The Marina's new Palm House has the most attractive frozen slushie machine you've ever seen. The slushies circulate hypnotically in the porthole of a copper-fronted, wood-lined machine — and the drinks it produces are way above average, too. Those of us who developed drinking tastes beyond Spring Break generally view blended cocktails as a nightmare, a hangover-in-waiting, a thing only acceptable as a novelty order at a swim-up bar. But the Palm House serves versions you actually want to drink. They're cold and smooth, more tart than sweet, and the four flavors (lime, passionfruit, prickly pear, and strawberry) taste like the fruit they're made from.
Then again, when you order one, your server asks you if you want to add a float of rum on top. And when you inquire, confused, if there's alcohol in it already, she nods. “That's if you want to get really crazy,” she says. The implication is clear: It's not a move you make if you want to remember your dinner.
These slushies are as good a mission statement as any for Palm House, a restaurant with colonial-chic décor and “Cal-Tropics” cuisine that's striving to be more than the culinary equivalent of “Kokomo,” and yet can't escape its associations with island-themed chains like Bahama Breeze. It's decorated in what future archaeologists might describe as upmarket Tommy Bahama, with plenty of wooden shutters and wicker chairs and little bookcase vignettes made up of things like dried starfish and vintage cigar boxes. But it's not over-the-top or Tiki bar-tacky. Much of the restaurant feels more Miami than Margaritaville, like the all-white, sun-drenched dining room in front, or the black-and-white checked front patio where candy-colored tables are scattered underneath a huge, ancient palm.
The food, too, aims higher than jerk chicken quesadillas and coconut shrimp. Instead of guacamole, there is a plate of “Puerto Rican smashed avocado,” which tastes like a lime-heavy version of the Mexican avocado dip, except it comes with Indian poppadum-like crackers in place of corn chips. Instead of fish tacos, there are “poached rock shrimp tostadas” with radishes and avocado-yogurt sauce.
Many of the dishes are tasty and some are very good, thanks to the consulting of Gayle Pirie, chef/owner of Foreign Cinema, whose former chef du cuisine, Lea Walker, is heading up the kitchen. But for all of the restaurant's posturing, the Palm House doesn't reinvent the flavors of the Caribbean, Hawaii, or other far-flung locales as much as serve innocuous food that goes well with drinks and the Marina crowd that populates the place.
Walker's skills with tropical flavors are best seen in the Trade Wind Burger, a hefty patty that came cooked to a perfect medium rare. Its accoutrements — jerk-dijon mayo, Maui onion relish, and tres leches manchego cheese — sound like they could add up to be a fusiony mess, but they balance each other well, and give the sandwich a pleasing sweet-savory flavor that doesn't take away from the burger's essential beefiness. (The fries are fine, neither crisp nor mealy, if unevenly dusted with a ground chile blend.)
Another sandwich was also a standout: the Cubano at brunch. It's true that the Cubano is a simple sandwich with just a few ingredients — sliced ham, sliced pork loin, pickles, yellow mustard. But the fluffy bread the Palm House serves it on pulls the whole thing together. Buttery and griddled, it makes the sandwich seem like a savory Monte Cristo.
As the menu gets more ambitious, it gets into trouble. Three pulled duck tacos are topped with a bright, pineapple-laced slaw that totally overwhelms the duck, a shame for a $17 dish. Jerk mahi-mahi fish came overcooked — not much, but enough, and its accompanying bed of rice with a chunky okra-tomato sauce failed to unify the dish in any meaningful way, leaving it just a bunch of disparate ingredients on the plate. Same with the brunch order of eggs revoltillo, a traditional Caribbean dish: fried eggs over tomato-flavored rice, with lukewarm fingers of fried plantain around the perimeter, which needed a sauce to pull it together.
To be part of the restaurant's action, you want to sit as close to the front as possible. The patio and sunny front atrium get the most light, as do the tables in the front bar — cushy booths underneath a soaring ceiling decorated with a light fixture wrought from birdcages. This is also where most of the drinking happens, though. To get away from the tanned, waxed, toned Marina crowd, you can request a table in the back dining room next to the open kitchen. The walls are dark wood, and the view is composed mostly of an adjacent parking lot, but away from the neighborhood natives and their rum floats, you have a chance to create your own oasis.