Hours: Sun.-Thu. 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-midnight
Prices: Appetizers $5-9; entrees $14-20
Liquor: Full bar
Imagine the sun's warmth filtered through palm fronds, a grass hut on the beach, the scent of tropical flowers, a million miles between you and your workaday cares you're in the Bahamas, baby! Now, imagine an experience that is the utter opposite. Do you see yourself huddled in your car on a wintry night, navigating the bleak retail-scape of Robinson Town Centre? Then you can imagine our disorientation as we stepped through wind-whipped snow from our car onto the broad verandah of a place called Bahama Breeze.
Like its sister restaurants, Olive Garden and Smokey Joe's (all owned by Red Lobster, all located within a stone's throw of each other in a sort of theme-restaurant pod), Bahama Breeze occupies an over-designed hut rising out of an asphalt parking lot. We understand that this particular Breeze is actually a "reduced-investment" version of that chain, which sure makes us wonder what the full roll-out entails. The restaurant at Robinson spares no tropical cliché in transforming beach-shack style into an all-weather restaurant for over 300: Enormous beams support the soaring space, jalousie windows punctuate the walls, and fans spin lazily from a corrugated metal ceiling, scarcely stirring the air above the thatched bar. Faux folk art and the requisite display of themed ephemera complete the atmosphere.
Like the décor, the menu is a mix of surprisingly authentic preparations and culinary kitsch. Genuine recipes from the West Indies, Cuba and other tropical climes vie for your appetite with more assimilated pasta, pizza and mainstream Mexican dishes which betray Bahama Breeze's middle-American roots -- and market.
Still, West Indian patties made a promising start, more chunky empanada than smooth Jamaican beef patty. Ground beef, potatoes, carrots and onions were lightly curried and held in by a crisp, flaky crust. Despite the promise of an entrée to come, Jason felt obliged to test the Cuban sandwich, a favorite from his Miami days. The baguette-style Cuban bread was pressed flat as a pancake, but the meaty pork, salty ham and melty Swiss were all there in fine shape, and things looked up for our meal.
Finding the appetizer list more lively than the entrées, Angelique chose to make a meal of small plates. Crispy calamari sofrito consisted of battered and fried tentacles topped with a warm sautée of diced tomatoes, peppers, onions, Spanish sausage and garlic -- so much garlic, in fact, that it threatened to overwhelm the other flavors. The calamari itself was tender but the pieces were too big to offer a perfect balance of meat, batter and sofrito.
Her cup of conch chowder was more Mediterranean than Bahamian, with chewy morsels of shellfish in an herbed tomato broth that would have been a good base for minestrone.
The Creole baked goat cheese, though, was a winner. Roasted red pepper halves served as edible bowls filled with warm, soft cheese, which was mixed with herbs and minced vegetables. The sweet, smoky flavor of the peppers infused the cheese as well, and Cuban toast rounds sprinkled with browned grated Parmesan were delightful vehicles for scooping it up. Angelique's only complaint here was that the "vine-ripened" tomato salsa, which could have been a lovely astringent foil to the rich cheese, was instead pale and mealy. In the depth of winter, canned ripe tomatoes are infinitely preferable to fresh.
We were struck by the menu's lack of authentic pork dishes, since the other white meat is, if not a staple on Caribbean islands, at least a hallowed festival focus. But Jason thought that the ribs might provide an opportunity for, if not fidelity, at least intriguing fusion. The baby backs were juicy and tender, but the guava sauce coating the rack was blandly reminiscent of the syrupy stuff that comes with fast-food barbecue chicken. The side of fries was unusual in the skinny cut of potatoes, but the overly salty batch only reminded us how good a sprinkling of island spices could have been.
In the end, what really disappointed us at Bahama Breeze was the mixed message. An interior that thoughtfully evokes the tropics could be matched with a truly innovative menu to create an experience that sets this chain restaurant apart from the ones across the parking lot. Instead, middlebrow tastes rule the roost, turning back invention and calming what could have been a refreshing breeze.
Jason: 2.5 stars
Angelique: 2 stars