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Restaurant Reviews

An Alternative to Popcorn

Forget the worries about human genetic manipulation and controlled evolution. We should be more concerned about the unnatural adaptation of our movie theaters to 21st-century life.

I admit I was glad, back in the '80s, when the single-screen theater evolved into the more functional multiplex. I was heartened when the pinball machine turned into Galaga, even if I never could master the darn game. And I was thrilled when the standard popcorn offering was enhanced by the addition of nachos and, in some cases, hot dogs. (God bless the microwave.)

But let's face it, folks -- things have gotten out of hand. Cinemas have adopted the casino credo: The longer the customer stays in the building, the more money he or she spends. So now our theaters have been doctored to the point where they've become modern-day Frankenstein's monsters, with 24 screens from which to choose and virtual arcades to deaden our senses. They're maxing us out on entertainment. And as if more candy choices than could fell a dentist's drill weren't enough, the mad scientists can't seem to stop tinkering. Now they want us to swallow bars and restaurants in these places, too.

Take, for example, the Regal Cinemas complex in Las Olas Riverfront, which is so chock full of amusements it's called "The Escape." (Personally, I would've gone with "The Nightmare.") The company couldn't rest with two floors of movies and games -- including bowling, for chrissakes -- connected by shopping-mall escalators (the faster to get us to "the product"). It just had to add Del Moro's restaurant to the package.

And a big package it is. Del Moro's is the first full-service bar and restaurant Regal has added to any of its complexes, but if it flies the company will install bars and restaurants in all of its new theater multiplexes. To that end Regal's making sure the word is out: I haven't seen a restaurant in such heavy advertising rotation since T.G.I.Friday's. About a month ago, a billboard in Broward County on northbound I-95 alerted drivers to the presence of "New World cuisine in an Old World setting." Turn on the radio and you'll hear the same. Flip through a newspaper -- any newspaper -- and a full-page ad is staring you down.

Frankly, Del Moro's, a semicreative venture that falls short of excellence but rises above mall food in some cases, isn't for the peewee GameBoy crowd that the Escape targets, despite appetizers such as chili-cheese nachos and sandwiches like the "New World burger." It's for the college Playstation student, newly of legal age, who can handle Del Moro's special drink, which comes in a beer-dispensing contraption that resembles a bong. It's also for the parents who had to drive their kids here, who'd rather sup on grilled teriyaki pork chops or red snapper sautéed with a coconut-curry sauce while they wait for their offspring to fall into the comas all the bells and flashing lights can induce.

To get to Del Moro's, you enter Riverfront, climb to the second floor, and make your way to The Escape. Ignore the bar on the first floor and take the escalator up. You may wander around a bit -- we did -- but eventually you'll come to a hostess stand. Said stand may not be manned, of course, in which case you'll wander a little bit more, past the long, open kitchen on the left-hand side and toward the outdoor balcony seating, fronting either the river or the railroad tracks, on the right. Eventually someone may approach you and ask where you'd like to sit. Choose a spot away from the band and dance floor. The entertainment isn't bad -- live Top 40 music enhanced by a karaoke sound machine -- but the best tables in the 355-seat house line the picture windows in the back.

Del Moro's seems thoroughly contemporary, so I don't see how they can describe it as an "Old World setting." Its most notable design element is the domed ceiling, which looks for all the world like it should be in a planetarium. I half expected our chairs to tip back at any minute and a deeply stirring voice to intone facts about the stars.

Instead I heard a familiar voice start to recite the specials. Del Moro's is the third restaurant within a one-mile radius in Fort Lauderdale where I've encountered this particular socially inept server, who has a habit of interrupting conversations with his announcements rather than politely waiting for acknowledgment from the diners. His appearance here says something either about him (he can't hold a job) or about the restaurants that hire him (they lack the business to maintain a loyal staff). Since Del Moro's has been open only about eight weeks, we'll withhold judgment for now and look for the situation to improve.

As far as the fare goes, it's hit-or-miss like Galaga, though a touch more updated. Executive chef Joel Chamizo has plenty of experience in casual theme restaurants, taking his cues from the fabulously failed Modern Art Café in Coconut Grove and more recently from his Riverfront neighbor, Big Pink. His menu darts from flavorful inventions like the rock shrimp bisque with an aroma of roasted garlic to more-mundane creations like the lime-scented chicken quesadilla. While the quesadilla, baked in the eatery's wood-burning pizza oven, was completely serviceable, with sides of pico de gallo, sour cream, and slightly acerbic guacamole, the crisp mozzarella-chicken wedges were bland and unimaginative.

Other unexpected items prepared in the pizza oven included a portobello mushroom tower composed of grilled mushroom caps, yellow tomato slices, and daikon radish disks that were assembled with goat cheese and arugula oil and then baked. The juices of the vegetables melded artfully with the pungent cheese and oil, making this dish a hit. On the other hand, the kitchen missed with a main course of roasted barbecued ribs, also cooked in the pizza oven. The half-rack was tough and stringy, despite a tangy raspberry glaze. Crash and burn. Activate second battleship.

Rescue arrived in the form of lamb chops, a special main course that evening. Encrusted with bread crumbs and herbs, the double-cut chops (roasted -- you got it -- in the pizza oven) were succulent and just slightly musky. The only problem was that we had to send them back for more fire, since they weren't cooked to specifications. Grilled salmon with cilantro pesto, another main course, also met with our approval. The moist fish had been marinated in teriyaki sauce, which gave it some lift, before being garnished with the mild pesto. A pleasant array of roasted root vegetables and summer squashes, along with a choice of plain rice or "root mash" (a blend of mashed sweet potatoes and root vegetables), accompanied the entrées.

Despite the success of the salmon, however, Del Moro's could bone up in the fish-and-seafood department. Our sesame-crusted tuna medallions, an appetizer, were about as fresh as a pair of sweat socks. Shrimp fettuccine salad was innovative, at least. Wrapped with boiled fettuccine before being deep-fried and served over a bed of mixed lettuces, the shrimp were billed as jumbos but looked more like minis. They were negligible under their carapaces of hard, fried pasta. The lettuce also could have used a stronger dose of the roasted-garlic dressing.

Back to the pizza oven for dessert: Almost everything seemed to have been baked in there, from chocolate bread pudding to berries with a mascarpone-sabayon sauce. We opted for the latter but were downright grieved by the soupy mess that was brought to the table. The berries, awash in a pinkish gravy, tasted like they had been sautéed in Gorgonzola instead of mild, cream cheese-like mascarpone. It might not be a bad idea to give the pizza oven a rest here -- the temperature's just too high for more delicate dishes.

Lately vaunted as the saving grace of downtown Fort Lauderdale, Riverfront is showing signs of decline. Other gargantuan theme restaurants in the mighty mall, like Aztec World Café and China Grill Café and Zen Sum, have closed shop, and Max's Grille has been sold. Del Moro's isn't likely to raise the dismal profile. Still, it'll probably satisfy diners who get their jollies from crashing and burning in the manner of the video arcade. As an alternative to popcorn, it just might have a shot.

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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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