Buffett, not buffet

You can't bust a bar's chops for serving bar food. In the case of Cheeseburger in Paradise, a recent addition to the chain-restaurant necklace around Lakeside Mall, there might be a temptation to do it, though, because it's a bar disguised as a restaurant. But strangely, on Saturday night, when there was an hour's wait for a table at 7:30, about half the crowd were families.

I should say first that, once accepting what the place is, I thought the food was pretty good. As a restaurant, it leaves a lot to be desired; as a bar, you might want to check it out. But watch your mouth — little pitchers have big ears.

Taking its name, of course, from the Jimmy Buffett munchies anthem, the place is suitably decked out in mass-produced regulation tiki bar stuff. One side is made of all glass garage doors, ready to be opened wide when the tropical sun hits Sterling Heights.

But something's missing.

The music loop that plays just loud enough to top the crowd noises and the persistent blare of the receptionist's call runs a weird range from Gun N' Roses to Van Morrison. No Buffett. Not the signature song, not "Boat Drinks," not "Margaritaville." Bubkes.

A server — they're dressed in simple turquoise shirts and jeans — overhears a comment about it and informs that "we need to have a document with Jimmy Buffett's signature on it. So far, he hasn't signed it." Whether that's up-to-date news, in August the Parrothead singer sold his stake in the outfit to Outback Steakhouse Inc., along with a deal for 4.5 percent of sales for the right to use his name and image, the song and its name.

Why the receptionist needs to trumpet table news is a mystery. Like any good food mill, CIP hands out a gadget that manically vibrates and flashes stars when your squat is ready. Unless you weasel your way onto a barstool before that happens, you'll soon be staring expectantly at the quiet signal box.

The view from the bar is amusing, because the laddies behind it don't quite have their Tom Cruise act together yet. Beer mugs are dropped, acrobatically airborne booze bottles don't always land where they're supposed to, and there's a happy tension when one tops a full beer glass with a coaster, flips it upside down and somersaults it through the air to another.

They concoct all manner of fun boat drinks using Hershey's syrup, lots of flavored vodkas, rums and sticky liqueurs, garnished with baby bananas, pineapple and other fruit sculpted into freaky creatures, including a parrot wearing Ray Bans.

All the sticky hooch contributes, along with gooey sauces and an apparent shortage of clean bar rags, to cementing dishes and ashtrays to the plastic bartop. (Sealed in it are vacation postcards, sand, shells and facsimiles of Buffett's handwritten words and chords for the absent signature song.) Don't know if the tables are likewise adhesive; we took the place of a serious-looking couple who brought a calorie-counting book to the bar.

We dug into a Carnivorous Habits Platter — a cluster of mini-cheeseburgers, jerk babybacks, teriyaki wings and onion "six-strings." Both the ribs and the wings were meaty and tender, though jerked food, with its Afro-Caribbean origins and hearty use of Scotch bonnet chiles, is supposed to bite, not tease. The baby burgers are the house version of sliders, but with better meat than usual. All the burgers are made from ground chuck which, because of its fat content, is by far the best choice for the all-American patty; sirloin is just a waste of money and meat. The onion strings are very lightly battered and addictive, and better eaten plain than dunked in their side of "Asian mayo."

Next was Costa Rican Skirt Steak Salad, which sounds like a visual showstopper on the menu: "It's our lettuce mix, roasted corn, cucumbers, red peppers, red onions, wontons, salsa and bleu cheese, tossed in our house balsamic vinaigrette and topped with a healthy portion of seasoned and grilled skirt steak." What comes to us is a broad dish holding a lumpy beige mass of all that stuff, chopped, coated and combined, with a nearly cold but perfectly medium-rare fan of tender skirt steak, which lots of folks may know better from fajitas.

Though there are five other versions, including the minis, we went with the signature Cheeseburger in Paradise, done Buffett's way: "I like mine with lettuce and tomato, Heinz 57 and French-fried potatoes," cheddar and American cheeses, with a kosher dill on the side. It's big, sloppy and a dandy bar burger, on a par with most, though it came slightly flattened, looking like it had taken a turn wrapped and resting under a heat lamp at McDonald's. The fries were sodden, limp and cut like Mickey D's.

There are more salads, entrées and sandwiches (including a passable stab at the Cuban version of pannini that's showing up everywhere, served with sweet potato chips), but by now you should have a pretty good idea about the food. In finishing, we passed up a dessert of chocolate nachos (?!!!) and took home a wedge of key lime pie, the real deal, but still nearly frozen, fresh from the package.

Would Buffett's in-name-only eatery pass the Parrothead test? To find out, I offered some leftovers to a real one — my own little parrot named Felonious Vincent Monk, aka Vinnie the Drill, for chattering his beak on your bottom teeth while trying to swipe a taste of coffee.

Monk was having none of it.

Ric Bohy is the editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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