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.

Before we could even ask for some butter to make our cornbread a little more palatable, the waiter rushed by and whisked away the bread and salad. The guy was as fast (and as sneaky) as Cruella DeVille hot on the trail of Dalmatians. At the time, we would have preferred he stay a while, but when we had a need for speed, he was slow as a slug. Granted, the entire room was his domain and it kept him terribly busy, but it doesn't take so long to say, "Would you like me to remove any dishes?" Or better yet, to leave well enough alone, unless asked. Perhaps waiters should adopt that part of the Hippocratic oath that says, "First, do no harm."

Entrees at the Fishbone include five seafood dishes, two chicken concoctions, and a sausage burrito in addition to the aforementioned chalkboard specials. All are served with a side dish plus the garden salad and cornbread. They range in price from $7.75 for a dish called Chicken Nassau, which features chicken sauteed with tomatoes, onions, and garlic butter and served with garlic bread and rice, to $9.75 for the San Francisco-waterfront creation misspelled on the menu as "Choippino." This last is made to order with mussels, shrimp, scallops, clams, and other seafood tidbits in a tomato stock - a slightly different mix than in the City by the Bay, where cioppino almost always features Dungeness crabs, shrimp, and scallops.

Still basking in chili-speckled memories of his high school reunion in New Mexico last month, my dining companion could not pass up the giant sausage cheese burrito. A Frisbee-size tortilla that bulged (like love handles from hell) with filling fought for space on his platter with veggie-studded rice, lettuce, tomato, and grated carrots. The toasty burrito was topped with a snowcap of sour cream the consistency of frozen yogurt, which he promptly excavated to my plate after salvaging about a half-dozen genuine jalapeno ringlets. (Where were these at cornbread-baking time?)

After unloading the sour cream, my companion proceeded to weed peas out of the burrito's sausage filling. He found four and was only moderately distressed about the unadvertised addition of one of the many vegetables he detests. And the wonderful taste of the sausage, rice, and cheese filling - the sausage was not greasy at all and had the flavor of mild Italian - more than made up for the mutants, he said. His side dish of black beans was flawless, a small bowl of perfect, tiny, tender beans in a rich sauce flavored by cilantro and cumin. The huge sea of rice, on the other hand, did not appeal to my companion as it was studded with a rogue's gallery of veggies: kernels of corn, canned green and lima beans. To each his (or her) own. I liked the dish because of the added extras, but found the rice itself salty and dry.

I cannot complain about the portions of my own entree, the soft-shell-crab special. The meal consisted of two very large crabs, a side of yuca, and the mound of rice with vegetables. But the crabs themselves were prepared with a shocking lack of delicacy, apparently by a troupe of cloggers. I ate soft-shells for the first time at the original Dominique's in Washington, and there they looked and tasted as if the chef wore kid gloves while handling them. Here, though, the parchment-thin shells were as dark as a piece of burned toast and the meat inside was almost as dry as sawdust. The fresh cilantro on top of them was a nice touch, but I had to roll each morsel of crab around in the buttery oil that surrounded them just to swallow. The kitchen did a much better job on the sometimes tough and fibrous yuca, which was as soft as silk, perfectly steamed, and daubed with butter and cilantro.

The wine list coordinates well with the dishes and prices. Six white wines are available (two from Chile and the rest from California), and they range from the $12 Undurrago Sauvignon Blanc from Chile to the spicy and somewhat pricey ($22) 1989 Markman Chardonnay from California. The restaurant also offers a white zinfandel from California ($13) and four reds from Bordeaux, Australia, Washington State, and California that cost between $14 and $18. There's even a bottle of bubbly (Moet et Chandon White Star, $39) for those in a celebratory mood.

Although I could not cajole my newly svelte dining companion into having dessert, I ordered a slice of key lime pie for myself (pecan was also available on this particular evening) and some java for both of us. The coffees arrived almost immediately and, having deposited them, the waiter wordlessly sped off again. Long after our mugs were drained, we sat playing that all-too-familiar Miami game of trying to get the waiter's attention. Not unlike participants in a round of charades, we were forced to wave our hands furiously in the air, looking all the while like aerobics instructors run amok. We lost all interest in the pie by the time we flagged the guy down, and decided to pass on the Fishbone Grille's after-dinner treats. We would have our dessert, we decided, next door at Tobacco Road. In liquid form.

FISHBONE GRILLE
650 S. Miami Ave; 530-1915. Hours: Monday - Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.; Friday from 11:30 a.m. to midnight; Saturday from 5:30 p.m. to midnight.

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