As a result, you don't see a ton of negative reviews here. I tend to have a pretty good sense of when I'm not going to like a restaurant, and can usually avoid those where I'm likely to be disappointed. Likewise, if a place is merely mediocre, there's often not much of interest to be said about it.
But sometimes my sense of foreboding is not enough to save me from a bad meal. Sometimes, even if you're not a professional critic, you can't choose where you eat. I recently had one of those times, when friends made a reservation at the newly opened III Forks in the Village at Gulfstream Park complex.
If you haven't been down that way lately, you will be astounded at what's gone up on the massive plot of land that houses the Gulfstream horse track. In addition to the newly renovated track and adjoining casino, there is a Vegas-scale shopping complex with several restaurants. Aside from III Forks, there is a new Douglas Rodriguez restaurant opening soon (Ola Cuban), a Texas de Brazil, and maybe ten other big restaurants in the development (most still not yet open). The magnitude of it is pretty staggering. And the track itself is really just beautiful. We recently brought the kids to watch a couple races, and it was a great way to spend a sunny afternoon.
Anyway, as I almost always do, I checked out the online menu for III Forks before our visit. I immediately started whining to Mrs. F that it was the most soul-crushingly boring menu I'd seen in years, and desparately tried to find ways to alter our plans. But sometimes there's no polite way to do so. So, into the abyss ...
Like everything else at Gulfstream, the restaurant is fairly huge. There are three or four different dining rooms, each decorated a bit differently, all following a sort of late 90's aesthetic: wood, glass, dark greys and browns. It's a nice looking place, not nearly as stodgy as I'd expected from the menu I'd reviewed. Our group of six had a big table in the back of the restaurant, which Mrs. F dubbed the "Bookies and Babies" wing. Even the fabric-covered walls could not absorb the incredible din being created by a big table of wiseguys apparently celebrating a good day at the track, and a couple of squalling infants at other tables.[*]
You can imagine how elated I was when the menus we were handed featured exactly the same dispiriting lineup I'd viewed online. Uninspired. Lowest common denominator. Dated. Pedestrian. I could probably come up with more descriptors than there were actual choices. The entire list of appetizers: Onion Rings; Ahi Tuna; Beef Croustades; Shrimp Cocktail; Bacon Wrapped Scallops; Crabcake St. Francis; and "Seafood Medley" (a Red Lobster-esque combination of the three foregoing seafood items). If they were shooting for some retro, old-school vibe, perhaps I'd understand, but this is a place that describes itself as "a contemporary evolution of the classical steakhouse." If this is "evolution," maybe all that "intelligent design" stuff makes more sense than I ever thought.
There are also a few salads, which is what we opted for instead. There was actually nothing at all wrong with the Wedge Salad, though it's awfully hard to screw up a hunk of iceberg lettuce, a slice of tomato and blue cheese dressing. The Caesar Salad, on the other hand, looked as if someone had made a deliberate effort to find all of the saddest, droopiest leaves on a head of romaine, then drowned them in a watery, indistinct dressing.
If III Forks has anything going for it, it is that they use USDA Prime beef for all of their steaks, in about a half-dozen different cuts. Yes, I know most "contemporary" steakhouses have moved well beyond merely offering prime beef, and feature any number of other choices: dry-aged or not, grass-fed, Wagyu style beef ... but we're looking for positives here. I had a Flat Iron Steak (kudos are due for offering this less customary cut, and for a very reasonable $19.95 too; for some insight into the development and marketing of this flat iron steak, here's some interesting reading), while Mrs. F had a filet mignon. Somewhat arbitrarily, some of the entrées come with a side dish (my flat iron came with mashed potatoes), while others do not. The flat iron also came with a peppercorn sauce not advertised on the menu, but which our server informed us of (though perhaps "warned" would be the more appropriate word, as you'll see).
The flat iron steak itself was perfectly fine - cooked properly and sliced crosswise into thin slices. The peppercorn sauce was noxious. A brown goo, from which a greasy sheen of butter was separating, it was studded throughout with dozens of whole black peppercorns. I have seen peppercorn sauces made with brined green peppercorns. I have seen peppercorn sauces made with cracked black peppercorns. I have never before seen one made with whole black peppercorns. There's a reason. I am not by any means one to shy away from bold flavors. But the sensation of biting down on a whole black peppercorn - multiple times - is not one that enhances a meal.
Mrs. F's filet was also fine, and not marred by any sauce. Another of our dinner companions had to send back a steak he'd ordered medium rare when it arrived practically mooing. A replacement arrived about 10-15 minutes later, when most of the rest of the table was close to finished. A side dish of sautéed mushrooms featured flavorless button mushrooms; fresh asparagus were undercooked and grassy-tasting. We closed out our meal with a bread pudding with whiskey sauce that was sweet and unexceptional.
III Forks - which has other outlets in Dallas, Houston, Austin, Boca Raton, Palm Beach and Jacksonvillle - markets itself as both a steakhouse and seafood restaurant, with a logo that includes both a steer's horns and a fish. The "Fish Market" side of the III Forks menu does not exactly plumb the depths of the oceans, however, offering Atlantic salmon and Chilean sea bass, plus shrimp, scallops, and Australian lobster tail - not exactly the ideal place to break out your Sustainable Seafood Pocket Guide.
Sometimes a mediocre meal can still be made enjoyable by exceptional service. That was not the case here. The fun started from the moment we arrived. After being greeted by the manager and hostess and giving the name on our reservation, we stood by slackjawed as the two of them immediately launched into a lengthy discussion of the status of the orders at a half dozen tables that were already seated. Finally, they returned their attention to us and advised us to go to the bar.
Once our group assembled and was seated, we discovered that it was going to be a constant battle to get and keep our waiter's attention. At one point, while drinks were being served to our table, one of our diners tried to ask him about the fish of the day, only to be told - with finger raised - to wait, he'd tell us about the specials later (when he was good and ready). It was about 10 minutes before we saw him again. We placed food orders, only to have the waiter run off before I could order wine. When I finally did get the wine order in, it was another 10-15 minutes later that we were told they were out of the bottle I'd selected. At least three different times, servers tried to bring us food ordered by another table, and vice versa. Unsurprisingly, they had no clue which orders belonged to which diners at our table, requiring a roll call of items and raising of hands. I don't think a water or wine glass was filled by a server once during our entire meal - something I'm not usually too finicky about, but at least make an effort, you know?
There's at least one other reason I'm thankful not to be a professional restaurant reviewer. Professionals are obligated to give a place multiple visits before rendering their opinion. Truth is, if I don't have a great experience I will usually give a place another chance before saying something - or just say nothing at all. But this is a place that already has some experience running other locations, and that is already drawing in crowds. The service kinks can probably be worked out, but I just can't imagine the dishes - or the menu - are going to get any better. Three Forks? One is more than enough for me, thanks.
501 Silks Run
Hallandale, FL 33009
[*]Let me be clear: I never blame a restaurant for the rudeness or loudness of its customers. I've never understood people who criticize the restaurant because they were seated next to an obnoxious loudmouth or a crying baby. What, exactly, would you have the restaurant do about it? If anything, you can fault a restaurant's design for not making an effort to control noise. III Forks - like, I suspect, everyplace else at Gulfstream - has high ceilings that surely bounce around a lot of ambient noise, but they've also lined the walls with padded fabric to try to stifle it. And our server actually did make an effort to shush the wiseguys' table.