It was the summer of 1989, and my family was on one of our epic, summer road trips. We were just outside of Nashville and were closing in on 15 hours crammed into our beige Dodge Caravan. My father, after reluctantly deciding we'd gone far enough, started looking for somewhere — anywhere — to stay for the night. Usually, we'd find a motel that was strictly utilitarian in nature — a bed, a hot shower, a trustworthy alarm clock. But on this evening, those neon "No Vacancy" lights were lit up across town like so many fireflies, and all we could find was an upscale hotel-resort composed of individual condos. My parents were hesitant to book us in. I, on the other hand, was excited by the prospect of eating at the hotel restaurant. Here was a place where a kid could further the illusion that he was on "vacation" — and not just some sadistic, cost-saving pilgrimage — by ordering a chicken-fried steak, pork chops, or something else suitably exotic. After being trapped in the car all day, fighting with siblings and dodging my father's muted obscenities, the reward of breaded steak with white cream gravy and gooey mash was revelatory. In the morning, I revisited the experience with my first bowl of biscuits and gravy. I've been a fan of pork fat ever since.
I was reminded of those roadside motels during my recent visit to Ilios, a restaurant perched high above the cracking tides on the sixth floor of the Hilton Fort Lauderdale Beach Resort. I had brought my parents along with me, less to show them that the days of the utilitarian roadside hotel restaurant have changed than to close a perfect circle. Dad, of course, was worried about finding the place. As it turns out, getting there is a breeze: just take the elevator to the sixth floor, walk past a host of private rooms, and pause when you've reached the workout room on your right. Avert your gaze away from the spandexed people sweating on treadmills, and there you are.
Perhaps the strange location is the reason why Ilios has garnered squat for press in the two years since the Hilton opened, while its contemporaries along the beach — Trina at the Atlantic, Cero at the Ritz-Carlton, 3030 Ocean at the Marriott, and so on — have thrived. A drive up A1A, though, reveals as many failures as successes — between every white tower lies the crumpled shell of motels and hotels long forgotten, their slop-house windows still advertising steaks and chops.
As we stumbled through Ilios' doors up to the hostess stand, it was like 1989 all over again. The affable hostess asked us for our room number. "Are you having a pleasant stay?" she wondered. Sorry, I said, we're not guests of the hotel. She looked as puzzled as we were.
"Oh, then you must live around here," she asked rhetorically as she seated us next to a radiant relief of golden-hued waves that poured across the room's south wall. "We don't get many guests from the local area." Panning back to that weight room across the hall, I knew why.
Ilios sports a suitably nautical theme that's well represented by the menu, a collection of mostly Mediterranean-inspired seafood and tapas. Everything, including the entrees, can be ordered in small or large portions, allowing for tasting and sharing. I decided to try the $45, five-course tasting menu that includes salad or soup and three tapas choices, followed by a cheese course and dessert. For $18 more, the staff will select a two-ounce wine pairing to go with each course. It's a deal that looks better before you factor in two things: the wine list's lofty 300 to 400 percent markup over retail, and the relative inconsistency of the food.
To wit: Our first course was largely a disaster. Dad never met a chowder he didn't love, but he balked at Ilios' corn and crab variety ($8/$12), a thin, bland soup that tasted more like half-and-half steeped with a crab shell than a robust stew. Across the table, Mom's salad of butterhead lettuce ($5/$10) wilted against the weight of its mustard-laced champagne vinaigrette, the razor-thin slices of sour apple atop offering little textural contrast. An arugula salad with cranberries, goat cheese, and spiced walnuts ($5/$11) packed a bit more power and tasted fine with my citrusy sampler of 2007 Maso Canali pinot grigio.
A clearing of plates allowed us to glance around the room. Our table gave us a great view of the circular, backlit bar, surrounded by rising bamboo separators. A long-haired guitarist sitting by the bar kicked into a softly arpeggiated version of Santana's "Maria Maria," presumably directed at the lone couple necking there. Across the way, two parents hushed their colicky children as they sipped on wine. Echoes of the past, I thought. On the far side, ocean-sprayed windows looked out over the outdoor seating. Dad hopped up to take a look outside, and returned feeling vindicated just as our next course was delivered. "You can't see the ocean from those seats," he said, triumphant that we chose a seat inside. "The pool is blocking the view."
Perhaps if we were outside, though, the salt air would've added some zest to the tuna, tomato, and watermelon sashimi ($9/$16) he ordered. In the smaller portion, two rectangular slabs of seared tuna were leveled above a slice of grilled watermelon, which in turn pressed down on a fine dice of tomato. None of it worked together — the woefully underseasoned dice was nearly impossible to fork up with the watermelon, a pallid, grill-marked hunk that lacked the ambrosial quality of ripe fruit. He didn't get much sympathy from me; I was busy imagining a scenario in which my ceviche of Key West pink shrimp ($9/$14) actually inhabited the same plane of existence as a lemon or a lime. As it were, the cold, halved prawns tasted as if they were poached in bath water and arranged on top of an equally flavorless bed of Homestead mango "salsa." The menu touted the cold plate as being composed of entirely local ingredients, but, as it were, I couldn't think of a worse way to introduce out-of-towners to the bounties of Florida. At least my pairing of Château Roquefort 2006 Bordeaux Blanc gave me some respite. Mom's comforting instincts kicked in as I bemoaned the bland starters. "Everything about this restaurant is subtle," she mused. "Even the food."
When my two-course dinner of braised short ribs ($17/$32) and seared Gulf Coast grouper ($14/$28) had arrived, I was already reaching for the tray of flaky sea salt in the middle of the table. On first blush, however, things looked... well, tasty. I flicked open the well-crusted grouper filet with my fork and discovered the milky-white dew of perfectly cooked fish, steaming slightly with the scent of deep ocean waters. I wisely ignored the flavorless Swank Farms tomato carpaccio and marveled instead at the absence of the Florida grapefruit salad the menu had promised (in its place, an unattractive, unseasoned mince of palm hearts). At least the fish was cooked well. The braised short rib, still fatty in some parts, lavished in a pool of dense, though one-note gravy offset by bits of caramelized cippolini onion and a grainy stick of olive and thyme polenta that lacked both olive and thyme. The pairing did introduce me to my new favorite cheap red, though, a dark chocolate- and blackberry-scented glass of 2007 Natura Organic Merlot.
After his woeful appetizer, Dad was beaming over his seared red snapper with Florida lobster tail mounted atop a smear of plantain and potato mash ($28). "This, I would eat again," he said as he pushed the earthy snapper through the semi-sweet mash, itself livened with a drizzling of shallot and caper butter sauce that poured off the lobster tail. Mom also loved her seared diver scallops, three crust-topped cylinders that, when cut, exposed a core of such sweet, pearlescent meat you'd swear they were made of pure ivory. She puzzled, though, at the busy plate, packed with formless mashed potatoes, dark gravy, wilted spinach, and some dense, tubular "ravioli." She called our waitress over to confirm its filling. "It's osso buco," the waitress replied. "Basically, veal." Mom pushed the pasta aside after that, miffed that she had inadvertently eaten baby cow.
Though Ilios' service was largely good, I didn't receive the 2006 Columbia Valley Riesling that came with my cheese course until I was nearly done with the plate of blue cheese, aged cheddar, and pecorino. I barely finished the sweet glass, lush with tropical flavors, before our desserts arrived, verrines of bananas foster, strawberry cheesecake, citrus sorbet, and chocolate mousse ($2.50 each). We spooned the sweet fillings out of the dessert shot glasses and picked on my last course, a too-dense panna cotta with crushed pralines and raspberries. We paid our bill and got out while the getting was good.
Despite the inconsistencies, my folks seemed to enjoy themselves a little more than I did at Ilios. At least, they smiled and nodded when asked if we were enjoying our stay. And my father's paternal navigation instincts kicked back in as soon as we got back in the car — he seethed over the traffic jam in the valet line as if he were trying to make good time for a 600-mile ride. Only we didn't really have far to get home. And that was the best part.