Operation Florida Freedom
Ernest Hemingway cut his adventurer's teeth as a teen-age Red Cross ambulance driver in Italy during World War I. The cut went deep. Just six days before his 19th birthday on July 8, 1918, Hemingway was hit by Austrian artillery fire, sustaining injuries to his knee and foot that led to a series of operations in a Milan hospital. The young writer was awarded a medal for valor.
But this splash of heroics was little more than role-playing compared with Hemingway's ultimate military achievement: the liberation of the Ritz hotel on the Place Vendome in Nazi-occupied Paris in 1944. As recounted in a 1994 article in Forbes, Hemingway hit Omaha beach in the seventh wave of the Normandy assault and followed allied infantry as it slogged through northern France, firing off dispatches for Collier's magazine as he went. His staging area for the ambitious assault on the Ritz was the town of Rambouillet some 30 miles south of Paris. There he formed a small army of partisans and resistance fighters and took over a small hotel, stashing hundreds of guns and other weapons in the hotel's rooms. He focused his Ritz mission with laser-like intensity, rumbling up to Paris in a jeep, chugging scotch and champagne as he went. Once Hemingway and his gaggle of fighters crossed the river Seine into Paris, they dodged German sniper fire and the French artillery strikes dispatched to suppress it.
When his army stormed the Ritz, "The manager was delirious, he was so happy," recounts one of the resistance fighters. "He said, 'We resisted the Germans--we kept the best premiers crus from them. We saved the Cheval Blanc!'" Hemingway looked at the manager for a moment and urged him to go get it. "They brought up some bottles and Papa started slugging it down," remembers the fighter. "Imagine! This great old Bordeaux and he's slugging it down like water."
Today, a bronze bust of "Papa" sits in a 300-square-foot alcove in the Ritz that serves as the Hemingway Bar, a much more useful decoration than a medal of valor.
During most of the 1930s, before his bold war exploit, Hemingway lived in Key West, where he was said to down four-shot gin martinis in one sitting and then scarf down a whole Key lime pie with his bare hands. Hemingway called Key West the St. Tropez of the poor. But in the 1880s, Key West was among the richest towns in the country, its wad assembled through shipwreck salvaging, pirating, treasure hunting, shark skinning, sponging, cigar rolling, turtle canning, rum running and pineapple cultivation. It was here that he scrawled some of his most important works, including Death in the Afternoon and For Whom the Bell Tolls. "This is a splendid place," Hemingway once said. "Nobody believes me when I say I am a writer. They think I represent big Northern bootleggers or dope peddlers." Maybe this place infused him with the temerity he needed to liberate the Ritz.
Florida Seafood Grill, owned by Austin-based Truluck's Restaurant Group, is inspired by this natty Florida Key culture, just as Hemingway was. Yet it's questionable how inspired Hemingway would be by its craft, and it's doubtful he'd eat the Key lime pie with his hands if he were ever to find himself in Plano, a place where his greatest challenge might be to liberate a Chevy Suburban from the clutches of a soccer mom. On the dessert platter, the pie was a thick and aggressive wedge, a tantalizing piece of cloying aggression subdued by citrus vandalism. On the plate it was thin and slouching. The custard wasn't firm, and while the crust was thick up the backside, it was thin and soggy on the bottom. Forget eating this one with fists.
One of Hemingway's most potent Key West passions was marlin fishing, though it's doubtful Florida Grill's grilled marlin would have impressed him much. This slab of firm white meat scorched with crosshatched grill marks and slobbered with Key lime butter was dry and spongy.
Spongy textures also marred the tropical grilled tuna, a stringy, gray-framed magenta slab that nonetheless came through with relatively clean flavors. But the stringiest Key grub was the skewered and grilled jumbo shrimp: soapy coils of mush that were hard to chew and get down, if you could sufficiently pulverize the stubborn threads sewn through it. A side of lime cilantro rice was a bit pasty.
This textural sea twaddle is housed in a temple of Key kitsch: a dizzying assortment of fish trophies (there's even a large sea turtle stapled to one wall), a wicker bicycle and other nautical and island frills including a row of hula doll lamps around the bar, some with exposed teats (a little island dyslexia here). Hurricane shutters angle off the windows, and a koi pond has been trenched out in front.
Instead of banquettes, the dining room, wrapped in bare wood paneling, has raised seating areas furnished with padded carved wood benches. Servers are efficient and attentive but are almost pathologically cheerful, which gets creepy by the time the entrées arrive. (Wine is served in little decanters--a pleasant surprise for a place in dire need of four-shot martinis.) Press materials describe Florida Grill as "a stress-free destination in the heart of West Plano. Come to [Florida] and go on vacation."
It doesn't offer suggestions on where to go once you've become stressed out by the cuisine. Seafood cocktail, a flat plate spread with a pile of mushy and spongy (apropos, perhaps, as Key West was a sponging haven) seafood substance (calamari, shrimp and whitefish, according to the menu), was drenched in cocktail sauce and deposited on a bed of shredded red cabbage. Key West shrimp and conch fritters were lightly battered, misshapen sponges that, while relatively greaseless, held little if any shrimp or conch flecks.
Prospects brighten when you leave the Keys and slip into Texas (though steer clear of the margaritas). Chicken tortilla soup was hearty and thick with a robust tangle of chicken shreds infused with a pronounced lime tang. But traditional Texas brawn falters like the seafood. The pork chops were dry, chewy and bitter from an acute grill torching.
Florida surf n' turf was supposed to contain a "melt-in-your-mouth" top sirloin. "Bounce in the mouth" is more accurate, as ours had the resilience and mouth feel of weather stripping. The steak was puffy with a deep blood-red center and tough and stringy demeanor, though it did bleed a considerable amount of juice. A pitched pile of thin onion rings, flaccid hoops sopped with grease, somehow allowed some of the onion sweetness to peek through. Shrimp were firm and juicy but sweated still more soap.
Working in this grill's favor is price, with most of the entrées hanging well below $20. But like the Ritz, Florida is in dire need of liberation. Perhaps someone should stock the pantry with a bevy of Cheval Blanc and let Ernest handle the rest.
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