Things are a bit off-kilter at Lona Lona Cocina and Tequileria
Some food is good, but service, flavors are uneven
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 ranked15th 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 fill- Tacos al pastor with spit roasted pork, grilled pineapple, salsa verde, cilantro and onions. ing 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 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: Wheelchair access: Parking: 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 crowdpleasers 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
Music blares on patio, not as loud in dining room Ramps from ground level Valet $5 with validation
As prepared by chef Pablo Salas, a grilled hunk of “cabbage al fuego” with crema, pipian sauce, truffle oil and cojita cheese was special.