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Review: Lona in Fort Lauderdale from acclaimed Mexican chef Pablo Salas is off-kilter

 

★★

Lona Cocina and Tequileria, which opened in January at the Westin Fort Lauderdale Beach Resort, is one of the first U.S. ventures from acclaimed Mexican chef Pablo Salas. For the past decade, Salas has operated Amaranta in his native Toluca, about 90 miles outside Mexico City. Amaranta ranked 15th on the 2017 list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants, as proclaimed by the same group that issues the ballyhooed (and criticized) list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.

Unfortunately, Lona is not among the 50 best restaurants in South Florida. At this early point, it is merely another disappointing beach-resort eatery where the prices outpace the results and Salas’ soulful cooking spotlighting Mexiquense cooking, from the central regional state surrounding the Mexican capital, has gotten lost in translation. Some food is good, but the service and flavors are uneven, the atmosphere is American tourist loud and nearly everything seems a bit off-kilter.

Among those things is dim, amber patio lighting, which general manager Daniel Estevez explains is required by the city and county for the sake of nearby turtle hatchlings. The weird lighting changes the color of food — salmon comes out looking ashen-gray — and although the cause is worthwhile and not the restaurant’s fault, the result is still disorienting. There are also problems where the blame lies squarely with the kitchen. A queso fundido ($10) with mushrooms that was supposed to be a warm and stringy bath of shareable, liquid cheese came out cooled to a nearly solid state, making it hard to serve and chew. A chili relleno appetizer ($12) with pinto-bean sauce and crema was overstuffed with cold masa. The bland, mashed corn filling obscured the flavor of the subtle pepper.

As if the discolored salmon ($25) weren’t off-putting enough, its pairing with a mole sauce that was overly sweet and too heavy on cinnamon on the front end was baffling. A coupling of the same mole sauce with seared diver scallops ($27) was also a miss. The complex sauce simply did not work with these seafood dishes, overwhelming instead of enhancing. The salmon and scallops were much better when dipped in the smoky and seductive salsa served with complimentary tortilla chips. I’m glad I experimented.

Salas, who self-deprecatingly calls himself “a cook, not a chef,” said in an interview a few weeks after the restaurant’s opening that he was still learning Atlantic seafood. I suppose I could cut him some slack and give the kitchen a little more time to find its footing, particularly since there is no question that Salas has talent and a way with ingredients he is more familiar with, including meat and vegetables.

But there was no excuse for some of the service malaise and lapses. Service began attentively, then tailed into indifference. Bussers wandered past our table with plates ready to be cleared numerous times. I tried to draw the attention of staff working the nearby seating stand, but they didn’t make eye contact, with one wandering the floor looking down at a touchpad computer seating chart. Our server slapped down a final bill without even asking if we wanted dessert, which we did (the crispy banana empanada was good, the tres leches sponge cake mediocre). And our final bill had the words, “Gratuity not included” at the bottom and a blank space for a tip, even though the check for our larger party had an 18 percent service charge tacked into the itemized list of dishes. I caught it before I double-tipped and asked the waitress about it. She gave a befuddled shrug, saying “I have no idea why it’s like that.” The correct answer is: “I’ll point that out to management right away.”

Estevez later apologized for the lapses and confusion, and said he would address the misleading language on checks for large parties. On the bright side, our group benefited from an Open Table promotion, with a free round of drinks for diners who use the online reservation service.

In Mexico, Salas spotlights exotic fare such as pork jowls. But in taking over a 235-seat resort restaurant in Fort Lauderdale (whose previous incarnations included Shula’s on the Beach steakhouse and Siren’s Table), I suppose he must dish out crowd-pleasers that Americans have come to expect from Mexican eateries, such as fajitas and tacos. The affable Salas, 37, is learning more about American palates. He did not realize that many Mexican-food eaters are obsessed with spice and heat, so the restaurant is considering offering spicier sauce options, including the bottled variety.

After his success in Mexico, including a restaurant in Mexico City, Salas has branched out and cashed in on opportunities. “I don’t think anybody [in America] knows who I am, and that’s fine,” he says. “I don’t want to be famous, but I want to make business here.” He opened Pueblo restaurant in Chicago in October 2017, and Lona three months later. He is still based in Toluca, where his family helps him run Amaranta, and he visits South Florida monthly to oversee the new restaurant’s progress.

Because of his reputation and schedule, I altered my usual routine and met Salas for an interview and photo shoot before my unannounced review visit. The dishes he prepared for the photo shoot included pumpkin tamale with crispy kale, braised beef cheek with pureed cauliflower, and a simple, grilled hunk of “cabbage al fuego” with crema, pipian (pumpkin seed) sauce, truffle oil and cojita cheese. They tasted refined and soulful. I was particularly struck by the cabbage, a humble and often overlooked vegetable that Salas transformed into something special. It was charred and earthy on the outside and soft and silky on the inside, elevated by swipes through the balanced sauce.

But on my later unannounced visit, a crowded, weekend night when he wasn’t in town, the kitchen was not able to replicate his magic. Some of those same dishes were limp and lifeless. The beef cheek ($26) did not have exterior crispness. The cabbage ($19) did not have the same flair or flavor. And Mexican standards such as tacos, quesadillas and enchiladas were adequate but not worth the inflated beachfront prices. Some were intricately prepared — such as beef barbacoa tacos ($15), which the menu described as being braised in adobo sauce and wrapped in banana leaf, and shrimp quesadilla ($13) with smoked bacon and avocado espuma — but ingredients got lost in the overworked mishmash. A tuna tostada ($15) featured chewy fish marred by white, sinewy streaks of tendon.

Some basics were fine. Traditional guacamole ($12) was brought to the table already prepared, no elaborate mixing show required, and the flavors were excellent, with the chunky avocado brightened by lime, cilantro and jalapeno. The tortilla chips were fresh, crisp and not greasy. The ceviche ($12) had Mexican touches with avocado mousse, pico de gallo and coconut oil, and the marinated fish and shrimp still stood out, perhaps a testament to chef de cuisine Israel Delgado’s Peruvian background.

The patio is certainly pleasant during the day (diners can’t beat that oceanfront view), but at night the exceedingly loud thump-thump-thump of music and the funky lights detracted. Lona has a lively outdoor bar, with a long list of tequila and mescal offerings and a very good house margarita ($12). The dining room is slightly more subdued and sophisticated, with clay pottery and a backlit wall of storage lockers for premium tequila, but you still can’t shake the feeling that you are in a hotel. Lona may be more authentic than many Americanized Mexican restaurants, but it has a long way to go to reach the lofty status Salas has achieved in his native Toluca.

mmayo@southflorida.com, 954-356-4508. Follow my food adventures on Instagram: @mikemayoeats. Sign up for my weekly dining newsletter at SouthFlorida.com/EatBeatMail.

Lona Cocina and Tequileria

321 N. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd., Fort Lauderdale

954-245-3069 or LonaRestaurant.com

Cuisine: Mexican

Cost: Moderate to expensive. Appetizers cost $7 to $36, main courses $15 to $36, sides $6, desserts $8

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday, 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday

Reservations: Recommended, online at OpenTable

Credit cards: All major

Bar: Beer, wine and full liquor with good standard margarita ($13) and extensive selection of tequila and mescal

Noise level: Music blares on patio, not as loud in dining room

Wheelchair access: Ramps from ground level

Parking: Valet $5 with validation

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