cream of coconut -- sounded tempting, especially given the service, which was often as dim as the room's poor lighting. (We actually had to ask the manager to increase the voltage so we could see to read the menus.) Among other transgressions, our waitress forgot drink refills and served us steamed oysters instead of clams.
Because I actually had to remember what I ate, I passed on the Painkillers and settled for the pan-fried honey bananas, a rum-infused banana split drizzled with caramel sauce, getting enough of a high from the sugar content. Along with a rich brownie topped with chocolate ice cream, the bananas were meant to be a surprise birthday treat we'd set up beforehand. Unfortunately our server ruined this by announcing that the birthday girl would get a free sweet. Her heart was clearly in the right place. The same can be said for Pusser's management, which is seeking to improve its struggling franchise with expensive overhauls.
But until the management puts its money where the mouths are (by perfecting the menu), and until the waitstaff learns to differentiate between clams and oysters, the new Pusser's buzz is doomed to dissipate faster than a shot of rum.
Pusser's West Indies. 300 E. Oakland Park Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-563-4123. Dinner Monday through Friday from 4 to 11 p.m., Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Black bean soup (bowl)
Prime rib/crabcake dinner
Pan-fried honey bananas
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