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Planet Hemingway

Floridita has a cute concept. Is there anything wrong with that?

 Floridita's double daiquiri is heavy, the glass frost-rimmed. I gaze into the liquid greenness just below the frapped top, and it reminds me of the sea -- and a novel called Islands in the Stream, in which a character named Thomas Hudson gazes into his frozen daiquiris and thinks of the sea.

Thanks to Ernest "Papa" Hemingway's yen for double daiquiris, the drink was dubbed a Papa Doble at El Floridita in Havana, Cuba, the bar from which Floridita restaurant on Kirby Drive takes its name. It's ironic that the slushy rum drink now thought of as a feminine libation was first popularized by the manliest of American novelists.

"He was drinking another of the frozen daiquiris with no sugar in it," Hemingway wrote in Islands. "The great ones that Constante made had no taste of alcohol and felt, as you drank them, the way downhill glacier skiing feels running through powder snow…"

The Papa Doble recalls the sea, and the restaurant reeks of Florida.
Deron Neblett
The Papa Doble recalls the sea, and the restaurant reeks of Florida.

Details

713-524-1900. Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 11 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 10 p.m.

Papa Doble daiquiri (top-shelf rum): $6
Mojito (top-shelf rum): $6
Mussels: $7.95
Steak mojito: $13.95
Key lime pie: $4.95
Snapper: $17.95
Seafood linguine: $14.95

3401 Kirby Drive

Constante Ribailagua was a bartender at El Floridita who went on to become the owner. In his illustrious career, Constante served glacial daiquiris to such world-class downhill experts as Tennessee Williams, Marlene Dietrich and Jean-Paul Sartre.

Looking around the bar at Houston's Floridita, with its rattan furniture and mounted swordfish, I'm thinking this is a fine place to drink frozen daiquiris that remind you of the sea. And I wonder, as I study the majestic blue and green dolphinfish mounted above the bar, if Papa ate a lot of mahimahi (the name they've given the dolphin here so tourists don't mistake it for Flipper).

My dining companion interrupts my thoughts. "This place is like Bennigan's through a Hemingway filter," he says, sipping a Barbancourt Three Star mojito through a straw. Pableaux Johnson is a food writer who lives in New Orleans, and although he enjoys a nice stout cocktail, he casts a jaundiced eye toward theme restaurants. This is his opening salvo in a spirited debate about recent restaurant trends.

"But this isn't a national chain," I argue. (The restaurant is owned by the Texas-based Truluck's Restaurant Group.) The waitress who talked me into the Papa Doble was well informed about Hemingway's drinking habits, I point out, and when a customer brought the restaurant the recipe for Papa's favorite daiquiri, they immediately added it to the menu. The average Bennigan's isn't going to take an interest in such heartwarming alcoholic esoterica.

Suddenly two attractive women with Captain Morgan Rum logos positioned strategically on their ample gold lamé-covered bosoms appear at our table and offer us free shots of a new "sipping rum." Top-shelf rums like Mount Gay, St. James and Barbancourt are "sipping rums" in my book, but given the persuasiveness of the salespersons, I'm willing to suspend disbelief on Captain Morgan's for a second. The stuff is cold and presweetened. It tastes like bad rum punch. "You just put the bottle right in the refrigerator," one of the women chirps. Pableaux rolls his eyes.

We are shown to our table by a tropically dressed blond woman who puts a postcard of Florida between our woven-palm place mats. In a well-rehearsed little spiel, the hostess explains that we can address the postcard to whomever we want and the restaurant will mail it for us.

"Chillingly canned patter," Pableaux says when she's out of earshot. Granted, her delivery was a little robotic. But judging by all the postcards stacked up on the hostess stand awaiting the mailman, many of Floridita's customers must think this is a cute idea. Which is, of course, Pableaux's point. The whole place is a cute idea. But is there anything wrong with that?


My first visit to Floridita was in the company of fellow Houston Press food writer Paul Galvani. It was lunchtime, and the place was packed. After walking through the Florida-themed decor, we couldn't help giggling about the people at the next table, an elderly couple wearing matching Hawaiian shirts in an oversize floral print. The woman was also sporting giant pink flower-blossom earrings. Paul made a joke about central casting sending over some typical Floridians.

We shared a bowl of excellent mussels in a vaguely Thai-flavored coconut milk broth with basil. Then I had the steak mojito, a grilled skirt steak served with a tropical salsa and Parmesan mashed potatoes. The fajita meat was slightly blackened with some appealing grill char, and the red onion and mango salsa made a juicy complement. But I don't know what the mashed potatoes were doing there -- I kept looking for tortillas. Paul ordered the special: crunchy battered pork slices served with coconut rice. The pork was tender and the rice had an appealing richness, but it was a pretty forgettable dish overall. For dessert, we split a slice of spectacularly tart key lime pie.

"I love the decor," Paul says. "And the food is okay, but it's not as vibrant or exotic as I would have expected. But this is Houston, not Key West." Paul is a marketing executive in the food industry and an adjunct professor of marketing at the University of Houston, so he's understandably less aghast than Pableaux at the application of marketing principles. "I expect to be marketed to," he explains. "I expect people who run restaurants around here to research the food and the theme and to do something that the average consumer in Houston wants."

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