This Critic's Darling
When it comes to receiving even the most constructive criticism from people like me, most restaurateurs have the rule of the three Ds: decry, deny, defend. First vilify the reviewer to anyone who will listen: Oh, that critic has a lousy attitude. I hear she's a lonely and miserable person. Sad, isn't it, that she takes out her problems on us. Then dispute all statements of fact: How can she have said we have too many onions in the gazpacho? We don't use onions in our gazpacho. In fact we don't even have gazpacho on the menu. And finally render excuses: Well our chef was having his teeth cleaned that day, so it's really not our fault she had a bad meal. Besides we make our food fresh every week.
As a bestower of criticism, weathering such reactions is part of my job. I am accustomed to chefs and restaurateurs reading my honest assessments of their creations -- even when I am largely positive -- and immediately leaping to the offensive. I am resigned to the idea that critics judge for the good of the consumer rather than the benefit of the purveyor, if only because, as Richard Brinsley Sheridan writes in The Critic, "The number of those who undergo the fatigue of judging for themselves is very small indeed." I understand that so-called expert opinions, subjective as they are, can be like eyelashes on the cornea: good only for flushing out of sight.
That is why when I find a restaurant like 3030 Ocean that seems to have not only comprehended even the pettiest criticisms rendered to it but taken them to heart, I do the same and press said eatery to my lonely and miserable bosom.
I'm in a rather unusual position with this six-month-old restaurant located in the lobby of the Marriott's Harbor Beach Resort in Fort Lauderdale: I'm the last critic in town to visit it. As such I've had the opportunity to digest every other reviewer's opinion, from major compliments to minor complaints. I was, in turn, then able to assess how the restaurant management team has responded to their critiques.
For instance the Sun-Sentinel critic noted that the waiters "try hard but seem hampered by covering a broad territory" and that the management "stood idly by while water glasses remained chronically unfilled, wine glasses were topped off by diners and customers impatiently waited to give orders or have their places cleared." It's true that this contemporary dining area is expansive, with a lot of marble floor to cover between kitchen and tables. But several months later, the issue of service seems to have been addressed. My party was attended by a waiter-busboy partnership, an approach I particularly like because it gives a customer more than one person -- but not an entire, impersonal staff -- upon whom to rely for things like water and wine refills. In fact the latter was done so promptly that we ordered a second bottle before the arrival of entrées; our only complaint was that fresh glasses were not provided for this different vintage. Silverware was, however, replaced ritualistically before every course. And as for the seafood-oriented fare itself, both members of the team were equally knowledgeable about preparations, even spouting recipes, and each dish was presented with an informed announcement of its name.
Likewise, the critic from City Link griped about the service, but not as much as he did about executive chef Dean Max's obvious fondness for vegetables: "Given the high prices, seafood and meats were skimpily apportioned. That their meager presence was overshadowed by more generous portions of vegetables and garnishes only made the small portions more obvious." Several weeks later, that issue too appears to have been remedied. The cost of main courses is still relatively high-end, running from $19 to $33, but we found starters such as shrimp sautéed with mango, hearts of palm, and watercress to be so delectable they were worth the price. We also thought plates were properly balanced between the star attraction and the accompaniments. Moreover we were delighted to witness Max's provocative use of oft-snubbed vegetables like Brussels sprouts, which he poaches with wine and garlic, our waiter told us, before crushing them with Yukon Gold potatoes to make a rich and innovative mash. This side dish partnered a perfectly grilled beef tenderloin that glistened with port sauce and was enhanced by a mattress of braised, deboned short ribs.
Indeed, if you want to focus on stars and nothing but stars, start at the raw bar and consume some of the freshest oysters in town. But in truth Max's novel inclination toward vegetative substances is what sells me on 3030. I can't recall the last time I've seen wild sorrel on a menu down here, let alone tasted it in the form of savory soup garnished with succulent smoked salmon. I don't think I've ever sampled snow pea sprouts as a color-wheel contrast to an entrée of shelled Maine lobster, but the splash of green purée amplified the shellfish, which had been steamed and then roasted in butter. Even simple preparations such as the timbale of tuna tartare, a vibrant starter dressed with an orange-soy sauce reduction, benefited from the support of a cucumber base and wakame (seaweed) garnish, which lent both freshness and textural counterpoint to the evenly chopped, lightly spiced fish.
Max's search for uncommon combinations also leads him to serve creative appetizers such as the pan-roasted soft-shell crab with smoked bacon and a lemon-cream condiment. Though we thought an addition of pasta to the dish was an odd misstep, the crab had been so skillfully rendered that the offending noodles hardly mattered. And because Max is something of a hometown boy -- he hails from Stuart -- he has a good eye for local-but-not-popular products like gray grouper, which he presented with yams, pea tendrils, and cipollini onions. A fragrant orange sauce enlivened the slightly bland grilled fillet.
Our busboy was so enthusiastic about dessert we couldn't deny him the chance to serve us his particular favorite, the warm chocolate cake with brandied cherries and Bailey's ice cream. It was indeed a heady concoction, as was the key lime soufflé, which featured an intense coconut sorbet and a "ravioli" made from shaved pineapple. For something with a pleasantly bitter tang, the Venezuelan chocolate mousse with praline foam and peppermint ice cream offers a comprehensive conclusion. But the sweetest part of the dessert course came when the server took back a cappuccino and made a new one for the guest who happened to be in the restroom when it arrived.
Speaking of sweet, nary a complaint was to be found about service, prices, or fare in The Herald's review. And while in general I always believe in room for improvement and am officially delighted that 3030 seems to have responded in good faith to its other critics, I agree that "3030 Ocean isn't your typical hotel-dining experience; it's the kind of restaurant you'd actually choose." I only hope that the glowing comments, as opposed to the criticisms, don't incite 3030 Ocean or chef Dean Max to rest on their wild sorrel.
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