Restaurant Reviews

Hectically Eclectic

Nothing irks me more than a mishandled dining trend. Cuisine, it seems, tends to react like adults who were abused as children -- it grows up, identifies with the attacker, and makes us diners feel like the victims.

Red Coral is a case in point. The two-month-old Fort Lauderdale restaurant on Las Olas Boulevard offers what it calls "Florasian cuisine," which is a Floribbean offshoot of pan-Asian fare, which itself is a breakaway reinterpretation of Pacific Rim stuff, which wasn't all that pure to begin with. The result is a conglomeration of dishes that have been so manipulated beyond the boundaries of good sense, let alone the borders of continents, that the palate can't help but feel punished.

Located in the lobby of the Bank of America building, Red Coral is a gorgeous display of high-tech architecture and mod décor. Twenty-foot ceilings soar over an expansive space that uses lots of steely hues and contemporary angles. Low-slung couches done in crimson and orange greet diners in the foyer, along with a giant golden statue; an open-display kitchen caps the back. A wide bar angling along one side, a second-story loft, and storefront windows complete the picture. Red Coral is more than simple geometry: It's trigonometry brought to well-designed life.

If only the dishes were as carefully orchestrated. Simply put, there's just too much going on -- an endless menu complete with separate sushi section and sake cocktails; influences that range from Jamaica to Japan; ingredients that pile up like a mathematical proof gone wrong. Indeed, so many components go into each dish that the kitchen invariably forgets to include all the ones that are billed on the menu: This dish is sent out without its promised dusting of toasted coconut, that one lacks the "Bohemian" (did they mean Bahamian?) lobster dumplings.

As a matter of fact, the lobster tail that is incorporated into a number of different dishes was 86ed the day we dined. And the menu, which used to include bento boxes for lunch, has already been rewritten from its initial concept (you can see quite a few differences in the dishes between the takeout menu and the ones that make it to the table). These are not positive signs, particularly when the result is a less-than-mediocre meal. Many young restaurants have growing pains, but Red Coral is owned by veterans Jack and Janet Boyle, who operate the popular and critically regarded JB's on the Beach and are part-owners of Mangos. The place, which should have hit the ground running, seems to be out for an aimless stroll.

Take the sushi out of the equation altogether. I can't even stand to see it on a menu anymore, let alone sample one more maki that hasn't been rolled by a master sushi chef. While the flavor of the "Tequila Sunrise" roll we tried, filled with tequila-marinated tuna and yellowtail, was fine, the broken rice grains were gluey, which results from stirring the sushi rice improperly to cool it rather than spreading it out gently with a paddle. Here's an idea for all future pan-Asian eateries: Be really innovative and forget the raw fish.

The rest of the problem with the fare is very much a chicken-egg debate. Are the recipes badly conceived or poorly executed? From the sound of it, I'd say appetizers like the crab cake kataife with coconut curry over edamame succotash surely has conceptual problems; from the looks of it, the starter was about as handily executed as a prisoner in the electric chair during a power failure. The crab cake, mostly filler with no discernible seafood flavor, was hidden under puffs of shredded, toasted phyllo dough that looked like Edwardian wigs. The green soybean-based succotash was an ugly partner, while the coconut-curry sauce was just shy of tentative.

A citrus-duck salad was equally as troubled. This composition was supposed to include mixed greens tossed with blood oranges, water chestnuts, and spicy citrus dressing layered with slices of rare duck breast. Stop right there. The duck breast had obviously been cooked ahead of time and then refrigerated, as it was cold, tough, and gray. And those were its good qualities. Forget rare -- this bird had been burned, and even the fat tasted like an old grill. Nor were the rest of the elements refreshing. The greens were aged yellow and tinged with iron, the water chestnuts tinny, and the blood oranges so strangely anemic that we couldn't tell if they were oranges at all. Most oddly, crescents of calabaza squash made an unbilled appearance.

The squash showed up again as a foil for a main course of moo shu pork, which was a thoroughgoing disaster of cabbage, carrots, and overcooked pork so overwhelmed by fresh ginger that we were in danger of rhizome toxicity. The companion pancakes, flecked with scallions, were so leftover-limp and clammy that I couldn't shake that inane Hilary Duff song -- the one that has the refrain of "so yesterday... at least not today, not today, not today" -- out of my mind.

Reinterpreted sandwiches like the roast beef Cantonese dip didn't fare much better. Picture salty, soy-flavored Steak 'Ums stuck on a soggy roll and you've got the dismal picture. The accompanying "jus," which was written as a lo mein sauce, was more like the Boston Chinatown version of lobster sauce: dark, salty, and chunky with ground pork. An Asian-styled mahi-mahi Reuben sandwich was a better option, if only because the fish was nice and fresh and the French fries that accompanied it (the takeout menu says that sandwiches come with "lotus chips") were crisp and good.

If you need more proof, don't look to the pudding -- the Florasian sticky rice sweetened with coconut, palm sugar, and "seasonal fruit from Florida & the Orient" just doesn't strike the right note, at least not if you've started the meal with some sushi. Instead, sample the soups. Broths, stocks, and sauces are a critic's surest tests, because these are the basics that are developed ahead of time and can't be changed at the last minute beyond the addition of salt and pepper. And the two soups we tried were a clear example of how far Red Coral needs to go beyond minor doctoring. In fact, get that miso soup with conch to a hospital. It desperately needs an infusion of flavor beyond the dishwater filled with Band-aids that it already resembles. Won ton soup was a bit less repulsive broth-wise, but the fried dumplings that were floating in it had an egg-heavy stuffing the consistency of wet Styrofoam.

In its favor, Red Coral has a pleasant staff that has clearly been trained. Our waitress knew to bring extra plates and utensils, kept beverages refilled, and answered questions with authority, even when she was wrong or bluffing. For instance, she had told us that the soft-shell crabs in one of the day's specials were fresh, then corrected herself when she found out they were fresh-frozen. When we asked her about the tempura banana-plantain dessert we were eating, she was quick to point out the differences between the related fruits (one was bigger). Now if we can only transfer that kind of confidence to the kitchen, we can stop the cycle of pan-Asian abuse without Floribbean intervention.