Bahama Breeze provides a cuisine epiphany

I have to confess to being almost myopically prejudiced against theme-based corporate chain restaurants. Were you to take a moment to examine some of the monstrosities masquerading as eateries that litter our malls and thoroughfares, such prejudice should hardly come as a surprise. A ready-made atmosphere, in which servers sing or dance for one"s entertainment, or sport copious items of "flair" on their clothing, seldom puts me in the mood to do anything other than cringe in sympathetic embarrassment or even, on occasion, head for the nearest exit. The concept of dining as theater only really takes flight when the food is thrilling and the service sublime. I have yet to experience such an epiphany in a big chain restaurant, which is probably why these places tend to rely so heavily on themes and theater to distract you from the painful truth that the food generally isn"t up to much.

A bad experience at a favorite independent eatery and a recommendation from an individual whose opinion I respect recently persuaded me to give the chains another go.

At first sight, Bahama Breeze seems to blend in pretty well with its surroundings. I"m not sure if there"s an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest collection of car dealerships, but I"m guessing that the corner of 96th and Keystone is towards the front of the running in that particular category. Not being exactly sure of the restaurant"s location, I performed my by now usual series of U-turns and shortcuts before finally coming across a massive parking lot surrounding, to use the words of the tour guide, "a Bahama-style sugar plantation" complete with tin roof and neon signage.

From a distance, the building resembled another car dealership, but moving closer, the karaoke-calypso rendition of Van Morrison was a dead giveaway. Such a first impression is usually enough to cast even the most optimistic of cynics into a dark and savage mood, but this time the impression didn"t last. There"s an unforced sense of fun at Bahama Breeze: Certainly the pace is fast, the restaurant is crowded and people are enjoying themselves, but here the enjoyment seems to be for real. It"s refreshing to enter a bright and cheerful space teeming with bright young people (just like me, in fact) intent on savoring the good things in life.

One thing that becomes readily apparent as soon as you set foot in this voluminous restaurant is that no expense has been spared. The construction of the building is of substantial timbers topped with a realistic, corrugated tin roof, the floors are of high quality tile and the bathrooms are pretty damned impressive. The vast open kitchen looks over the main dining area and bar. There are plants all over the place, and the general atmosphere is reminiscent of a Caribbean spring break without the nudity.

Taking possession of our flashing, vibrating pager, my friend and I sought out a space at the jostling bar at which to wait 40 minutes for a table and order from the truly epic list of pre-dinner drinks. My friend decided, bravely, I think, to start with the Frozen Bahamarita, a substantial margarita made with Cuervo Gold and kiwi, strawberry and mango ices. This is quite a creation. Although the wine list is impressive for a chain (in that it offers more than Turning Leaf Chardonnay and Beringer White Zinfandel), I opted for the custom-brewed (by Anheuser-Busch) Aruba Red ale, which was surprisingly full-bodied and richly flavored. At $2.25 for a 20 ounce pour, this has to be one of the best beer deals in town. In addition to these drinks, we also tried the Lemon Breeze, a brilliant house-made lemonade that incorporates lavish quantities of sugar cane syrup crushed on the spot and a stick of the same sugar cane as garnish. Bahama Breeze also offers a vast selection of rums for those of a sturdier disposition.

Finally seated in one of several pleasantly bustling dining rooms, we set about ordering from the impressively lengthy and interesting menu. For once in a very long while, I actually found myself spoilt for choice. Consulting with our excellent and accommodating server, Adam, we finally came up with a couple of suitable appetizers and a couple of entrees. At this point, I should mention that there were several problems with our meal, but all of them were taken care of swiftly and efficiently by the front of house staff, who seemed eager to please at all times. For example, our entrees arrived before our appetizers. The manager, when informed of this, simply took away the dishes, delivered the appetizers and had new entrees prepared when they were needed. Similarly, one of the main courses was not what we had ordered, so our server went to the kitchen, located the correct dish and brought it out. No worries, mate.

As for the meal itself, this was some of the best and most interestingly prepared food I"ve had at a restaurant in this town in quite a while. The fresh Ahi ceviche appetizer ($8.95) is superb: chunks of sushi-grade tuna marinated in citrus juices with ginger and coconut, providing the perfect sweetish counterpoint. This is served on thin slices of fresh pineapple atop a bed of fresh and crisp watercress, garnished with sweet mango slivers and roasted red pepper oils. Oh, and don"t forget the crisp, sweet, potato-like chips with which to scoop up the whole mess. Fantastic. Next, we tried the fire-roasted jerk shrimp (most agreeable at $7.95) and the roasted Cuban bread ($3.95), a very tasty bruschetta-like affair made with sweet, ripe tomatoes and plenty of garlic.

For our main courses, we opted for the paella ($11.95 for a half portion), which was the least satisfactory dish of the evening. Although the scallops, shrimp, chorizo and other ingredients were tasty and well-prepared, we couldn"t help but feel that the rice had come from a box marked "rice for paella." In any event, we still ate the whole dish, so this is probably a minor complaint. The other entree, the steak churrasco, was quite wonderful once the kitchen finally sent out all the right ingredients on the same plate. Just reading the description on the menu makes me hungry. This dish, a steal at $13.95, consists of generous slices of grilled top sirloin served with Island Chimichurri (a sort of pesto), a great heap of yucca fries (sublime), a black bean and corn salsa (good) and large quantities of deliciously sweet deep-fried plantain (oh, daddy!). Sweet, savory, soft and crisp, this dish presents a glorious panoply of flavors and textures, and is worth an hour long wait in itself.

In spite of the kitchen"s minor, and properly rectified glitches, the experience this evening was most impressive. Rounding things off with the excellent bananas supreme ($4.95), my friend and I lurched out into the cool evening air, fuller, happier and only a very little bit the poorer, the karaoke sounds of whiny James Taylor reverberating pleasantly in our ears. Strange as it may seem, I"m very much looking forward to a return visit, even if only for the food.

Bahama Breeze

3815 E. 96TH St.



Monday - Friday 4 p.m.

Saturday - Sunday open at noon

Food : 3.5 stars

Atmosphere : 3.5 stars

Service : 4 stars