Restaurant Reviews

Freeway Fiasco

Thanks to my best friend, the chef at Bizcaya Grill in the Ritz-Carlton Coconut Grove, and my past positions as a waitress in formal dining rooms, this is what I know to be true concerning high-end hotel restaurants: They are part and parcel of a much larger corporation. As such, each employee, from dishwasher to executive chef, must follow a specific set of rules that were written not only to provide the best possible service but also to cause the least potential offense to customers. Typically, such regulations range from a no-cursing policy to a ban on facial hair and are laid out in an employee handbook that all hires are required to read and sign. Infractions and commendations are handled by the Human Resources Department, sort of an in-house FBI. And nobody gets away with anything; chewing gum on the job can be cause for dismissal; going to extra lengths to fulfill an unusual request can be grounds for promotion.

Considering my pal's insight and my recent experience at Bin 595, a self-proclaimed "Eclectic Grille & Wine Bar" located in the lobby of the nine-month-old Renaissance Fort Lauderdale-Plantation Hotel, I suspect the corporation is not going to be happy about this.

Forget about the edible components of the repast and keep in mind that the Renaissance is an attractive, luxuriously appointed, entirely modern hotel. Bin 595, tongue-in-cheek named for both its outstanding, 200-plus-bottle wine list and its proximity to I-595, boasts curvy, Art Deco lines, colorful carpets and banquettes in '60s lime-green-type hues, polished woods and marble, and lots of columns and half-walls that offer the illusion of privacy.

Now consider the Renaissance Hotel's mission statement, which promises, in part, to "combine the body of a contemporary full-service hotel with the soul of a boutique... [where] guests can expect exceptional service and maximum comfort in a stylish environment." I doubt anyone in the company could interpret that to mean that, when a customer sends back a dish -- at any time, from anywhere in the hotel, and for whatever reason -- Bin 595 executive chef Eric Harmon should come out of his lair to argue about it.

Such is the scenario, which rapidly developed into a scene, that greeted me when I returned a main course of "sweet Thai glazed prawns, coconut basil rice, and mango relish." When I ordered the dish, the waiter warned me they were a bit spicy. Fine with me -- I enjoy zing on the palate. What my taste buds don't appreciate is iodine, and these shrimp, which were not prawns at all but 35 to 40 count (per pound) medium-to-large crustaceans speared by a pair of bamboo skewers, were rotten with it. Indeed, I was affronted by the tell-tale stink the minute the waiter set down the plate; my companions all agreed the shrimp should have been on their way to the compost pile. Just to be sure, I sampled one, but the hospital-room flavor forced me to spit it out discreetly.

I was somewhat surprised the staff even let it leave the kitchen, and my server, who whisked the dish away with his nose averted, seemed to agree. He immediately brought me a menu, inviting me to select another main course. I chose the roasted mojo chicken with mango-sun-dried tomato couscous and watercress.

Perhaps because the transaction had gone so smoothly, I was even more surprised about ten minutes later to be confronted by Chef Harmon. And I do mean confronted; he was arrogant from the outset. "I'm sorry you didn't like your dish," he said.

"It's not that I didn't like it," I replied. "The sauce was fine. The shrimp were bad. They're filled with iodine."

"No, they aren't," he replied. "I tried one."

Now, it is quite possible that the single shrimp he tasted from my plate was fine. But all he really had to do was take a whiff of the dish to know that something wasn't up to par. Plus, the logic should be obvious: When something tastes good, you keep eating it. When something tastes bad, you stop.

Astonishingly, he allowed the argument to escalate. "Is there anything else that's not to your satisfaction?" he asked snidely. As a matter of fact, there was. And, goaded beyond restraint, I told him so. Two of the other three entrées I had sampled, like the shrimp, appeared to be on the verge of spoiling. The crispy salmon with saffron-pepper sauce had an undeniable hint of bleach. It's an appalling trick of the trade, but I've encountered it before. Merchants sometimes soak old smelly fish in a solution of bleach and water to "refresh" it. (The philosophy is identical to the one behind including bleach in your hurricane preparations. It's there to kill bacteria in your bathtub full of water.) And the lamb chops, which appeared next to an undercooked lamb loin (an unbilled surprise that the menu never mentioned) and a lamb sausage on a mixed-grill platter, were sour with age, overcooked, and dried-out from improper storage.

As for the fourth main course, supposedly a ginger-basil-anise-crusted piece of Alaskan halibut, we honestly questioned whether the fish, topped with a burnt blanket of skin, was halibut at all. The consistency and texture seemed more like ubiquitous undersized cod -- stringy and dry rather than slick and flaky. (I would have asked the chef, but my husband was kicking me so violently under the table that my shins were swelling.) The billed "cool Viet noodle salad" that accompanied it was merely boiled rice noodles without any seasoning, and the "warm red bean salad" was a red-brown puddle of purée.

Naturally, the chef was outraged by my comments, even though he had solicited them. The loin, he sneered, was from New Zealand, and the chops were from Colorado, thus explaining the taste difference. As for the shrimp and fish, "I buy it fresh every day," he said stiffly and left the table in a huff. For the record, I am not insisting that Harmon doesn't replenish his supplies on a regular basis or that he is the one who doctored the salmon. I am merely offering the two best-case scenarios: He is buying goods that aren't graded on the high end of the scale, perhaps to save on a too-tight budget that HR tracks. Or he actually doesn't know better, is being bamboozled, and could use a course or two in marine-life identification.

I'm comfortable in saying, however, that Harmon lacks propriety. I wasn't so polite either by the time general manager Patrick Kemmache came over to "apologize for my chef." I had not requested the presence of the GM, partly because I was still in shock that such an altercation would occur where main course prices average $25 and where we had started the evening by ordering a bottle of Far Niente Chardonnay. At $67, a really good price for such a small-production vintage, the wine was the second most expensive white on the menu.

When the GM tried to excuse the chef as being a little "hot-headed," I corrected him. "Your chef is an ass," I said.

"You're right. He is an ass," Kemmache replied.

To his credit, Kemmache was really just trying to salvage the situation. But instead of immediately -- and discreetly -- comping the bill or arranging for wine or desserts to be sent out (any of which might have actually prevented me from ethically publishing a review), he asked me what I wanted by way of compensation. I didn't want anything but the respect that every customer deserves, and I told him something like that. Nor did I request an apology from the chef. Of course, one wasn't forthcoming, though the roasted chicken made an appearance. The dish was fine, but I was afraid to eat it; I've worked in too many kitchens to be ignorant about the retributions awarded to so-called "difficult patrons."

As far as desserts went, we were handed the menus, and coffee was delivered. But after half an hour of waiting for the server to come back to see if we wanted the sun-dried blueberry bread pudding with maple crème Anglaise, the Hill Country peach cobbler, or the Mayhaw berry swirl cheesecake, we gave up and asked for the check. I don't blame the server, who was perfectly polite throughout the evening, for being overly cautious. By that point, I'd have been afraid of me too.

Kemmache did give me his card. He also invited my husband, me, and, as an afterthought, the other couple in my party back for a meal on the house. But I won't return for the freebie.

I won't go back even though the place has an intriguing wine list that offers exceptionally well-priced boutique California vintages as well as a handful of European and Australian bottlings. Indeed, though the wine list was enticing, the oxidized glass of La Crema pinot noir we sampled during happy hour hinted that the staff is either keeping open bottles of wine for too long or storing them incorrectly.

The wine was perhaps the least of the offenses we encountered. But taken in toto, the infractions at Bin 595, which ranged from poor impulse control on the part of the chef to misleading menu labels to spoiled food, represent a serious breakdown of corporate upmarket hotel-restaurant policy.

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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