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A Removeable Feast

So we went to the cafe named for the famous writer known for his terse, staccato sentences and we marveled at the credible reproduction of a Key West restaurant down to the exposed bricks and breezy marina decor and we ate the food and it was bland.

As the menu exclaims, Hemingway's is back.
It's back, but it's not the same old burger/Mex joint that opened in the mid-Seventies and shut down a decade later. This time the words "Key West Grille" are attached to the name, and the woody, dark interior has been replaced with an oceanic atmosphere that's very appealing in this landlocked town--particularly to those of us who moved here from Florida and spent considerable time in Key West collecting hangovers and chatting with Frank, the guy who lives on Duvall Street with his dog, Ruth, who, inexplicably, wears aluminum foil on her head. Of course, we did Sloppy Joe's, too, but we preferred the place covered with business cards whose name escapes me and whose bar, like Sloppy Joe's, claims to have poured Papa many an antidote for writer's block, only the place did it quieter and without bothering to put its name--whatever that is--on T-shirts.

Hemingway's doesn't claim that its namesake slept within its century-old walls, but its menu does promise that "his spirit lives on" there. It must be the moneymaking side of Hemingway's spirit, since when I stopped in, I didn't notice any ambulance drivers, novelists, big-game hunters, Nobel Prize winners or even any other journalists. But the menu tells its own story: It gives a brief, interesting history of South Gaylord Street; a brief, resume-like description of Ernest; and a brief, self-serving history of Hemingway's. According to the menu, the space has held many eateries since 1925, including the Marine Bar and Grille (1947-65) and the original Hemingway's, which "Doc" Roberts opened in 1977. For some reason, Roberts thought Hemingway's spirit would best be evoked by serving Mexican-American food, and the neighborhood supported this notion until 1985.

That's the year the restaurant closed down, and another eleven passed before it reopened. Current owner Max Barber started the long, painstaking chore of refurbishing the building in 1991; the job took five years. But Barber's hard work and investment appear to have paid off. The place is dynamite to look at and fun to sit in, especially at the bar.

Too bad the food is boring and comes with prices that are difficult to swallow.

For starters, an appetizer order of mussels marinara ($5.95) brought eight blue mussels in their shells, all resting under a half-runny tomato sauce that looked like ketchup does when you don't shake the bottle and water burps out first. The half that wasn't runny tasted like a once-decent marinara that had been left on the stove until all the herbs twinkled out. We ate three of the mollusks and left the rest to keep company with three steamed oysters that weren't just steamed, they were pissed off. The oysters had been cooked until they resembled earplugs, in both appearance and flavor. Apparently, the kitchen thinks six oysters are worth $6 and twelve of them are worth $8--maybe the chef isn't a big fan of earplugs, either. Instead, we concentrated on the delicious steamed clams ($8) served with clam juice and melted butter.

Clams also starred in the only other winner we found at Hemingway's: the clam chowder ($2.75). It was thicker than oatmeal, packed with clams and flavored with their liquor and just a touch of saltiness. That touch had turned into a heavy hand with the strangely salty Caesar salad ($5.50), whose dressing tasted so much like creamy Italian that I asked the waiter if there had been some mistake. (Besides dropping the salt shaker in the salad, that is.) No, he replied, that was the Caesar dressing. "It's a little different," he added. Yeah, I'd say it's a lot different from any Caesar I've ever had.

The scallop Alfredo ($9.50) was another version unique to this kitchen. It was certainly nothing like what we'd expected, since the pasta was coated with an inedible sauce that seemed to contain nothing but cream and black pepper. True, the original Alfredo recipe (which many restaurants ignore) did call for plentiful grindings of black pepper. But there's plentiful and then there's decongestant, which is why this Alfredo should require a prescription. And the dried-out pucks passing as scallops (you can tell a scallop's overcooked when it splits open around the sides) were no consolation prize. More evidence that this place is merely posing as the "high-quality" seafood restaurant it claims to be on the menu: fish and chips ($8.25) that were more like bricks and bits. A straggly pile of overfried French fries accompanied a single piece of--once again--overcooked fish trapped inside an overly chewy coating; the texture was reminiscent of fried chicken. In comparison, the fried-oyster platter ($8.95) had been nicely prepared--but it was no bargain, considering that the "platter" contained five tiny oysters. A small bowl of okay coleslaw and more fries crunchy as Q-Tips didn't do much to increase the value.

But that disappointment was nothing compared to the stone crab claws offer we fell for hook, line and sinker. I'll take most of the rap for not asking the market price, but the waiter should shoulder his share, too, for failing to mention that the clawful we got would set us back $30. I usually keep on top of market prices; retail, these things are going for no more than $18 a pound--and that's for seven jumbo claws. This plate held just five, and pre-cooked at that. For heaven's sake, all a kitchen has to do is thaw the claws and heat them for a few minutes. But then, even proper cooking wouldn't have helped these claws much: Their meat was watery and tasteless, with none of the sweet, succulent flavor that usually makes them my favorite Gulf-side dining.

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