Just Beachy

You can almost hear the surf pound at the Cape Grill

If only The Cape Grill were situated where ideally it should be. That is, a half-mile or less from a pounding blue surf, a stretch of white beach and a friendly boardwalk. Instead, this sunny indoor-outdoor seafood place sits smack dab in an ocean of concrete near the Quadrangle, where new construction 100 yards away yellows the air with thick dust and heavy truck traffic makes lunchtime patio conversation impossible.

But take a seat at one of the crisply white-clothed tables inside the westernmost dining room at the Cape and it's easy to imagine that seaside setting. Windowsills are strewn with pretty bleached shells. Ella Fitzgerald sings light jazz tunes, not too insistently, on the sound system. Overhead fans blend the chill of the air conditioning into the thick afternoon humidity.

The waiter, a handsome lad named Scotty, offers a list of $2 cocktails called Cape Cod (vodka and cranberry juice), Cape Fear (a fearsome blend of rum, vodka, gin, tequila, fresh lemonade and Coke) and Cape Canaveral (vodka, triple sec and raspberry juice). These are some capes we could get wrapped up in. We sip as we scan the menu.

Fresh tuna tartare sets the tone for Cape Grill's fryerless kitchen.
Tom Jenkins
Fresh tuna tartare sets the tone for Cape Grill's fryerless kitchen.

Details

Cold avocado soup $8

Scallops in soy-ginger $14

Crab cake appetizer $16

Fresh halibut special $16

Meatloaf sandwich $10

Root beer float $7

Closed Location

The Cape Grill is a restaurant in transition. They've been short of waiters and cooks, and there's been a change in chefs in the past few weeks. Out is Truett Bishop, who helped open the Cape three months ago. In is 36-year-old Israel Fearon, who worked the early days at Bice, was executive sous chef at Sambuca and most recently was chef at Hotel St. Germain. He's still putting his mark on the Cape Grill, but Fearon says he plans to continue the owners' original concept of cooking with very little butter and not overwhelming fresh fish with artery-clogging sauces and creams. The open kitchen is fryer-free. You'll get unsullied fruit salad instead of hushpuppies, French fries or onion rings next to that tuna steak or tuna melt.

At each of our three anonymous visits over eight days, the menu at the Cape is slightly different, finally looking solid and interesting at a late-afternoon lunch. But for our first meal here, an early Friday dinner, the kitchen is in freefall. Specials are unavailable. The raw tuna appetizer is inedibly mushy. The whole grilled rainbow trout smells and tastes a touch too ripe for a weekday (we wouldn't have dared order it on a Sunday, a lesson learned from devouring every word of Anthony Bourdain's dishy Kitchen Confidential). The grilled shrimp on a skewer, one of only four seafood entrees offered this particular evening, are unseasoned and tough. They squat atop a mound of gooey risotto, cooked long enough before our order went in for the cheese to have scorched on reheating. The only side dish to be had is the dreaded grilled yellow squash and zucchini combo. There are a couple of asparagus spears on the plate, but they're as thick and fibrous as wet rope.

Scotty, bless him, explains that things are not always so dicey and that we should check back when Fearon's on deck. To distract us, he talks up the desserts: Key lime pie and macerated berries.

"Did he say 'masturbating berries'?" asks my dining companion, who has imbibed a few of those cheap and well-poured Cape cocktails.

I get the berries. Sure enough, somebody's had a heavy hand with them, pounding fresh raspberries and blackberries into a syrupy liquid poured into a martini glass. It's tasty but would only be successful as a $7 dessert if it also featured some sponge cake or a scoop of vanilla ice cream under all that purple ooze.

The Key lime pie isn't pie at all, but soft pudding served in a little bowl. No crust, no tang, no fun.

We come back for Sunday brunch and once again, the Cape is understaffed and underwhelming. Only a few tables are occupied, but service is lethargic (Scotty must have the morning off). We pass up the $15 "endless mimosa" and "bottomless Bloody Mary" cocktails and order a sausage omelet and mushroom frittata. The $11 omelet is a thick roll of scrambled eggs with a 6-inch slice of Polish sausage wedged inside. Weird. And not good.

A frittata is a two-step dish that starts as an omelet-like mix of ingredients—eggs, cheese, herbs, whatever—that then is transferred for finishing into the oven (or under the grill) like a quiche. That's not what we get. Our $11 "frittata" is a glop of plain scrambled eggs stirred up with wet mushrooms. Not frit-terrible but not what we wanted. We're served no bread with brunch. Not a slice of toast, not a croissant, not a muffin. There's also no salt or pepper on the table. We find one of those "Rubirosa" pepper grinders on a nearby shelf and make liberal use of it.

Days later, we finally feel the Fearon treatment. It's a lazy afternoon outside the Cape (even the earthmovers at the Quadrangle seem to be taking a break), but inside the kitchen's in full working order and the menu is full of promise. We order and eat for two hours, starting with cold avocado soup drizzled with crème fraîche in a bowl so wide and deep we can't make a dent in the generous portion. For a shared appetizer, it's the scallops grilled with fresh ginger, scallions and a light soy sauce. The three snow white puffs of shellfish are so fat and meaty they could make for a light meal.

No stopping there, though. The entrée of grilled halibut steak on a heap of salad is the dish we'd sail back in to the Cape for. Under the light, tender fish is a mix of mesclun, slivers of jicama, purple onion, melon chunks and sliced strawberries, all tossed in peach vinaigrette. Nothing overpowers. Hot fish, cold salad, sweet dressing. It's summer on a plate.

The other entrée on our table is a meatloaf sandwich. But that's too plain a name. This isn't your mother's heap of ground beef, cracker crumbs and canned tomatoes. This is two long, wide slices of mixed ground beef and pork, grilled and served with portobello mushrooms in husky gravy. The onion roll is bakery soft. The dark flavors of the sandwich are complemented by the accompanying fruit salad. Who misses fries when you get something this good?

Lunch is leisurely because we want it that way. The waiter this time, another handsome lad, named Patrick, checks on us often. Our iced teas stay refilled. The manager stops by to see how things are.

We sit on the glassed-in porch of the building, which was built in 1911, or so say the letters and numbers stuck to the window by the door. Other restaurants have come and gone here, but the Cape hasn't gussied up the old-fashioned look of the place. It's a clean interior, with sturdy wooden tables and chairs and lots of room to move around. If they get a crowd big enough to use the waiting area, there's a brass telescope there aimed at the high-rise across the way.

The patio, with umbrella-ed tables, is nice after dark, when the dust dies down and the rumbling trucks go away. Bring a doggie with you and Patrick or Scotty or whoever's on duty will fetch a silver bowl of water for the pooch.

Our third meal at the Cape is the charm we were looking for, and we can't leave without ordering the day's special dessert: a root beer float. Oh, mama. Every spoonful is bliss, and we stir the melted ice cream into the last few sips of soda. Patrick offers a refill, but it's not necessary. We've had our happy escape at the Cape. With one of those seashells at our ear we can hear the ocean. Close enough. 2704 Worthington St., 214-720-9010. Open 11 a.m.-1 a.m. daily. $$

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