Diner: Review: Tropicana

Jeff Ruby spot delivers stellar food in a fun but understated atmospher

Joe Lamb

I have to admit something, readers: I was determined not to like Jeff Ruby's Tropicana. Until last weak I'd never eaten at any of Ruby's five local restaurants, which include Carlo & Johnny, The Precinct, The Waterfront and Jeff Ruby's Steakhouse.

You see, I'm one of those gourmands who find it hard to justify spending more on a steak than I'm willing to spend on a pair of shoes. After all, I might get two or three years' service from the shoes but, at best, I'll probably only share 16 hours or so with my steak. And only the first hour is worth remembering anyway, unless you're really into digestive processes.

And so it was with trepidation that I enter Tropicana. I'm seated immediately in a booth near the back of the spacious dining area, beside a wall decorated with a colorful trompe l'oeil mural of dancing chorus girls.

My dining companion and I order Lobster and Toasted Corn Fritters ($9) and lightly fried Calamari ($10) from the recently introduced "Tapa-tizer" section of the menu, an innovative mix of tapas-style appetizers that includes dishes like Serrano Ham and Date Croquetas ($8), Manchego Ravioli ($9.75) and Chorizo and Eggs ($7). These new selections, along with changes to entrée menu items, are part of an effort to add some South American and Mediterranean flavors to dishes offered at Tropicana.

While we wait for our tapa-tizers to arrive, we notice the photographs that cover almost every square foot of almost every wall in Tropicana: Jeff Ruby posing with celebrities in one of his restaurants — Jon Bon Jovi's toothy smile glides past, followed by Spike Lee's frown and then Kid Rock, Michael Douglas and Nick Lachey.

Back in our booth, there are two photographs: Ruby posing with an old man we don't know, and Ruby posing with an angry-looking man we don't know.

Our tapa-tizers arrive: The lobster and toasted corn fritters are dusted with cinnamon sugar and served with kettle popcorn alongside a colorful red pepper aioli. They look delicious but are not cooked all the way through. The calamari is served with a side of ground mustard and is cooked perfectly. The batter is salty and flavorful, providing a crunchy texture that yields wonderfully to the sweet tender flesh beneath. The Caesar Salad ($7) is fresh and satisfying, and the portion is large enough for two people to share.

For the main course, we order a Lobster Risotto with butternut squash, pancetta and sage ($24) and a White Marble Pork Chop with pear fennel puree and crispy pork belly ($24). Both arrive at the table quickly. The effort made by kitchen staff to present the courses so that they are both attractive to the diner and artistic sets Tropicana apart from so many second-tier restaurants.

The lobster risotto is intensely flavorful, stacked with large bright strips of lobster meat and complemented by the earthy sweetness of the squash. The pork chop is wonderful: A large well-shaped piece of pork with a curving length of rib still attached to it is served with a pear fennel puree in a carefully hollowed out pear, alongside a strip of scored and crispy pork belly. It is delicious, grilled and blackened on the outside but moist and tender within. The delicate, almost flowery flavors of the pear fennel puree bring out the stronger flavors of the pork without obstructing them. It is a wonderful way to present the pork, a meat that is often prepared so poorly. As a side dish, we order a serving of the Jersey Shore Fries ($4), which are well-cooked, crispy and delicious.

For dessert, we order Bread Pudding ($8), which was offered during Mardi Gras and proved so popular it has become a fixture. Served hot with chilled crème anglaise, its crispy surface and moist fruity interior are memorable and well worth the visit.

I'm surprised to find that our meal took more than two hours to get through. The service was brisk and the atmosphere fun but understated. We were never kept waiting, but we were never rushed to finish a course either.

Unlike so many other restaurants, I was not asked 12 times, "Are you still working on that?" Perhaps more than most questions, this question makes me feel like a pig.

While other restaurants on the Levee offer meals that you can bolt down before a show or after a movie, a meal at Tropicana is enough entertainment by itself. And so now I have a dilemma: The next time I need a new pair of shoes, I'm going to have to sit down and think very carefully about just how badly I need them. ©

Go: Newport on the Levee, Newport

Call: 859-491-8900

Hours: 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Monday - Saturday (kitchen closes at 10 p.m. weekdays and 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday)

Prices: Moderate to expensive

Payment: All major credit cards

Red Meat Alternatives: Plenty of salads and seafood dishes are offered

Accessibility: Fully accessible

Grade: A

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