Things are a bit off-kil­ter at Lona Lona Cocina and Tequileria

Some food is good, but ser­vice, fla­vors are un­even

Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition - Showtime - Palm Beach - - DINING - By Michael Mayo

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

PHO­TOS BY MIKE STOCKER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

As pre­pared by chef Pablo Salas, a grilled hunk of “cab­bage al fuego” with crema, pip­ian sauce, truf­fle oil and co­jita cheese was spe­cial.

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