Thursday, September 8, 2005

TOURISTY CATCH

Posted on Thu, Sep 8, 2005 at 4:00 AM

My favorite dining companion, whom I'll refer to as the Impatient Gourmet, pulled us into Downtown Disney's sea of parking. Towering structures loomed over the cars and I robotically looked around, taking note of section and row. We followed the herd that was moving toward the replicated riverboat that long ago was called the Empress Lilly but since 1996 has housed Fulton's Crab House.

We waited in the bar – fancifully positioned in the bow of the boat – for friends to arrive. Sipping cocktails, we made a game out of counting the number of employees who put on great shows of friendliness. It turns out this exaggerated behavior was a preview of what awaited us at our table upstairs.

The rest of our party arrived and a mass of confusion ensued when the Impatient Gourmet informed the hostess that we were ready to be seated. "Do you want adult menus?" the hostess asked. We were baffled. We scrutinized the beards, laugh lines and professional clothing among us, and resolutely requested adult menus.

"Right this way," she said, before another hostess approached us and led us up a carpeted set of old showboat stairs. We walked through a maritime-themed dining room full of blue lighting, dark wood and screaming children, then into another where the only free table was set for 20. The hostess pointed to the table; we hesitated.

"You are the such-and-such corporate party, right?" she asked.

When she found out we were a mere four, she was distraught. Along with her, we stood aimlessly in the middle of the crowded room. Then her real party of 20 appeared. In a moment of confusion, another hostess materialized and shuffled us to our table. All this is to say that so much staff was being trained that it started to feel like a soft opening.

We really needed a drink. Luckily we all had adult menus.

Our server came over, towing a sidekick in the form of another trainee. When our drinks arrived, I was mesmerized by glowing plastic LED cubes floating in my friend's martini. As the drink flashed a rainbow of colors, our server became the star of his own cocktail monologue. Mr. Show started narrating the specials as if a Broadway career hinged on his performance. The Impatient Gourmet closed his menu and dully stared out of the boat's starboard window. I have the tolerance for gimmicky dissertations about how red snapper is best grilled, but not the Impatient Gourmet. He just wants to eat, and it had better be good. The server finally left us to gape at the glo-cube drifting in an overpriced martini. We were in tourist hell.

Ninety-nine percent of Fulton's clientele will be states away mere days after they dine there. The mediocre food will be a distant memory as they remember the Old World nautical theme, cloth napkins and spectacular view. In fact, the panorama at sunset is one of the things I did like about Fulton's.

One friend ordered shrimp cocktail ($12.95) as a measure of quality. Four medium shrimp, tough from being overcooked, clung to a bowl of standard cocktail sauce. Another friend tried the calamari ($9.95) by jokingly asking for "fried rubber-bands" and, regrettably, that was exactly what she got. They were chewy and covered in thick batter that overwhelmed whatever delicate flavor they once had. I did enjoy the tomato-y sauce with fresh basil.

For entrees, we ordered swordfish ($27.95) with syrupy pineapple-butter sauce; the fish lacked flavor, but the hardwood charcoal and sauce helped. I stuck to the house specialty –Alaskan crab claws ($46.95) – and the flavor of these gems was spectacular, but I would expect nothing less at that price.

The Impatient Gourmet jumped into the seafood trio ($31.95), a combination of flaky white escolar fish, sautéed shrimp and gummy crab cakes. It wasn't up to his standards, "especially at this price," he said indignantly.

When the server came back and started with his dessert performance, we stopped him. We were tired of the show. We shared a dish of chocolate crème brûlée ($6.50), a deliciously smooth concoction that tasted more like a milk custard than the typical yolky delight. I laid my spoon down and wondered when crème brûlée mania would finally be replaced by another fad. Looking around this middle-of-the-road tourist haven, I figured probably soon.

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