By Michael E. Miller
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Brickell says she never thought much of Big Fish anyway. "That little hole in the wall? I didn't care for any part of it. I thought it was terrible," she snorts. "We ate there every once in a while because Eric owed us so much money -- that horrible, repulsive little guy. It was the only way to get even."
Commuters crossing the Miami River near 55 SW Miami Avenue Road may recently have noticed the appearance of a mirror-speckled high-heel shoe, two stories tall, hoisted by a forklift into place next to the squat structure that used to house Dawson Marine Service, now painted blue and gray and covered with silver tiles resembling fish scales. The exterior of Sykes's old Big Fish kitchen, once painted white, has been dipped in a shade of green. The entire site is now bordered by a row of stacked tires, alternately painted black and white, linked by a black-and-white picket fence. At night the whole setup is bathed in soft spotlights, giving it a carnival glow.
Say Ahola! to Antoni Miralda.
This is the most recent installation (in a sense) of the internationally renowned Spanish artist. It's actually a restaurant. It's called Big Fish Mayaimi.
Miralda, age 54, and his 50-year-old partner Montse Guillen had been looking for a space to open a restaurant when she floated past the site earlier this year and saw a For Rent sign. She immediately faxed Miralda, who was in Barcelona. The two weren't strangers to the restaurant business; they were responsible for the transformation of an upscale Italian eatery (and onetime Polish deli) into the hip El Internacional restaurant in Manhattan.
The couple contacted Ursula Schenone, who had expressed interest in financing a restaurant if they chose to open one here. Schenone, a former sous chef at several South Beach restaurants (her parents own the Tutto Pasta restaurant south of downtown), was living in Antigua at the time. She flew back to Miami expecting to close a deal on a lease and get to work. But she had yet to meet the formidable Mrs. Brickell.
The 30-year-old Schenone has little to say about the ensuing negotiations, except that before long she was on a plane back to Antigua, frustrated. According to Brickell, there had been some discussion about her becoming a partner in the venture. "Ursula and I were going to go in together," Brickell says. "But she seemed very temperamental. I got out of there when I realized I couldn't be in control. I like to be in control."
After more months of negotiations between Miralda and Guillen and Brickell, Schenone returned, the restaurateurs accepted the landlady's offer of a two-and-a-half-year lease, and in late summer they set about creating their restaurant. Schenone is resigned about the short lease: "Everybody's tight with their own things," she concludes matter-of-factly.
Brickell says she doesn't want to be tied to a long-term project just yet: The river, she notes, is a dynamic place. And indeed, the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) and City of Miami planners are teeming with optimistic visions (which they don't hesitate to impart to anyone who will listen) of a fully revamped riverfront bustling with fish markets, a microbrewery, a folklife center in Lummus Park, and cafes and restaurants galore. The Brickells think they may be able to cash in on this renaissance. The DDA has even approached them about the possibility of re-creating the old Brickell trading post, either at Brickell Shipping or where Big Fish now stands.
Schenone, the sole source of financing, has sunk $60,000 into the project, not to mention most of her waking seconds during the past few months. "In life you have to take some risks. This is very passionate," she explains. "People who are sensitive, they are going to start feeling everything here: the water, the colors. I have faith in the people. I have faith in my food. I have faith in the river."
The menu is simple, featuring Mediterranean-style seafood. They've also got their own Big Fish sandwich. But Miralda says his restaurant isn't simply about the consumption of food. "The restaurant should be a place for meditating, for thinking," he beams. "Eating is only a part of it." A thin, energetic man with an angular face and long gray hair pulled back in a ponytail, he sits on a bench outside the kitchen trying to articulate his vision. This would appear to be a slightly uncomfortable undertaking; Miralda gropes around in a language that isn't his own, often substituting body movements for words that escape him.
The eclectic, jarring color selection and decor, he explains, are all derived from what he describes as "the choreography of the river." He makes a broad sweeping motion with his arm that encompasses the murky water, a rusted freighter docked on the opposite bank, workmen building a seawall, cars rumbling over the Miami Avenue Bridge, the backdrop of the skyscrapers and other buildings. "This is one of the views of Miami that is totally true," he goes on. "The river is alive. I think there is --" Miralda's bushy eyebrows leap upward and his hands flutter -- "an energy. The situation of the place is a cross-movement, boats and cars, a lot of dialogue."