You Got the Chops?

Joe Rocco

I have a friend who's known among her circle as "The Dream Crusher." Confide your long-held desire to take singing lessons and she'll warn you about throat polyps. Announce your pregnancy, she'll calculate the cost of raising a child to maturity, wondering aloud how you might otherwise have spent that extra million dollars. Show her the plans for your new kitchen, she'll Google the lawsuits levied against your contractor.

I didn't invite my friend on our latest foray to the Seminole Hard Rock because she would have ruined our fun. But I felt her spirit wafting alongside us as we handed our keys to the valet ($7) and pushed through the throngs into the casino, where several acres of ashen-faced souls were hunkered down over the poker tables, squinting through the cigarette smoke at their losing hands. My personal hell's an enclosed space filled with strangers and the ting-ting-aling of a hundred thousand slot machines, but the door at the end of this gantlet opened onto what could have been my very heaven if all went well — a big jazz club with a first-rate sound system and a menu serving competent, upscale food.

Jazziz Bistro opened at the Seminole Hard Rock in 2004 after Michael Fagien's plans for the original bistro — in partnership with Dickie Brennan in New Orleans — fell through. If their long-term goals hold, though, Fagien and his wife, Lori, will make it the first of a nationwide chain. The Fagiens began their career in Gainesville and took their little homegrown magazine, Jazziz, from what was basically a garage-zine to national level in short order. In the 23 years since, they've parlayed the business into Jazziz Omnimedia, now based in Boca Raton, producing everything from Jazziz to cookbooks equipped with CDs (easy-listening music for chopping onions) to key chains and wallets.

Burt Rapoport is their partner in the bistro venture. Rapoport is to restaurants as the Fagiens are to jazz — Rapoport the sultan of South Florida restaurant "concepts," the Fagiens the earls of easy listening. All three share the kind of hyperkinetic marketing personality that can blather unself-consciously about the "development, imaging, and positioning of the venue's jazz-based entertainment theme" on the bistro's website, when one yearns for prose — I don't know — with just a little more bebop, a little more soul?

Yes, this is a jazz club. But we were hardly expecting the next incarnation of Snug Harbor — snug this place is certainly not. It's a sprawling space with outdoor seating overlooking the central square, an excellent locale for girl- and boy-watching. Directly inside, tables are set up around a snazzy bar, glistening with liquor bottles, where you can catch the onstage act via flat-screen plasmas posted around the room and hear the live music with a minimum of warp. The main dining room, where customers pay a $10 cover added to the dinner bill, offers straight views of the stage from every seat. The only table left when we got there was directly under the band, though; we turned it down in favor of a marginally quieter high-top near the door. The beautiful girls handling the front desk, who must seat many hundreds of people a night, were exceedingly nice.

Jay Prisco runs the kitchen. Prisco is a longtime associate of Rapoport's, and the two of them have put together the Menu Most Likely to Succeed: small plates in the $10 range — ceviche, calamari, spinach dip, plus a half-dozen Asian-themed bites; a welter of salads chopped, caesared, or festooned with bacon and gorgonzola; fish fillets, steak, chicken, pork, and sandwiches. There's not much on the menu that's going to rock your world, but there are little touches of wasabi and andouille, of chili dipping sauce and crab-fried rice to make you feel a little exotic, in an adult-contemporary kind of way.

I love the mix of people Hard Rock attracts. A high proportion of good-looking young people are sort of muddled in among the slouchiest gamers and slummingest, washed-up rock stars and dizziest tourists, with every color of skin from heat-rashed snowbird to café latte to ebony well represented. People dress up and dress down and for the most part mingle effortlessly and with good will toward their fellow travelers, secure in the knowledge that everyone is being fleeced equally. One table over from ours, two fat, middle-aged ladies were composing their travel diary ("Ruthie won $20, and we celebrated with chicken lettuce wraps and spinach dip"); across the way, a dozen high-rolling studs with their gorgeous babes were digging into multitiered appetizers; at our elbow a sixsome, the balding male half of the contingent blabbing into cell phones while the girls tossed their dark manes and exchanged baleful glances ("This was your idea"). Food runners roamed between tables, desperately hoping to rid themselves of the plates they were carrying — who'd ordered the god-damned toga rashi beef tenderloin skewers? Who got the chops? And where the hell do these crispy popcorn shrimp go? Jazziz Bistro is a condensed, noisy microcosm of what it means to be fed and entertained in America in the year 2006.  

The crispy popcorn shrimp ($10.95) and the Shanghai pork dumplings ($8.95) were ours, as it happened. I watched one poor guy try to unload them at four different tables, then give up and flee back to the kitchen. After a while, he came out again and put them down in front of us. These small plates had cool touches — a whole big mess of shrimp, peppery and salty and steaming hot, were served in a paper bag, exactly right for the spirit of the place. These are ideal jazz-club junk food; spear them with your fork and dip them in a little mustard sauce and these babies are completely addictive. You've got hot, greasy, cool, spicy, soft, and crunchy going on, like a long, deeply satisfying improvisation. The Shanghai pork dumplings came spilling out of a cutely overturned Chinese food takeout container, with tart-salty cabbage salad, and these were really good too.

I wish the band we were meanwhile watching on the flat screen — Roger George & Legacy — had been as yummy. They appear to be the totally unthreatening Saturday fill-in house band, and they play mostly R&B greatest hits, the musical equivalent of a concept restaurant serving pan-Asian-American finger food. The bistro has brought in the occasional smooth jazz icon — Spyro Gyra, Gato Barbieri — but mostly serves up South Florida fare like Valerie Tyson, Pangea, and Iko Iko, with national acts once a month. Acoustic Alchemy and Pieces of a Dream are on the schedule for this summer. Pardon me while I stifle a shrimp-scented yawn.

So far, so mellow. Our experience had been as not-unpleasant as a cover of "It's De-Lovely" sung by Lea Delaria. Problems surfaced with the arrival of the entrées and yet another hapless food runner confused about who got what. I bit into my partner's mahi, expecting salmon. She took a woof of my salmon and decided she preferred it to the mahi. Conflict ensued. I managed to wrest back my toga salmon ($22.95), but that left her disappointed on many fronts with the "Florida Thanksgiving" mahi ($25.95), for which she was clearly not giving thanks. This festive dish had been described on the menu as grilled mahi with "rock shrimp stuffing," pineapple salsa, and beurre blanc. What arrived was grilled mahi with a single, naked rock shrimp huddled on top like a stranded castaway on a desert island, surrounded by an ocean of kidney beans and corn. I hate when that happens.

Partner stubbornly set down her fork and craned around looking for the waiter while I happily plugged through my salmon. It was delicious. Silky, moist, stretched out like a maja on a divan of crispy sticky-rice cake with a big bunch of wilted spinach, oversalted but not inedibly so. I honestly loved it. Partner was fuming. Partner had expected, she hissed furiously, some kind of wonderful, warm, mushed-up shrimp stuffing, like it said on the menu. With the nice grilled fish on top of it. And absolutely no beans.

I sympathized a little while she spent long minutes trying to flag down our waiter, but to be honest, I didn't really care that much. My emotional intelligence plummets significantly when food is involved. As long as I'm not the one with the bum entrée. Eventually, though, our server brought over an extra dish of sautéed rock shrimp ("The word stuffing is a little misleading," he allowed. "And that was supposed to be six ounces of shrimp."). But by that time the fish was cold, the beans were congealing, and partner had spontaneously combusted.

Thinking auto da fe, I ordered a Bananas Foster ice cream cake ($8), with "flambéed bananas" for dessert. What arrived was clearly meant to be a practical joke on the order of a whoopee cushion, because there was no flambé anywhere in evidence, unless those hard little nuggets of "banana" (Were they canned? Or merely "preserved"?) had been set alight sometime during the previous century, evidently with rocket fuel. We scraped them away and ate up all the scrumptious banana ice cream and the sort-of-stale cake, deciding it was just as well our clueless waiter hadn't tried to set anything on fire tableside, anyway; we valued our hair and eyebrows.

Did I say we'd had fun? We had!

Back through the smoky casino, the poker players looking thinner and grayer, and into the jammed, late-night queue at the valet station, and finally back on the turnpike. Believe it: That dark, quiet, empty road home looked mighty inviting.

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