We'd been staring at the pre-Columbian columns that stretch from the floor to the 40-foot ceiling at the six-week-old Aztec World Cafe. The restaurant, located in the new Las Olas Riverfront shopping-and-dining complex in Fort Lauderdale, is a test location, the first of a proposed international chain. (A second Aztec World Cafe is under construction in Tampa, according to floor manager Greg Zarcone.) The design concept is certainly original: An "homage to the Mayan civilization and Indian Aztec," the menu states. (Also provided is a confusing mini-history of these interrelated Mexican tribes.) Representations of monuments, temple walls, pyramids, and sculptures (think gargoyles) are complemented by live Spanish guitar and pan flute music.
"Besides," our hostess added, "the columns are made of plexiglass, not stone. Even if they did fall, they wouldn't hurt."
Famous last words. I've witnessed some decor-related accidents in restaurants. The most memorable was when a three-pound gaff (a hand-held hook used for lifting heavy fish) split a woman's skull in The Fishermen's, a seafood shack on the Newport Beach Pier in California. The gaff had been placed on a ledge to add authenticity to the place (as if the immigrant fishermen spearing mackerel just outside the window weren't picturesque enough) and was knocked loose during a brief tremor that barely registered on the Richter scale. I doubt the customer enjoyed her Dungeness crabs that evening, and I could just imagine how distracting a stone column, faux or no, would be if it took a tumble during our meal.
Actually we weren't too worried. Designer Patrick Danan no doubt constructed the bizarre theme-restaurant with building and safety codes in mind. So we didn't have much to fear from the decor. We had plenty to cringe over when it came to the food, however.
I should make this clear: I have absolutely nothing against chain restaurants. They serve their purpose, and some -- P.F. Chang's, Cracker Barrel, Chart House, even Roadhouse Grill -- do quite well, serving palatable grub appropriate to the surroundings. What I can't understand is why anyone would come up with a theme as striking as Aztec World Cafe's and not follow through with the fare.
As the hostess was seating us, we made the mistake of mentioning out loud the similarities between her employer's restaurant and those that are part of the Rainforest Cafe chain. That chain's parent company, located in Minnesota, spends millions of dollars outfitting each restaurant with virtual rain forests that include life-size mechanical animals, birds, and amphibians posed in their "natural" environments. The Rainforest Cafe is a plastic Metrozoo with a "retail village" attached. And the food ain't bad, either.
The hostess appeared to be offended. "Oh, no," she said. "We're nothing like them."
Well, they should be. Rainforest Cafe not only serves fresh, edible food, but the dishes are named appropriately -- jungle chowder, Rasta pasta, and Kalahari safari potpie, for example. So even if the cuisine is more American than it is "rain forest" -- roast iguana is not on the menu, but grilled cheese is -- at least the chain throws humor and imagination into the mix. And patrons respond by visiting the restaurants in droves. I guess that's why they keep opening the damn things.
Aztec World Cafe, on the other hand, hardly makes the effort. The international fare is indifferently prepared by chef Shashank Agtey (formerly of the Grill Room at the Riverside Hotel) and ranges from bland starters like California egg rolls stuffed with dry chicken and julienne cabbage and peppers to predictable, too-sweet desserts, like marbled New York cheesecake. Why not offer something like "Olmec egg roll," a bean-and-corn-filled treat? Or "pueblo pie," a woven tapestry of fruit and pastry? How about some "sun pasta," named for the Aztecs who worshiped that big yellow disc? Imagination is nowhere to be found in Aztec World Cafe.
The only dish that could be considered whimsical was the Aztec soup, an unappealing, jellied chicken broth garnished with fried tortilla strips and a dab of sour cream. "Very spicy," our server insisted. Very not. The calabaza (pumpkin) bisque actually had more zing, thanks to a dash of sherry and a swirl of cream.
Mexican influences come into play with the quesadilla of the day, an appetizer. We enjoyed our chicken, onion, and Monterey Jack cheese quesadilla, which had been lightly grilled and garnished with fresh guacamole visibly rife with chunks of avocado. On the other hand, we had to search the snow crab, artichoke, and black bean dip for both artichokes and beans. We never did find the 'chokes, but the beans were on the bottom -- they'd apparently sunk through the too-thin liquid. The dip, served with red, green, and white tortilla chips, was pleasantly flavored with real crab, but had been heated to such a degree that the cheese was like soup.
Ripe avocado wedges and tomato slices decorated a fajita salad, which offered a fried tortilla bowl overflowing with greens. The salad had been tossed with a pleasant lemony dressing and topped with strips of grilled flank steak. As for the rest of the fare -- salads, sandwiches, pizzas, pastas, and main courses -- it was literally all over the map. What united many of the dishes was poor preparation. The grilled mahi-mahi sandwich was an overdone, juiceless fish served on a stale focaccia roll. My half-pound mushroom-cheeseburger was burnt on the outside and barely pink in the middle -- definitely not the medium-rare I'd ordered. Both sandwiches were accompanied by cold shoestring potatoes and an interesting Aztec slaw, made with zucchini and marinated in apple-cider vinegar, according to one server.
Another server, who was friendly and helpful (the staff tries hard, even if no one seems to know what pinot grigio is), warned us that the sesame seed-seared tuna entree is served medium-rare, which was fine by us. But the medallions of tuna were almost raw, and the shallot-balsamic sauce was so unobtrusive, the fish required a good long soak in wasabi to give it flavor. And the seafood angel hair pomodoro was rank with fishy gray scallops, rubbery calamari rings, and shrimp that tasted like iodine. The tomato sauce was vibrant with roasted onions, shallots, and white wine, but the super-thin pasta was also super-mushy.
Pizzas at Aztec World Cafe were something of a saving grace, especially the barbecue crust pie, which was crisp and loaded with rich barbecued pork, roasted corn, caramelized onions, and plum tomatoes, all of it topped with queso blanco. On a second visit, though, we were disappointed by the soggy crust of the world pizza, which was dressed with Black Forest ham, grilled pineapple, and queso blanco.
Ulrich Koepf, erstwhile chef of the well-regarded restaurant Hot Chocolates in Fort Lauderdale, serves as a consultant for the restaurant. Perhaps he can put his lauded creativity to the grindstone (or the plexiglass) at Aztec World Cafe. At any rate, someone should make sure the menus are typo-free: The filet mignon should be larded, not "barded," with bacon, and the focaccia clubhouse sandwich should be layered with vine-ripened, not "wine ripened," tomatoes.
As for the concept behind the 270-seat Aztec World Cafe, to my mind it's only that at the moment -- a concept. My advice: Take a page, or a leaf, from the Rainforest Cafe and renovate the menu to reflect the theme. Otherwise the fate of the actual Aztec and Mayan Indians (virtual extinction) may await this overly optimistic chain.
Aztec World Cafe, Las Olas Riverfront, 300 SW 1st Ave., #214, Fort Lauderdale, 954-527-5554. Lunch and dinner Monday to Thursday from noon until midnight; Friday and Saturday until 2 a.m; Sunday until 11 p.m.
California egg rolls
Sesame seed-seared tuna
Seafood angel hair pomodoro