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Restaurant Reviews

A Little Tail

The bare midriff is making me insane. I admit I first thought the trend of displaying tight, tanned little tummies, with or without belly ring installed center stage, kind of cutely risqué. But after pop princesses like Christina Aguilera took it to such extremes that they now present themselves naked from the hip joints to the bra line, I'm finding it predictable and wearisome, not to mention demeaning.

Yes, demeaning. Because women seem to be required these days to display their fit selves, but I don't see men out there working their six-packs in a cutoff. I find this sort of half-dressing especially distressing at restaurants such as Tails Tropic Island Grill in Pompano Beach, where the female employees, in butt-hugging shorts and tropical-print mini-blouses that tie rather than button, resemble Britney Spears on her "live from Hawaii" TV special. The male employees also wear Hawaiian-print uniforms but are fully, comfortably covered.

I'm no prude, butt frankly I just want to see equal skin. If the girls are required to costume themselves in a revealing manner, then the same rule should apply to the boys. I wouldn't mind eyeing some shapely XY T&A served along with the snapper in curry sauce or fried shrimp with mango-habanero sauce.

However, I can fully understand why Tails Restaurant LLC clothes the flock in such a manner, akin to the Hooters girls: to distract patrons from the food, which, like some of the girls', ahem, tails, could stand to be fleshed out a little. Not in terms of portions, which are plenty big enough. But the Caribbean-influenced dishes vary so widely in preparation that dinner is a culinary crapshoot.

Throw the dice once, and you could end up with a tasty appetizer such as the crab pancakes, which were delicate buttermilk flapjacks sandwiching huge chunks of fresh lump crab, garnished with roasted corn sliced off the cob and red and green bell peppers, and dressed with a chili-tamarind reduction. But throw 'em again, and you get a cracked-conch starter over coconut-flavored rice in which the medallions of mollusk are both withered and burned. The kitchen could pump up these disks with as much rice as they like; the quality would still be poor enough to warrant food stamps.

A blackened sea bass entrée, served with a sun-dried tomato-corn cake that tastes like polenta, was a wonderful piece of fish: thick, big flakes with a buttery taste and a consistency like tender sea scallops. But coriander-crusted tuna, which the server advised us to order medium-rare, was more of a main corpse than a main course. Hardly sushi-grade fish, the steak was far too thin to be seared in such a fashion; the cooks had to take it off the grill to prevent overcooking long before the edges had crisped up. As a result, the fish was an unappetizing plate of mush, and we sent it back to the kitchen pronto.

Quality and freshness can vary in the same dish. The crawfish that dotted a Creole Cajun pizza were inconsistent. Some were pleasant and lobsterlike, some were rubbery but not offensive, and others were mushy and foul, clearly on the way out. The crawfish fared better as a simple entrée, deep-fried in batter and served with a choice of barbecue-type sauces; thus disguised, the flavor of the crustaceans wasn't such an issue. Alligator chili, a starter, was a rugged dish that would help a beer go down, but blue-corn tortilla chips, ostensibly for scooping up the peppery chili, were stale and ragged. Meat loaf -- a blend of beef, lamb, and veal, according to our server -- had terrific flavor and wasn't too dry. But the mashed potatoes atop which the two slices lay were pasty, with big, uncooked lumps of potato in them.

Food aside, Tails is actually a big, fun spot. The three-story restaurant, poised over the Hillsboro Inlet, provides numerous different seating opportunities. You'll be best served on hot, muggy summer days in the extensive second-floor dining room, which features striped banquettes, funky iridescent lighting, and colorful murals of the ocean hung with stuffed (as in taxidermy, not crabmeat and bread crumbs) fish and crustaceans. Along with those 235 seats, the third floor features another 90, and the first floor seats an additional 95.

Don't be fooled by the name of the ground level space; Jimmy's Jerk Shack embodies the original Tails concept: a "supercasual, waterfront, kick-back barbecue kind of place," explains director of operations Mark DeAtley. Jimmy is a fictitious character, not the proprietor, but his name is invoked frequently throughout the menu, and the servers speak of him as if he were a real person. Whatever -- some of them probably believe it. The staff is nice, but intelligence is obviously not high on the list of hiring criteria at Tails, which likes to take its name literally. That is, the restaurant serves a lot of tail: alligator, crawfish, and waitress.

The Jerk Shack was meant to replace the one-story Pelican Pub that once stood on the original property. But midway through the plans, which were put into motion early in 1999, DeAtley convinced the proprietors to expand the concept and take proper advantage of the valuable real estate. What's a waterside restaurant, after all, without waterside views? So DeAtley and company put in two additional stories with top-to-tail windows, a pool, and a dock with a decent number of sea breeze-cooled tables.

Good idea, because the barbecue wasn't impressive enough to sustain an entire eatery. We opted for the more unusual boars' ribs over baby-back pork ribs, knowing that most pork ribs are imported from Denmark, where there has been an outbreak of mad cow disease; Danish pork ribs have been banned from U.S. markets. A pity, because the boar ribs were both tough and fatty. They might have been tasty had they been rendered properly; ribs need to be precooked with spices or a marinade before they're grilled in order to help break down the fibers.

However, the Jerk Shack, with its funky bar and biker-boy clientele, is where I'll sit when I come back to Tails. The view from here is a beaut, and with a tropical drink in one hand and fresh tropical chips (yuca, taro, boniato, and yam) in the other, I'm satisfied to rest my feet, along with my higher expectations. DeAtley says a new menu is going into rotation any day now, so I'm hopeful that the discards will include the items that didn't work but not the ones that did. After all, with a well-executed menu -- the kitchen should try refocusing on a smaller list -- the spot deserves a look-see.

But for God's sake, put some clothes on these girls. The only tart on the menu should be the key lime pie.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick

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