JASON: This would be Miami, circa 1953.
ANGELIQUE: Or maybe a Northerner's fantasy of Miami.
JASON: The eponymous marlin is hanging on a wall opposite the bar, hooked to a rod and reel across the room. Meanwhile, the back dining room where we ate featured a wall-size photo of water-skiing beauties and a tropical fish tank set into an old window opening.
ANGELIQUE: The campy beach décor mingles with crafty items from Transformation Treasures, a Lawrenceville shop which shares ownership with Ray's, and relics from the place's past as a millworkers' bar, complete with a steel spittoon trough below the barstools. Let's just say it was a man's world in here.
JASON: I was really salivating over an old hand-printed menu from way back when kolbassi and kraut were served up for a hard-earned 40 cents.
ANGELIQUE: The current Ray's menu is sprawling and kind of eclectic.
JASON: Another word would be unfocused.
ANGELIQUE: The kitchen serves up everything from pub grub to comfort food to New York strip steak and everything in between. You could come here with a carnivore, a vegan, and a person who wants breakfast for dinner and there would be something for everyone.
JASON: On the other hand, maybe that trio should feel like they've all been to the same restaurant. An excellent start for them would be the empanadas -- savory, fried pierogie-like treats common to many Latin cuisines. Ray's are tasty, filled with beef, chicken or bean, each one combined with spices, olives and raisins, picadillo-style. A nice touch is that the fresh greens garnishing the plate are actually dressed, adding a little balance.
ANGELIQUE: My beach jones dictated that I order the Bahamian conch chowder. It bore greater resemblance to seafood minestrone than to any other chowder I've ever had. I liked it, but if this was chowder, it made me wonder what chowder actually is.
JASON: So we looked it up, and sure enough, chowder is any seafood or vegetable soup made with potatoes and onions.
ANGELIQUE: So this tasty conch concoction rates the chowder name after all.
JASON: The Jacked Up Stuffed Meatloaf is a spectacular non-soup use of potatoes. Sirloin is stuffed with cheese and "smashed" potatoes and then baked with a bourbon sauce. Tragically, I had had meatloaf for lunch that day, and even I can only eat so much meatloaf. But as Gen. MacArthur said, I shall return.
ANGELIQUE: Actually the meatloaf seemed so custom-made for Jason that I just assumed he'd order it anyway, but instead he usurped my first choice, the Chesapeake Chicken Pot Pie. This pie is so deep-dish it comes in a bowl, with a chef's hat of puff pastry on top. "Few finish," the waitress intoned ominously.
JASON: The menu describes the pot pie as "Unbelievable!" Hyperbole, surely, but when the dish arrived and the co-owner asked what I thought, I had to concur.
ANGELIQUE: I wouldn't go that far, but I will say it contained all the pleasures of comfort food at its best: nourishment and indulgence together in one satisfyingly bland creation. I mean that in a good way.
JASON: Bland? The pastry was rich and light, the sherry cream sauce flavorful, and the fillings -- a classic combo of chicken, peas, and carrots -- simple and fresh. Only one flaw: The chicken was cubed, leaving little surface for the sauce to cling to. Shredding the chicken would create a richly textured surface to hold plenty of sauce.
ANGELIQUE: My Napoleon Pasta -- penne tossed with sweet Italian sausage, broccoli and fresh basil in pomodoro sauce -- left me wishing I'd ordered something else. The sausage, made by Foster's butcher shop down the street, was the best part. The rest was nice enough but nothing exceptional.
JASON: The overstretched menu strikes again. There's nothing wrong with this dish -- it seems that the kitchen can handle whatever it's asked to.
ANGELIQUE: But there's a difference between handling food and creating something special with it.
JASON: When they stick to their strengths -- fun, ocean-oriented fare and comfort classics -- the folks at Ray's do themselves proud. A little separation of wheat from chaff would serve everyone well.