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Restaurant Reviews

Preparing for Prime Time

If Harpoon Harry's were a television pilot script and I had to write a tag line to sell it, I'd sum it up with something like this: Mel's Diner meets the CIA. The CIA, as in the Culinary Institute of America. And Mel's Diner, of Alice fame.

In fact, the 80-seat raw bar and grill has all the makings of a good series, though whether it'd be drama or comedy remains to be seen. The four-month-old eatery took over where Shuckums -- the place where the 9/11 hijackers ate chicken fingers and drank sacrilegious beer -- left off. So you've got your backstory, tailor-made for tear-jerking.

Juxtaposed is the setting on hip Young Circle: indoors, dominated by televisions, a rectangular wooden bar, and high-backed, oak-hued booths; outdoors, patio-style tables perched on the sidewalk. Neighboring Argentango, and a couple of other relatively more sophisticated restaurants snatch up the monkey-see, monkey-do diners before they get to this duck-out-of-water protagonist. So you've got your zoo of mixed metaphors, always good for a laugh.

And then there are the characters: serious-minded Executive Chef Kevin Walker, whose basic raw-bar-steamed mussels are, according to the menu, "in a leek-horseradish fondue, with a fine tomato concassé and asiago crostini"; house drunks, old-time Hollywoodites with bad smokers' coughs who make the regulars on Cheers look urbane; and assorted young waitresses, who come in versions ranging from well-meaning but forgetful to dumb and mean.

In fact, my first impression of Harpoon Harry's was formed thanks to an unseen waitress. While I was waiting for my party at the bar, another customer was complaining to a manager about a server who gave him change for a ten-dollar bill rather than the 20 he had handed her. He might have been trying to pull a scam, but in the end, he walked away with the words, "I'm not telling you this because I want my money back. I just think you should keep an eye on her."

Someone might also want to train a pupil or two on the female staff member who instigated a scene by monopolizing the women's room during the dinner rush; she took so long changing from her uniform to street clothes and putting on makeup that the woman waiting before me decided to use the unoccupied men's room. I told her I'd stand watch. Naturally, as soon as she shut the door, a less-than-sober male patron staggered over and started pounding on it, telling her to hurry up and "zip it." At which point, the waitress, the cause of all the commotion in the first place, finally flung open the door to the women's room and started yelling at the guy for being rude before stalking off to the bar to finish applying her mascara.

Aha! Conflict -- and more, as you might guess -- ensued. A deep fryer on the fritz prevented us from ordering the tempura beer-batter dolphin fingers or being served the billed onion rings with our order of bourbon barbecue-glazed baby-back ribs, which were so skinny and dry that we had to ask for extra sauce (which, by the way, never arrived). And our delivery of chocolate cake instead of the peanut butter pie we ordered was followed by the disappearance of our waitress, who apparently left to hang out with the barbecue sauce.

Other items, such as the "shrimp and crab gratinee dip," were merely a bit disappointing. Though the menu description promised "fresh shrimp and lump crab in a rich lobster-scallion cheese mix," this was more like simulated crab in melted cream cheese. But the flavor and rich consistency were still satisfying, and the variety of fresh, tricolored tortilla chips and assorted flatbreads that were served with it were a nice touch.

In fact, nice touches dot the menu, and it's clear from the verbiage that Walker is making an honest attempt here. When he keeps to the point and presents exactly what he says, it's successful. For instance, the jumbo lump crab cake appetizer was real crab, crisply golden and perfectly seasoned, and it was plated prettily with peppers, onions, and black-bean mango salsa. For added pizzazz, Walker had "painted" the plate with an adobe sauce that gave off the warmth of both color and heat. Similarly decorated, a Cajun spice-rubbed skirt steak, dressed with a burst of freshly squeezed lime juice, offered succulent bites that made up for the ribs; roasted-garlic smashed potatoes filled in for French fries.

The problem is inconsistency in tone, on both the plate and the menu, which was filled with grammatical errors. But the high-end dishes like sushi-grade ahi tuna, lightly seared with sesame seeds and "served on a wonton crisp over seaweed salad [with a] grilled pineapple plank finished with a wasabi-cucumber aioli and hoisin paint" share space with such down-home goods as Harry's prawn bucket, a "mound full of jumbo prawns steamed in an 'old bay' blend of seasoning, amber beer and a lot of love" that advises the diner to "put your arm around them, because they won't last long!" Huh?

But where there's conflict, there's also resolution. Indeed, Walker and Harpoon Harry's shine most brightly when the pressure isn't on. Fish is especially noteworthy here. Blackened dolphin was more dusted than carpeted with spices, but it was succulent and juicy. And a simple grouper sandwich was simply outstanding: moist, glistening flakes of fish topped with chopped red onions, tomatoes, and iceberg lettuce nearly melted into the soft roll that encased it. And even the mightily sloshed female sitting at the table next to us, who kept beckoning to me and slurring, "Come over here, I haven't sheen you in shuch a long time," couldn't spoil it.

Harpoon Harry's may not be ready for a prime-time debut yet. But it has the potential for development. After all, successful shows like Melrose Place didn't have auspicious beginnings. But after the writers added some juicy backstory, a few character flaws, and a lot of alcohol, the series really took off.

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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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