Fish Fulfillment

Fish entrees include sea bass served in green sauce or breaded, and fried whole snapper. But we opted for an all-mollusk meal and ordered stuffed calamari. This was a pleasant surprise, filled not with the typical crab-flecked breadcrumbs but with slices of mild ham. About ten times thicker than the whole baby squid that encased them, the chunks of ham steak were a great textural contrast. The squid themselves, dressed with a rich brown sauce and accompanied by a side of buttered white rice, were remarkably tender, easily cut with a fork.

For parties of two or more who can agree on what they want to eat, arroz con mariscos (rice with seafood) and paella Covadonga (seafood and chicken with yellow rice) are tempting. In the individual-portion category, zarzuela de mariscos was a capable stand-in. Smothered in a smooth tomato sauce flavored with sauteed green bell peppers and onions and lightened with butter, a Florida lobster tail, shrimp, rings of calamari, bay scallops, and chunks of sea bass were spooned out at the table from a metal casserole dish over a scoop of white rice. Each morsel was delectable, the succulent seafoods adding their essence to the sauce. A fabulous dish, in a restaurant that has earned its spars and stripes.

East Coast Fisheries
360 W. Flagler St.; 372-1300. Open daily from 11:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.
You don't have to be a scholar of fish anatomy to dine in this picturesque perch overlooking the Miami River, though it might help -- grouper cheeks and throats (not the actual throat, but the sweet little pocket of flesh between head and body) as well as snapper wings (similar to throats) are all offered deep-fried. Florida lobster is another specialty of the house, which decorwise harks back to colonial seafaring days. So are stone crab claws, king crab legs, jumbo shrimp, sea scallops, and a host of fishes, local and otherwise, in fillets and steaks.

We rocked back in our captain's chairs and partook of the tasty complimentary mahi-mahi dip -- baked fish ground like tuna salad and lightly seasoned -- served with crisp croutons. She-crab soup, a creamy blend of blue crab, cream, and sherry, was also delicious, with a peppery lilt. The surface of this bisque formed a skin within seconds, though, leading us to believe it was the bottom of the barrel and had been subjected to repeated reheatings.

For main courses, we tucked into the baked stuffed jumbo shrimp (also available in medium and colossal sizes). Firm and succulent, these eight beauties had ostensibly been stuffed with artichoke and crab; the mixture had an appealing flavor that was redolent of red bell peppers but seemed to be minus the artichoke. In addition, the stuffing was rendered too wet by a dark and oily lemon-butter sauce that lacked a citrus tang. Blackened pompano was fresh and generous, four flaky fillets pulled straight from the sea. The spice rub added depth to the fish, but not piquancy. Both these entrees were accompanied by a choice of French fries or yellow rice, as well as carrots, zucchini, and summer squash that had been sauteed in butter too long. A side of creamed spinach was awful: sandy, bitter, and ancient. The waitress, I now recall, made a face when we ordered it but didn't advise us to steer clear. She probably knew the spinach was on its way out and didn't charge us for it.

In the year 2000, East Coast Fisheries will be 75 and so, apparently, will some of its waitstaff. Our particular server was hard of hearing, which wouldn't have been so bad had she not also been cantankerous. I know "French fries" and "yellow rice" rhyme, but shouting one's choice three times is an irritating method of relaying information. It's likewise frustrating when you can't get across that you want balsamic vinaigrette on your mixed baby greens, not balsamic vinegar and oil.

That vinegar, by the way, was presented in a cruet so grubby I wouldn't have been surprised to learn that it had last been washed in 1925, when the restaurant opened; and the salad had a couple of rotten leaves in it. Riverside, the soon-to-be-revitalized area along the banks of the grimy Miami waterway, is a new concept. The landmark East Coast Fisheries should take care it isn't viewed as an old one.

Fishbone Grille
650 S. Miami Ave.; 530-1915. Open weekdays from 11:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.; Friday until 11:00. Open Saturday from 5:30 to 11:00 p.m.

I simply cannot talk fish in this town without tipping a fin to the Grille, and my last stop at this busy, funky downtown eatery left me with absolutely no bones to pick.

Sit under the mermaid mural and peruse the blackboard, which always yields a few inventive specials, such as a salad of teriyaki shrimp and soba noodles. This light but filling lunch was a cool, spicy combination, buckwheat noodles interlaced with scallions and red and green bell peppers. The sesame-and-hot-pepper oil dressing vied for dominance over the sweet teriyaki sauce painted on the half-dozen plump jumbo shrimp.

The same board lists the day's fresh fish, which commonly include dolphin, tuna, and grouper prepared any way you like. Chefs give a fry-cook performance in the open tiled kitchen, flinging out the grilled, blackened, or sauteed fish mere moments after they've been ordered. Thanks to a waiter's informed recommendation, we devoured an excellent piece of sea bass francaise. The thick fillet was juicy and hot in its greaseless coating, having been washed in garlic and egg, dipped in flour, then fried in clarified butter. Served over white rice, the sea bass was accompanied by a side of whole black beans garnished with chopped red onion. A house salad comprising crunchy romaine and red cabbage topped with honey vinaigrette, plus the Grille's justly famous jalapeno cornbread (both of which are included in the price of all entrees), make fish orders a challenge to members of the clean-plate club.

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