Faux-island flavors

Aug 21, 2002 at 12:00 am

Bahama Breeze is a chain of Caribbean-themed restaurants. It has its own beer, Aruba Red, and we’re treated to a silly story about a female pirate with “scarlet tresses” who discovered it. Read further and you’ll learn that Aruba Red is produced by Anheuser-Busch. That tells you what you need to know about Bahama Breeze.

The BB group is brought to us by the same corporation that owns Red Lobster and Olive Garden. The two BB stores in Troy and Livonia are more like each other than two McDonald’s are, from menu to “tour guides’” (servers’) tropical-shirt uniforms to faux-Caribbean architecture.

The idea is to promise patrons, having once visited a BB in Rochester, N.Y., that they can get the exact same experience among a strip of office buildings in suburban Detroit. Of course, that experience won’t be much like what you’d enjoy in a real Caribbean restaurant.

But folks are lining up for the BB brand. On an August Saturday night in Troy, the wait was 90-120 minutes. Clearly people are attracted to the tropics even when it’s 93 degrees. I saw one fellow in an immaculate turquoise Cozumel T-shirt, eager to re-create last year’s beach vacation for a night.

BB is alcohol-oriented; the drinks list goes on for pages and has more ways to disguise the flavor of tequila, rum or coffee than Señor Cuervo ever dreamed of.

My bartender was pushing BB’s BahamaRita signature drink ($4.50), composed of mango, strawberry and kiwi ices and Cuervo Gold. The lime daiquiri I ordered tasted good but was light on the Bacardi Light; no buzz.

BB’s approach to food is often to take a familiar American or Americanized dish and slap a Caribbean name and/or some coconut on it. Thus “island mashed potatoes,” which are just mashed potatoes. Or coconut-breaded island onion rings. My companion’s Jamaican chicken breast could have been served by a restaurant billing itself “southwestern” or “soul” or “Australian outback.” The Jamaican wings would be at home in Buffalo.

I found the resulting fare occasionally tasty, if nonthreatening. Here’s an example of the genre: the recipe for Alan’s calypso shrimp pasta, we read in the BB newspaper, was suggested by executive vice president of operations Alan Palmieri. Did he borrow it from Olive Garden? It tasted good, but this dish would be at home in any restaurant whose menu has an Italian section.

Roasted Cuban bread is clearly supposed to be an answer to bruschetta, but with soft, rather than toasted, bread and the promised cilantro missing, it doesn’t make the grade. Calamari sofrito, heavily breaded, is fairly spicy and certainly tasty. Paella is a Spanish dish, and BB’s version is not bad, if a little oily and homogeneous.

BB makes ceviche with tuna, and the lime marinade does not improve the color. It tastes good, though, if you like lime, and the huge plantain chips and mustardy sauce are appetizing. Conch soup is thin and tomato-based, with few traces of seafood.

A huge mound of pulled pork on mashed potatoes is steeped in the restaurant’s jerk sauce, also used on other items. It may be the nutmeg and allspice that give this jerk such an unusual flavor. I ordered ropa vieja, shredded beef served on yellow rice with black beans. I might not kick it out of the kitchen, but this dish seemed sanitized. The beans had no juice, the bright yellow rice little flavor.

As usual, I enjoyed desserts — warm piña colada bread pudding with a coconut-rum sauce and an Amaretto crème brûlée.

BB also sells T-shirts, refrigerator magnets and little statues of manatees made of unspecified “quality materials.” For me, those generic “quality materials” — presumably petroleum-based — were the last straw. Deliver me from any restaurant that has an executive vice president of operations!

Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].