I did run across a couple of semiwild boors rushing to the stage to do karaoke numbers at the casino's noisy nightclub, The Caribbean Cove. But just a few feet away, in the fancy Farraddays' Restaurant, things were much more tasteful.
There's a story -- surely apocryphal and definitely uninteresting -- behind the restaurant's name, which ties into its decor (antiques and flea market trinkets) and eclectic menu. The servers have been drilled in every tiresome facet of the "legendary" adventures of Mr. Farradday and his trusty parrot, Eno. If you let them, they'll drone on in a pathetic little monologue that begins "In the Mississippi city of Iowa" and takes various twists and turns from the South Pacific to Houston.
On my second visit, having already heard one version of the Farradday legend from the congenial server Vicki (we stopped her midsentence just as the hero was "gathering mementos for his restaurants from exotic lands"), I refused to let the equally charming Iraq-born Motaz go any further. I have nothing against hearing stories, but not as I'm trying to decide between a bowl of crawfish bisque and the Chop Chop Salad.
I suspect that Mr. Farradday is as fictional as the Caribbean Capri, but I'm happy to report that the restaurant is for real: excellent food, smooth service and prices that didn't send us scrambling to the slot machines to pay for dinner. The portions were oversized, and the food just kept coming. As soon as we emptied the wire basket filled with hot biscuits, crusty slices of French baguette and triangles of too-dry focaccia (slathering it all with sweet butter, herbed butter or sweet-and-sour green tomato relish), our server brought another.
By then I had decided on the crawfish bisque. It turned out to be the color of a New Orleans sunset, with enough heavy cream in it to make a quart of ice cream. The rich soup was more than enough to feed two. Or five.
And I would go back to have the appetizer called Jumbo Shrimp Tails of Fire in Potato Boat Topped With Onion Rings as a dinner. Farraddays' deep-fries a giant baked russet potato until it's crunchy, then loads it with fat fried shrimp and thin curls of fried onion and brings it out on a puddle of fiery Louisiana hot sauce. Equally fabulous are the artistically presented Tomatoes Delacroix, topped with lots of sautéed crawfish and drizzled with a lemony hollandaise. The superb crab cakes are big pillows of claw crabmeat and peppers, golden fried and served with a piquant remoulade flavored with grainy Dijon mustard. And crispy, sweet coconut shrimp come alongside skewers of fruit, one of the few culinary nods to the Caribbean on a menu that's heavy with Midwestern beef and giant portions of farm-style side dishes, such as creamed spinach and three kinds of spuds (s'mashed with garlic, baked and fried in thickly cut strips).
By most casino standards, Farraddays' menu is extraordinarily creative. The daily catch is crusted in crushed pistachios and sautéed, while a slab of Norwegian salmon gets glazed in a tart orange-pineapple sauce. But judging by what the other diners (fat ladies in tired polyester pantsuits, players wearing flashy diamond rings and with cell phones glued to their ears, weary couples just in from Arkansas) are usually eating, T-bones and prime rib are the most popular. And they deserve to be: The luscious herb-roasted large-cut prime rib I sampled on one visit was so big, it was falling off the plate; so was the broiled lobster tail stuffed with crabmeat (big enough to feed a family of four). And the tender eight-ounce filet was covered by a mound of juicy sautéed mushrooms and a veil of bubbling mozzarella cheese.
At first glance the side dishes seem pricey, but there's plenty for sharing, including the mountain of creamy mashed potatoes laden with amber curls of caramelized sweet onion. And the baked potato is nearly as big as the plastic coin tubs in the casino downstairs, and it comes with airy balls of butter and sour cream and a bowl of crumbled bacon.
The menu's token pasta dish is more Cajun than Capri: a lavish bowl of penne piled with tiny slivers of crawfish and four hulking shrimp, all floating in a buttery sauce flavored with herbs and garlic. I gamely tried to make a dent in it, but I could finish only half.
Despite all the excess, I continued to promise myself I'd make room for dessert, even if I had to waddle out of the place. On one visit, I joined a couple of friends in attacking a plate of quick-fried fresh strawberries (hot and crispy on the outside, sweet and soft underneath) drenched in a cloud of imitation "chantilly" whipped cream. Another time, I was more thrilled with a wedge of fudgy chocolate layer cake (with that same flavorless ersatz whipped cream) and a bite of that night's "special" dessert. They called it crème brûlée, but it was really a light yellow custard spooned over a mound of fresh raspberries and baked in a flaky pastry bowl lined with a thin layer of chocolate -- the whole thing was exquisite.
Farraddays' still needs to work out some kinks, though. I called for a reservation on a Tuesday night and was informed that the place was "swamped until 8:45 p.m."; later I was told that a 7:30 reservation had canceled and I could take the spot. At the appointed hour, fewer than half the tables in the place were occupied. Swamped, it wasn't.
And there were only three servers on the floor -- that's not many for a dining room that requires attentive and polished service. To the restaurant's credit, the servers are hardworking and gracious -- but there aren't enough of them. And that's a gamble the Isle of Capri should not take because when word gets out about Farraddays' (which is vastly superior to the Calypso buffet on the other side of the casino; see Mouthing Off, the joint could hit the jackpot.