Restaurant Reviews

Twice in a Blue Moon

In Billy Wilder's saucy comedy, The Seven Year Itch, a gray-flanneled schlub who works for a Manhattan publisher kisses his wife and kids goodbye for the summer, promising he won't smoke or drink, and silently abjures himself to keep his trousers zipped. But back in his empty apartment, he finds out that Marilyn Monroe — a yowzalicious projection of his repressed sexual fantasies — lives right next door. Who could resist?

The real marital seven-year-itch is borne out by statistics, except that according to the U.S. Census Bureau, first marriages usually implode around the eight- or nine-year mark. It takes two hours to fall in love and nearly a decade to fall out of it; we're biologically programmed, apparently, to come down with a fierce case of wandering eye.

I'm figuring something similar was going on with Baron Skorish and Bryce Statham, chef/owners of the bustling Blue Moon Fish Company in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, which they opened in 1997. You'd think the place would be enough to keep even two virile 40-something hunks busy and satisfied — she's a real beauty. Perched on the Intracoastal with two tiers of outdoor dining, packed to the gills every night with locals and tourists scarfing up the duo's signature seafood dishes, if Blue Moon were a wife, she'd have money, ravishing good looks, and impeccable taste. She'd be about as good as it gets.

But lovely or not, she just wasn't enough. Statham and Skorish, along with their executive chef, Daniel Cournoyer, who's been with them from the early days, and Executive Pastry Chef Maria Perera, set up a second shop in Coral Springs six months ago in a bland strip mall where the much-beloved Hobo's Fish Joint once lived. The new Blue Moon may as well be on another planet geographically. But the menu is almost identical. The second wife is marginally less glamorous, but she still looks disconcertingly like the first.

I wanted to spend my weekend Blue Mooning around, so we booked a table at the Lauderdale-by-the-Sea location on a crazy Saturday night at 8. That's peak hour on a peak night in peak season. But a 9-year-old restaurant of this caliber ought to ace this exacting test; the scents emanating from the kitchen should smell like victory!

Statham and Skorish both come from culinary school and hotel backgrounds, so they know a little something about serving high volume. They drew up an original, seafood-centric menu when they opened Blue Moon in the late '90s, pulling threads from Caribbean and Cajun cookery, adding a splash of Asian and a few Mediterranean designs. Beyond the raw bar, which offers excellent fresh oysters, clams, spiced shrimp, and tuna poki, they favor ingredients like sweet plantains, chipotle, tomatillo, rum butter, blackened seasonings, bean and corn salsa, and mango relish for the Carib-Cajun side of the menu; pancetta, sun-dried tomato, basil pesto, and polenta for the Italian-leaning dishes; and bok choy, sticky rice, soy, ginger, and wasabi for the plates inspired by the Far East. But no dish is faithful to its roots, and the mixing and matching of ingredients make this menu fun and interesting, if no longer particularly cutting-edge. After all, it's barely changed a hair in almost a decade.

Blue Moon has two levels of waterfront seating, a patio with tables for larger parties, and a long, narrow dock lined with two-tops. We'd reserved a table inside — the outdoor seats were booked until after 9:30 — but a table miraculously opened up on the dock, and we snagged it. Once we'd shoehorned ourselves into our seats, however, we had second thoughts. My partner, who'd been traveling all week on business, said she felt like she was back on Delta flight 907 to Tucson; the only thing missing was the bag o' nuts. The tables were crammed together so tightly that I could literally feel the hair of the woman behind me resting weirdly on my shoulder. Our table, which was about three feet from the edge of the dock, wobbled; it was so dark that we had to borrow a flashlight to peruse the menu. Needless to say, our view of the water was phenomenal.

We shifted our seats a one quarter turn and wished we could kick one table into the Intracoastal to open up some necessary elbow room. For Blue Moon waiters, this dock must be purgatory: twice the work (all those two-tops) in half the space with three times the risk — servers and busboys are prevented from tipping each other into those gently lapping waters only by a sturdy guard rail. We did, in fact, watch one entrée go flying into the Intracoastal when two waiters collided. The spatial logistics practically dictate mayhem.

But the food is excellent. Every dish we ordered was a slam dunk. New Orleans firecracker oysters ($12) came coated in a mix of spices including what tasted like a dash of five-spice powder, deep fried, and served with green apple vinaigrette and a mustardy remoulade. These were luscious: a luxurious, soft center cradled in a fiery crust, offset by the sweet spice of the remoulade. Baby spinach salad ($10) was enticingly dressed in walnut vinaigrette with a nest of warm red-onion confit and little balls of goat cheese rolled in pecans. But our tuna poki appetizer ($12), chopped raw tuna with cucumber, scallions, ginger, and chili paste, never arrived from the raw bar — maybe it too had somehow ended up in the Intracoastal.

Two nights later, we made our way to the Coral Springs restaurant to compare fish preps. In Lauderdale, we'd savored a Cajun-inspired smorgasbord of mahi, sea scallops, and jumbo shrimp in vanilla rum butter ($30) and a beautiful halibut fillet topped with shiitake mushrooms ($29) — a divine piece of sweet, alabaster flesh, smooth and finely textured, that married beautifully with the gently bitter Swiss chard and thinly sliced potatoes that came with it. This latter was my idea of an ideal seafood dish. When I'd asked the waiter about the taste of halibut, though, he'd hesitated, then blurted out that the halibut was "like swordfish." Nyet, my friend. Halibut, a flat bottom dweller, is to swordfish as James Blunt is to Eminem: One is delicate and plangent, the other the enfant terrible of the fish world — a muscular, mercurial fighter. Our sweet waitress in Coral Springs, God bless her, nice as she was, didn't know her fish any better. When I asked about the barramundi (not on the menu in Lauderdale), she warned me that it was "strong tasting."

The only way barramundi is "strong tasting" is if it's been sitting around too long. Barramundi, a brackish-water Aussie fish distributed by Triar Seafoods to local restaurants as a sustainable alternative to sea bass, are buttery and supermoist. But here, the barramundi ($28) was very disappointing, and not because it was too strong. The fillet was breaded and pan-fried, but instead of the buttery, melting flesh you'd expect, it had lost every vestige of flavor from either freezing or improper storage. The lobster chunks in the accompanying risotto were plentiful but also watery and dull, practically disintegrating, and probably prefrozen as well. But tiny, butter-soaked French beans and gently roasted yellow and red cherry tomatoes were wonderful.

There were a few other signs that the new location hasn't really settled down yet. The bread comes with a black olive tapenade, along with roasted garlic and basil pesto, that's inedibly salty. Our half-shell oysters ($1.95 each) were fresh and clean, but a Cajun-style "Big Easy" gumbo appetizer ($11), with shrimp, andouille, okra, crawfish, and crab, lacked depth, zing, or fire — nothing to write home to N'Awlins about.

Salads come with the entrées gratis in Coral Springs — at these prices, a notion I approve of wholeheartedly.

We'd had the very rich, liquid center, double chocolate torte with fresh cream and wild berries ($11) at the original Blue Moon, another perfect 10; in Coral Springs, we splurged on one of the signature soufflés for dessert — chocolate with raspberry sauce (ask for these when you place your entrée order; they are real soufflés and require cooking time). They're genuinely big enough to serve two and cost $19 (expensive but inflation-proof: The price hasn't budged since 1997). They're beautifully executed, puffy and golden, with a crusty top, a custardy/airy middle, and a sugary bottom where the chocolate resides — the server pokes a hole and pours in the tart, rose-colored sauce before serving. This soufflé was too sweet to suit me; so was the whipped cream. I favor strong, salty, bitter desserts. But my dinner pal spooned up every last fluffy bite and happily pronounced it superb.

Assuming I had a choice, I'd prefer the original Blue Moon, but I'll never venture there again on a weekend night in season. My guess is that on a coolish evening in late May, on a Tuesday, say, that patio overlooking the Intracoastal is not far from heaven. The atmosphere at the Coral Springs location is less volatile, but the place lacks the nine years of experience, the accumulated wisdom, that have made Blue Moon the elder one of the best seafood restaurants in South Florida. Like many a wandering husband, Skorish and Statham may find that the itch to move on has created only a new and different set of headaches.

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Gail Shepherd
Contact: Gail Shepherd