Something Fishy

After nearly a year in operation, everything at the Fishbone Grille should be going swimmingly. But while some of the restaurant's offerings are outstanding, heavy-handed preparation of various seafood dishes and well-meaning but haphazard service provide bones of contention.

An offshoot of the 79-year-old Tobacco Road, Miami's oldest and most venerable bar, this neighboring restaurant could use some of the friendly charm and efficiency of its saloon mentor. While my dining companion and I have always received first-rate service at Tobacco Road -when barhopping incognito, of course -we were left idling inside the Fishbone's portal for ten minutes before anyone greeted us. We felt like, well, fish out of water, and it was nearly impossible to keep my companion from fleeing to the nearby Road for a seven-course Irish dinner: a six-pack and a bowl of potato skins.

Finally a waiter hollered over to us to just sit "wherever," so we meandered around the half-full room until we found a cleared table. Well, cleared of everything except the previous customers' reading materials. But closer inspection of the magazines on the table - mine was Common Cause - showed them to be clever disguises for the menu, which serves as the guts of the various rags. This nifty idea (reminiscent of the National Geographic motif at Washington D.C.'s now-defunct Daily Planet restaurant) does not, however, extend to any other element of the decor.

It's not that the restaurant is unattractive; it's just eclectically and eccentrically turned out. Match-stick bamboo curtains divide the eatery into cozy sections, and the exposed grill, potted palms, and riotously colorful Haitian paintings complete the look of dishabille. Since my dining companion and I often look as if we've just held up a Goodwill truck, we rather enjoyed the unaffected, attic ambiance. Our table top framed feed corn and chicken wire under glass; our chairs were kelly green and of the director's variety.

The service proved no more cohesive than the interior design. Without offering any choices, the waiter abruptly asked for a drink order. After determining (with a little help from him) that the restaurant did not have a full bar, we wearily ordered a beer, a glass of house wine, and some soup. The harried (and hurried) waiter mumbled something about specials being listed on a chalkboard above the grill and then disappeared. From the back of the room, the board was barely visible, so I wended my way around the other diners toward the grill. My companion refused to budge from his seat, and I tried to memorize the specials on his behalf. I mentioned a half Maine lobster, soft-shell crabs, yellowtail, salmon, dolphin, and swordfish to him (all with prices in the neighborhood of $9), but he was unimpressed and refused to order anything that "the customer is forced to research by ambulatory means."

His mood brightened considerably, however, when a mug of seafood gumbo was placed before him. Billed on the menu as "a delightful, light version of this classic Louisiana soup," only the "delightful" part was right on the mark. This hot, zesty, sassy-with-sassafras Cajun brew was so thick with vegetables, rice, tomatoes, and chunks of shrimp and calamari that a spoon could stick straight up in the middle of the cup all by itself. My dining companion boasted this was the best gumbo he'd had outside Louisiana, and after a taste I readily agreed. "Laisser les bons temps roller," he sighed - sort of his way of saying grace.

In the meantime, I was in ecstasy over my own cup of fish soup, a sensational elixir with saffron-scented light cream, carrots, leeks, celery, bell pepper, and chunks of fish. On a previous visit I had tried the conch chowder, and I can say unequivocally that the soups here are the best in town (and reasonably priced as well, with each costing $2.50 by the cup and $3.50 by the bowl).

I wish I could also sing the praises of the house salads that accompanied our entrees, but they were insipid affairs -dark but limp greens aided and abetted by a little red cabbage, some carrot shavings, a piece of tomato that left Homestead (or its home somewhere else) too soon, and a too-sweet, glutinous vinaigrette with a consistency more like gelatin than dressing. The salad came with a big, cakelike wedge of jalapen~o cornbread, but somebody forgot to add the jalapenos. All I could see were microscopic bits of pimiento, no hot peppers in this crusty but dry-as-a-fishbone cornbread. There was no butter around to slather on it either.

Despite the dinner salads' somewhat weak showing, there is hope for a greener meal at the Grille. On an earlier visit, several diners in my group ordered specialty salads, the list of which includes pasta, ceviche, warm spinach, tostado, calamari, lemon dill chicken, and chicken Waldorf with apples and tropical fruits. The consensus was resoundingly good, and some, such as the calamari and the ceviche, can be ordered in $3.50 half-portions. It might be wise to just skip that house salad altogether and instead try one of the many starters such as smoked fish, steamed clams, crab fritters, and feta cheese served on warm spinach with grilled peppers, roasted garlic, and vinaigrette. Although these cost up to $6.50 - higher than many of the salads - there does not seem to be any rule against sharing.

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