There's a little amusement you can indulge in at the Whale Raw Bar and Fish House in Parkland while you're waiting for your basket o' steamers. It's like those snag-the-stuffed-toy things at bowling alleys. A tank filled with a half-dozen live lobsters is the kind of lure a gambler like me can't resist: Insert $2 into the slot and manipulate a plastic claw to grab yourself some good-looking tail. If the creature doesn't wrest itself from your mechanical grip (and these babies have learned to play to win) the lobster is yours, to be cooked on site or taken home live in a box.
I didn't have any luck with this game – I lost $4. I found myself even more thoroughly flummoxed when our waiter told us that the Whale was out of lobster that night, and no, they couldn't just pull a couple out of their slot machine. Also, they'd completely discontinued serving Florida stone crabs, one of the reasons I'd made the trek to Parkland to begin with.
I'd planned to eat a whole bunch of oysters from their raw bar and enough crab to last me until next October. Stone crab season is over in mid-May, and oysters are good until the end of April. I can't be too careful when it comes to my digestive tract: When the old fishwives warn me not to eat oysters in months without an R, presumably because the oyster waters are too warm to make the creatures entirely safe, or at least completely savory, I'm going to listen to these good ladies and live to tell the tale. Basically my two favorite foods in the whole world were about to slide or wriggle from my grasp and scuttle away, as surely as a tanked lobster eludes a plastic claw. Summer was descending on me like the Assyrians on the Hebrews — you might even say like a wolf on the fold — wearing sweaty purple-and-gold leggings. I was going to have to decamp to some air-conditioned tapas bar for a couple of months and wait it out.
But let me back up a minute. I was interested in the Whale, which opened last August, because it's owned by Scott and Danielle Williams, who used to manage the Whale's Rib in Deerfield Beach, a family business. They'd been at it for about a quarter of a century, slapping together fish sandwiches and oyster po' boys, platters of fried clams and conch fritters, mixing vats of fish dip and cutting up celery sticks for a no-frills beachside crowd. The Flanigan's next door to the Whale's Rib eventually bought them out, so the Williamses moved west to start again, setting up in one of Parkland's new plazas on State Road 7 (the "Waterway Shoppes") and decorating the place in high New England kitsch, complete with a life-sized orca dangling from the ceiling. I was hoping that the new Whale would be very like the old.
But even the original Whale's Rib in Deerfield used to shape-shift like a passing cloud – sometimes it looked like a camel, sometimes a weasel, sometimes a whale, depending on when you stopped in. There were days when everything clicked and the place felt and tasted like your favorite Old Florida fish-shack; other times you might as well have gone to Red Lobster for your mouthful of pre-frozen, overcooked seafood and your hapless service. As for the new, ribless Whale in Parkland, I'm sure the natives would have been stoked to have a waterfront seafood restaurant (well, it's on a canal) with lots of outdoor seating if the fried Ipswitch clams had real bellies, or the peel-and-eat rock shrimp were worth the time they take to peel and eat. But the half-dozen raw oysters ($7.95) I'd been so looking forward to were frankly the worst I've ever tasted: flaccid, bland, and gooey – as if the color gray had a flavor profile. Eating them was like drinking water puddled in a parking lot. They were shucked fresh: I saw the girl at the bar doing them, but either they'd been badly stored or they were just lousy oysters, and no bright dab of cocktail sauce or squeeze of citrus was going to rescue them from ignominy.
And our Ipswich clams, presumably flown in from New England, had been overfried in what tasted like dirty oil. Fried Ipswiches were invented when somebody had a bunch of French fry or chip oil left over and dumped some breaded clams into it – the result of this experiment was a gorgeous addition to New England's culinary repertoire, the kind of plain, heartfelt, absorbingly great food anybody with the faintest sliver of a soul just has to sigh over. The Whale follows this tradition, serving their burnt, crumbly clams over homemade potato chips with a side of tartar sauce, but the chips are oily and the whole thing is a $23.95 mess. Rock shrimp ($9) were slightly better, fat little meaty thumbs that tasted like lobster, although these too had been overcooked, and I noticed at least one left a finish on the palate reminiscent of ammonia.
I drank my decently mixed vodka gimlet and then I did something I've never, ever done before. I asked for the check. Without. Ordering. An Entrée. Without, in the interest of thoroughness and objectivity, muddling through another five or six dishes — the grouper sandwiches and dolphin with mango salsa, the seafood pasta and the cod 'n' chips. Professionalism be damned, I just didn't want to go on with this meal.
The sign for Giovanni's Coal Fire Pizza just across the plaza was flickering warmly. We got up, tripped past the fountain, and finished our dinner over there. Open just since January, Giovanni's makes a really good thin-crust pizza, a pie destined to become a contender in our local pizza wars, entering the ever-lively discussion on many internet foodie boards over crust consistency and cheese distribution.
Giovanni's does indeed cook its pies in one of three coal ovens, which means they can take these rounds of dough to extreme temperatures, submitting them to the kind of heat that persuades crusts to form delicious blackened air bubbles and to develop strips of charring on the bottom. We ordered a large pie ($13.95) with two toppings, mushroom and pepperoni at $1.95 each, and a half bottle of Chianti Ruffino for $13 from a big list of California and Italian bottles. I have nothing but admiration for a pizza joint that sells wine by the half bottle – some of us have no problem drinking alone. Our pizza, served on a metal stand wasn't, alas, crisp enough to fold in half and consume one-handed, as New Yorkers insist is the only way to eat the stuff, but even demolished with a knife and fork this reasonably priced pie was divine: a simple, tangy marinara and part-skim mozzarella topped with juicy sautéed mushrooms and very thin slices of salty pepperoni curling hotly around the edges. Ratio of crust to topping: excellent. A scattering of fresh herbs and a drizzle of olive oil at the end would have perfected it, but here was a pizza that certainly trumped my expectations. We thought we were stuffed too full of crap shellfish to eat much, but we inhaled nearly the whole thing and felt happy. Giovanni's is a keeper.
We said as much to one of the owners when he came by our table, and we told the cute waiter we'd be back for the Sunday dinner, a feast of baked ziti, salad, and dessert priced at $29.95 for four people. A three-course meal for four was priced at just five dollars more than the basket of Ipswitch clams we'd eaten next door. That's what I'd call one whale-sized bargain.