Sliders in Paradise
Crepes are one of the world's simplest foods: As long as you've got flour, egg, milk, and a pat of butter on hand, it's possible to produce a dish that works for most occasions. Sprinkle sugar on your pancake and breakfast is a done deal. Add a grating of cheese, a leftover slice of ham, and there's your luncheon. Go all out with ratatouille or creamed chicken and you've made a supper you could plate without embarrassment for the fussiest gormandizer. Dessert? Oui, if you happen to have handy a block of dark chocolate or some crisp green apples to sauté in a drop or two of Calvados.
The French have all kinds of tools to make crepe production appear complex and inscrutable: specially designed wooden crepe spreaders, inverted griddles, and excessive attitude. They're awfully good at it, and maybe the rest of us should just step aside. I'd certainly hate to think that anybody might taste his or her first crepe at 101 Ocean, the new beachside grill in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea: You might go away thinking you never needed to eat another one. Let's try to persuade the management to eighty-six those crepes, because there isn't the paltriest reason for them to be on the menu. 101 Ocean is, in fact, a bar-food-serving, sports-channel-showing, '80s-greatest-hits-playing kind of place. You might be fooled by the groovy waterfalls and the tropical fish tank, the wide wood-plank floors and the frieze that runs along the ceiling printed with names of famous beaches around the world — but this, folks, for all the niceties, is your all-American tropical hangout. It's a restaurant that has had the foresight to set up its own pizza counter, where you can walk the block from the beach to grab a slice; it's got a full, open-air bar with all the accouterments you need to make a tequila sunrise, a frozen daiquiri, a pineapple fizz, or a zombie. Nobody cares if you arrive with sand in your shoes or if you're down to your last 15 bucks — there's something on the menu you can afford. A bloody mary is just $6.50 if you're not too proud to go for the well vodka.
So putting crepes on this menu is a little like trying to make a silk purse out of a perfectly respectable sow's ear or to leave the poor sow with both ears intact but to try to gussy her up with, you know, lipstick or something. 101 Ocean needs to do nothing more than dish up reasonably priced plates of fish and chips, sliders, and peel-and-eat shrimp; to put a mountain of fat, salty steak fries alongside every "Philly cheese steak panini" or roast beef Reuben, and to leave you wiping the grease off your chin and licking your oily fingers. Maybe it shouldn't have surprised me, come to think of it, that my spinach and mushroom crepe ($7.95) was so lame. It was quite overtly lame: a flat, square, brown block with no evidence of crisp edges or buttery mottling. It had all the earmarks of something prepared long ago, something prefabricated, probably frozen, and, certainly, entirely misunderstood. My guess is that the crepes themselves are not homemade, that these uniformly ugly wraps are bought elsewhere and then stuffed to order in 101's kitchen with your choice of ham and cheddar, three berries, "cordon bleu," or bananas and chocolate. In any case, to call them flavorless would be to overpraise them — they do have a flavor, and it's not a good one.
Likewise, 101's crispy chicken wings ($8.95) don't taste good either, and that's an even worse affront. Chicken wings belong on this menu; they're of a piece with the beer quaffing, the ball watching, and the sunburn scratching. But the Caribbean jerk-seasoned wings (they're also available in other flavors) gave me some insight into where the masterminds of 101 Ocean have stumbled: They're just trying too damned hard with all their gourmet shenanigans. A chicken wing, not unlike a crepe, is as uncomplicated and innocent as any foodstuff has a right to be. To make a fabulous chicken wing, all you have to do is fry the limb in deep fat and then pour a delicious sauce over it. The original Anchor Bar "Buffalo" sauce, for instance, is made of butter, vinegar, and Tabasco. Even Craig Claiborne knew better than to try to improve upon something so inevitable. But 101 Ocean has taken the inevitable and made it inedible: Their poor wings are drenched in sticky, nearly black, candified, powdery-textured goo. I believe the note that blares loudest is tamarind, probably from whatever "jerk" seasoning they're using, followed by salt, followed by that cloying sweetness. You'd have to have an utterly dead palate to be able to finish this generous bowl of wings — I couldn't even choke down one. And I was hungry.
That's the bad news. We've gotten it out of the way and can drop it, because 101 does plenty with passable ease or even admirably. Sliders ($10.95 for fish, $9.95 for chicken or sirloin) are delicious. You can order one of each, if you like, which makes a delectable trio: The soft, white, grilled bun of the sirloin miniburger is slathered with a black pepper mayo; the mahi slider comes with a pickled creamy tartar sauce; and the grilled white meat on the chicken slider is nicely charred. Yum. A Philly cheese steak panini ($10.95, also meatball, classic Italian, or Cuban) puts shaved prime rib, gooey cheese, and grilled onions between unctuous grilled bread: It's greasy in a good way, and you get those salty steak fries as a side. I was delighted too with my Greek salad ($6 for a half portion): a bowl of chopped romaine, black olives, tomatoes, feta, and purple onions as fresh, cold, tart, and crisp as I could have wanted. The success of these dishes promises that other salads (Cobb, Caesar, herbed goat cheese) have potential, as does a plate of fish and chips (made with battered cod) or fish taco (made with mahi) or the eight-ounce cheeseburger (made with the same black Angus sirloin). Here's the humble heart and soul of 101 Ocean.
Crab cakes, a special recommended by our server, were just OK — three heavily breaded lumps ($25) with drizzles and drippings and squiggles of creamy tartar and very hot pepper sauce. They would have done better to use the crab in that third cake and instead produce two meatier versions. I'd skip the bowl of clam chowder ($6.95) next time: oversalted and fishy. As for the bar, my "prickly pear margarita" ($9.95) was too sweet and tasted mix-made, but a bloody mary ($7.50 with Absolut) was tops.
I won't usually recommend a place with such a high strikeout rate (including the service: Our dinner waiter was kind, helpful, and swift; our lunch waitress and an oblivious day manager completely useless), but I so want to like 101 Ocean. Here we could have a dependable and pleasant beachside hangout — it's so clean and pretty and breezy — if only somebody would taste the food coming out of the kitchen and evaluate it with a cool head and no prejudice. God grant us the discipline to learn to focus our talents — and that goes for all of us. And grant us too the good sense to leave crepes to the French.
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