Two restaurants, two shrimp dishes.
The first is a tiny, chic, chef-driven bistro in Plantation, effusively praised by local dailies and the Zagat guide, open for dinner only on Friday and Saturday nights. The menu changes weekly, and it can veer toward the unexpected: Caribbean jerk-rubbed thresher shark with coconut mash, for example.
The other: a slick corporate seafood chain; two big, noisy rooms; and a 90-minute wait for a table if you've forgotten to make a reservation. A menu that runs the gamut from the banal to the ubiquitous: fried calamari, crab cakes, fillet o' the day encrusted with something or other, surf and turf.
The former is the expensive and exclusive Upper Crust in Plantation, an eight-table gourmet closet filled with roses, white linen, and antique mirrors, run by mother-and-stepson team Patricia and Christopher Ghalayini. The latter is Bonefish Grill, an ever-expanding chain of mid-priced eateries founded in St. Petersburg seven years ago by Tim Curci and Chris Parker. Where Upper Crust is one-of-a-kind and experimental, Bonefish Grill has scattered its cookie-cutter, chocolate-martini-purveying boxes around South Florida from Palm Beach Gardens to the farthest reaches of West Broward and south to Miami. Where Upper Crust charges $34 for a seared tuna entrée, Bonefish Grill practically gives away the grub: a piece of grilled arctic char will set you back $16.40; an extra $2.80 buys a green salad or a cup of crab chowder with your meal. At Upper Crust, you bring your own wine or liquor and pay no corkage fee. At Bonefish Grill, you can choose from a list of 14 specialty cocktails, including an "X-rated passion martini" for $6.90.
Where would you rather spend your hard-earned moolah?
A restaurant like Upper Crust would ordinarily draw multiple exclamation points from me; it's the kind of place I live to discover. Distinctive, charming, brave, intimate — and long-term relationship material: You want to make it your baby daddy. Bonefish Grill and its ilk, with their market-tested-to-death menus, almost always leave me feeling bloated and filled with self-loathing. I arrive with minimal expectations and depart with prejudices intact. I might as well have stayed home and downed a quart of Chunky Monkey.
But my whole world turned woozily upside down when I visited the Crust and the Bonefish back to back a couple of weekends ago and ate, among many other things, a shrimp dish from each. In fact, the experience has rendered me bemused and unsettled, as if everything I thought I knew about restaurants had been tipped into the rubbish bin and cleaned my brain as naked as a freshly licked plate. Is there more to heaven and Earth than is dreamt of in my philosophy?
I'm going to take my two shrimp dishes as examples of what can go very wrong and very right in the restaurant biz, an industry whose voluptuous girth has had to expand, over the past few decades, to accommodate everything from mad, foam-spewing Spanish geniuses to the marketing department at MacBurger. As for eaters, our choices have proliferated, and so, in some ways, have our expectations. When you can pop down to your favorite sidewalk sushi joint and find sashimi that was truly caught that day, the previously frozen "fresh catch" on the menu at Illegal Fish Company isn't going to taste quite so exquisite.
Upper Crust, it must be said, is a beautiful little restaurant. I applaud the Ghalayinis for their willingness to take risks, for their gourmet lunches and takeout business, for their specialty nights (they're planning a Wild, Wild West tasting menu for October 25). Their crusty French bread is superb, better when slathered with sweet butter or their signature walnut pesto. An ancho chili grilled tuna ($34), served with chipotle sweet potato mash, asparagus, and cactus pear salsa, was so beautifully presented that we could barely stand to eat it (but were glad we did). Caesar salad with toasted croutons: well done. And a Reggiano-crusted chicken breast ($28) with roasted roma tomatoes and walnut pesto was an ideal combination of flavors — until we got to the slightly slimy portobello lasagna.
But when push came to shove, too much of what we were served was ill-conceived and overpriced. A delicious cherry compote couldn't save a greasy wild-mushroom and goat-cheese turnover ($10). I've never seen thresher shark ($30) on a menu before (except for the "shark and bake" at Trinidadian boîtes), maybe because it's recently been listed as endangered. Not all the jerk rub and coconut mash or papaya salsa in the world could redeem the weird flavor of this thresher, which must be an acquired taste.
If I'm paying more than $50 for a three-course meal, I want it to damned well be perfect. Ill-conceived is a sweeter way of putting what we all really know to mean "doesn't taste good." Prosciutto-wrapped, goat-cheese-stuffed shrimp, an appetizer, was a $14 disaster. The dish has all the necessary upscale ingredients — prosciutto, after all, is worth its weight in diamonds; you can find goat cheese from local farms; and our Florida gulf shrimp are some of the world's yummiest. Put it all together, you figure, and you've got relentless deliciousness.
Not so. This appetizer came out looking like a plate of ham hocks. The "prosciutto" wrapping the shrimp was easily a quarter-inch thick, so tough it was nearly impossible to cut through without making the entire dish disintegrate. That poor shrimp might as well have been swaddled in slabs of Canadian bacon. I say "poor shrimp" because anyone who loves a shrimp (and I do, I do) knows that this beautiful little crustacean, when eaten fresh, has a lovely, ethereal flavor, light as a puff of sea air, and a toothsome, almost squeaky texture unlike any other seafood. Prosciutto, on the other hand, even when sliced paper-thin as it should be, has a rich, warm, earthy, salty, ancient feel on the palate. Too much would overwhelm almost any other food you can think of (which is why we're used to seeing it served in transparent waves). Add the assertive gaminess of goat cheese and your shrimp is dead in the water.
I'm dissecting this dish-gone-wrong in such detail because it reveals a fundamental misunderstanding on the part of the chefs. Had they tasted this concoction in the kitchen and decided it was a winner? If so, what drug were they inhaling?
Let's turn now to a similar appetizer served at Bonefish Grill. This one has the requisite cutesy name: saucy shrimp. And a price tag we can swallow with ease: $7.90. The ingredients here bear a familial resemblance to the one we've just discussed: gulf shrimp (medium-sized, a lot of them), kalamata olives (a few), feta cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, and a light lime-garlic-tomato sauce. We took a bite and could barely believe our luck. It was scrumptious.
Here you have the same basic idea — delicate shrimp paired with flavors that convey depth and age — the olives, the tomatoes, the feta. But instead of murdering those pretty shrimp, the sweet-sourness of the tomato and olive, the saltiness of the feta, and the squeeze of lime in the subtle tomato sauce enhanced the shellfish. It was so thoroughly delightful that I wanted to buttonhole the chef for the recipe. I'd proudly serve this at home. The test kitchen at Bonefish had nailed it.
What's the difference between these two shrimps? One tastes good. The other doesn't.
Funny how, despite the best, most creative efforts of any chef, it all comes down to one simple proposition. It doesn't matter a lick if your entrée is composed of truffle gas and gold dust — it's only going to work if it delights both the eye and the tongue. There's your acid test. As a chef, you fail it at your peril.
Bonefish Grill is not a perfect restaurant either. Our bland crab chowder wasn't worth the effort of spoon to mouth; the piccata sauce on a slab of grouper ($22.30) was disappointingly flavorless. But a lively green salad and the crisp, buttery steamed veg that came with the entrée balanced the books. Kate's Whitefish ($20), a freshwater lake fish, had a fine flake and a delicious crust.
Not rocket science, this menu — it's been developed for ease and speed. But you can overlook a bland soup that costs you $2.80 if there are other courses to make up for it. I'd forgive just about any gaffe for that saucy shrimp and the brownie we had for dessert.
Upper Crust had also failed to leap the dessert hurdle. As pretty as its colorfully drizzled plates were, the chocolate soufflé cake ($5.75) had no discernible flavor beyond "sweet," and the berry tart ($7.25) was just an embarrassment — doughy crust, bland custard, and baked berries that wouldn't win a contest against I-Hop's blueberry pancakes.
Once again, Bonefish aced it. Its chocolate brownie ($5.50) is superb. An enormous hunk of cake: gooey, dark, and deep, considerably livened by a couple of extra pinches of salt to draw out every nuance. It's served with a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream and luscious whipped cream. Un-freaking-believable!
And there's your exclamation point. You can't subdue your punctuation when the chef deserves a shoutout.