To the N9Nzzzzzzzzz

Joe Rocco

When restaurants fail, they don't always do it spectacularly. Sometimes it's just a slow, gloomy slide into mediocrity, and if you happen to be sitting over dinner at one of these joints, the feeling is akin to the plummeting sensation you get at the track when your valiant steed not only falters out of the gate but ends up eating mud for the entire six furlongs. You don't hate the beast, but you'd sure love to horse-whip the jockey, the trainer, and the dimwit breeder who combined to invent and market this swaybacked nag. At least if you weren't feeling like a candidate for the glue factory yourself. When sports teams blow it, their male spectators suffer sudden drops in testosterone, I hear. But I've got news for you: Failure is contagious for food writers too. There's nothing like a half-empty restaurant and a plate of overpriced swill to make me feel like a real loser.

Partially, I think, it's the breach of hospitality: Restaurateurs should endeavor to honor the illusion that customers are guests, even though we're paying. And it's very bad manners to sicken your guests. Or — unless you're a surrealist — to feed them unpleasant things: shrimp that smells like stilton cheese, gray vegetables, bitter pie. We're all a bit finicky and paranoid lately anyway, what with a new E. coli scare practically every week. Now there's news from Consumer's Report that 83 percent of broiler chickens sold in grocery stores are crawling with salmonella and campylobacter bacteria. There's listeria in our HoneyBaked Ham and sick-making strawberries in our Jamba Juice smoothies. Myself, I've been made ill from fish and shellfish served in restaurants so often it barely fazes me anymore — experience is a hard taskmistress.

The worst crimes I usually don't even write about. There was the time my partner and I, sitting at a fairly swank restaurant in downtown West Palm Beach, got a sudden whiff of raw sewage and craned around to see where it was coming from. It took a minute for us to realize that the scent was emanating from the plate of osso buco a waiter had just put in front of me (that restaurant is now thankfully closed). I once had a fish fillet that was attractively striped with blue kitchen cleaner. Scallops that taste of bleach are, sadly, too common. I've seen sophisticated diners, frozen mid-chew, literally spit food out of their mouths like persnickety infants encountering a puréed carrot. But more often, it's the minor disappointments — the flaccid, fusty trout, priced at a cool $30, that somebody's hoping to unload before tomorrow's fish delivery; the soup created from a powdered base; the gummy bread served with cheap olive oil; a "puff" pastry lacking the faintest whiff of air — those are the things that beat you down over the dinner hour. Do they think we've been kicked so often we've started to, you know, like it?

In search of a moderately priced meal, I've been to a couple of restaurants in a row lately bound to engender depression in anybody not propped up on Prozac. But even a good serotonin reuptake inhibitor isn't likely to help you forgive and move on after a meal at the N9Nz (pronounced "nines" as in, I presume, "dressed to the..."), a place billed as "the new hip hangout" (DJs, late-night menu, plasma TVs), its website featuring lots of buxom lasses with glistening cleavage. Talk about bait and switch! When four of us arrived at 7:30, there was no one in the place under 80 except our server. And the fogies definitely clashed with all that leopard print and exposed brick. Somebody had evidently created the idea of a hip hangout down to the shimmery beaded curtains, but there the fantasy ended.

Not that I care — glistening cleavage would have been a distraction anyway from the real issue, like what delectable morsels of bliss "Chef Elso from Guatemala" had in store for me. In his web picture, poor Elso had looked as if he were about to burst into tears, and now I know why. It must cause him real suffering to serve the musty crab and raunchy shrimp we found in our shellfish salad ($18), especially after he'd started us off so nicely, with a little bowl of perfectly decent hummus and olives and toasted bread. And we'd been fine with our escarole bean soup ($8), soothing white beans and greens in a creamy broth; and positively ecstatic over our shrimp cocktail ($12) and grilled baby artichoke salad ($9). None of the above is rocket science, of course, but the shrimp were enormous and tasty and naturally married well with "bloody Mary cocktail sauce," the standard mix of ketchup and horseradish. The artichokes were the marinated kind from a bottle or can (hearts, not babies), and they'd been grilled and set over a bed of frisée with a few leaves of radicchio. I normally hate frisée, but in this case, the heat and oil from the artichokes had softened and sweetened it, and all of this was nicely contrasted with the bitter radicchio. I was happy as the proverbial (fresh) clam until I tasted that seafood salad.

Consternation! Several of us had ordered fish and shellfish entrées, and this didn't bode well. I was expecting a plate of sole with butternut squash risotto; my partner had ordered bouillabaisse. There's nothing like a musky shrimp to really put you off seafood for the evening — I wish chefs would realize this and take heed. Maybe just pass those babies under the nose before tossing them in the sauté pan? Give 'em a prod with the old forefinger to see if they disintegrate?

My expectations have been lowered to the point where I almost never expect fresh seafood anymore. I'm no dummy — I know this stuff has been frozen. The question is, has it been frozen when very fresh? Or has it been allowed to sit around for a week in the fridge after thawing? Has it retained any trace of the briny palate and toothsome texture the animal was born with, or does it smell and taste like a sweaty sock? Is "ammonia" a flavor profile chefs really want to cultivate?

Bouillabaisse ($28), as we well know, is all too often Chef's way of practicing kitchen economy. Chef knows that we may not notice an off flavor or two when our shellfish has been steeped in tomato broth and pepper. It's passive/aggressive payback to those annoying Provençal French, who invented the dish and who continue to insist that the recipe calls for three to five species of fish (not counting shellfish), all caught that day. If you've ever had a bouillabaisse made to these specifications in a South Florida restaurant, raise your hand.

Me neither. And you're not likely to get an authentic Provençal bouillabaisse, one made with fennel and white wine and cloves, with orange peel, clam juice, saffron, and leeks, at the N9Nz (one fish — mahi — plus clams, lobster tail, mussels, scallops, and squid in a watery tomato broth). Did you really expect to?

It's hard for me to even write about my lemon sole ("catch of the day" — yeah, right! $24) even in retrospect because it too was spoiled. Unfortunately, it was most badly ruined in the middle, so I gingerly ate what was only faintly musty until I reached the heart of the fillet, where the game was clearly up. It came with a butternut squash "rissoto" [sic] that was either not made with Arborio rice or hadn't been cooked properly — the grains were distinct, like minute rice, not creamy, as risotto should be.

Our ravioli ($19), however, wasn't bad at all — big discs overstuffed with a ricotta spinach mixture and napped in buttery sauce. I'm willing to bet Chef Elso isn't slavishly making these back there by hand — my guess is they're ordered in frozen from a food purveyor. But I'm not complaining.

"Would you like me to wrap that up?" our waitress asked, eyeing our practically untouched bouillabaisse and carefully dissected sole (sweet girl, she'd been diligent and pleasant, but she couldn't save this meal). No, please.

Dessert, also apparently premade by a purveyor (judging from the menu printed with glossy and rather unappetizing photos) was the hit of the table — a frozen tartufo ($5) made of chocolate and vanilla ice cream and covered with a thin chocolate shell, a maraschino cherry hidden in the center. It tasted exactly like Eskimo pie. We grappled for the last bite like greedy 7-year-olds.

Which is what a meal like this reduces you to. We were fussy children again, enjoined to eat what was put in front of us whether we liked it or not — no matter how bland or rushed or spoiled. Only a smidgen of good, grown-up manners had prevented me from smooshing that lemon sole into my napkin and tossing it under the table.

Hey, Fido, over here...

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