Two if by Sea

FADE IN:
INT. TOWNHOUSE LIVING ROOM -- LATE AFTERNOON (JUNE)

The sun streams through a west window, highlighting contemporary wicker furniture and walls that could use a paint job. Lounging on the couch and watching early Eighties classic The Breakfast Club, a RESTAURANT CRITIC reaches lazily for the phone. Without looking at the numbers, she punches three buttons in quick succession and holds the receiver to her ear.

VOICE
(computer-generated)
BellSouth. What city?

CRITIC
Coral Gables.

VOICE
What listing?

CRITIC
Fishbone Grille.

VOICE
Thank you.

The critic waits for the phone number to be played. She appears mildly surprised when an OPERATOR cuts in on the line.

OPERATOR
(eagerly)
Have you been there yet?

CRITIC
Uh, no, not yet. I was thinking about going tonight.

OPERATOR
Do you happen to know if it's the same owners as the Fishbone Grille downtown?

CRITIC
Actually, it is the same owners, Patrick Gleber and Kevin Rusk, who also own Tobacco Road.

OPERATOR
Great! Fishbone is one of my favorite restaurants.

CRITIC
Mine too.

OPERATOR
Really? Well, have a good meal. Here's the number.

The above scenario really did happen. I'm not sure why the Grille is such a story starter. Perhaps it's the Caribbean/Asian-accented fare, quickly cooked and generously served. Or the reasonable prices. Or maybe that the restaurant seems emblematic of Miami's growing and eclectic downtown scene: The first location, which anchors the corner of the block that also houses Tobacco Road, opened in 1990 as a grilled chicken offshoot of that venerable bar, the Wishbone Grille. When that concept didn't take off -- there wasn't enough space for a drive-through, says Gleber -- the partners switched to fish, particularly fresh-caught South Florida varieties, whereupon the place became an innovative success.

I'm an admitted Fishbone fanatic, but unlike most of the folks who frequent it, I like the restaurant for more than lunch, when business really hops. I consider it a quality dinner destination: At night the atmosphere mellows, and service, which can be brusque during peak daylight hours, takes on a more soothing tone. And I especially admire Gleber's intentions when it comes to wine. Not only do he and general manager/investor Michael Daly avail themselves of seven different distributors (most restaurants have just one), they have an admirable -- especially around these parts -- pricing policy. Lower-priced bottles are marked up only double the wholesale cost, plus liquor tax. If the cost exceeds twenty bucks wholesale, a wine is marked up only an additional fifteen dollars. His intent, says Gleber, is not to build a great cellar or to educate the public about unusual vintages; he just wants to offer average citizens something we may not be able to afford at other places. He carries this philosophy over from Tobacco Road, where he often runs specials on microbrewed beers and obscure single-malt scotches, turning little profit but building loyalty.

I've already paid several visits to the Fishbone Grille's six-week-old second location in Coral Gables, across from the University of Miami campus, where the owners have transformed cheesy into chic: Fishbone Grille 2 is attached to a Howard Johnson motel, occupying what was formerly an unmemorable coffee shop. Dinerish qualities remain -- and appealingly so. In particular, the green terrazzo floor is an original (found under a rug, a layer of linoleum, and another of tile). The long narrow room, lined with booths upholstered in green vinyl to accent the floor and trimmed with blond wood, widens toward the back, where a second dining room accommodates bigger tables, for a total of about 130 seats (not including high chairs, of which there seem to be plenty, to judge from the number of pint-size occupants). But clean white walls, dropped spotlights, and a gleaming open kitchen disguise the building's history. If you were to approach this Fishbone from the south and didn't see the motel connection, you'd never guess.

The neighborhood mob that has already found the restaurant without my help jams the place from the minute it opens for dinner. Reservations are an option, but only for parties of six or more, and the crowds can cause some problems: On one visit main courses took an hour to appear. Also, because the owners buy relatively small amounts of fresh seafood daily, specials and fresh-caught fish from the blackboard list may run out. Of course, I'd rather have to make a new choice than be served something old and stinky. And unlike the downtown location, where special starters and main courses are inscribed on the blackboard, here they're all a permanent part of the printed menu. As a result, the Coral Gables Fishbone advertises only raw-bar appetizers (such as Malpeque oysters and Bahamian conch salad) via the blackboard on weekend nights. When they sell out, you're likely to see "Sorry" written after them.

We were disappointed in one of the specials, peel-and-eat shrimp. Steamed in coconut milk and lemon grass, the head-on shrimp were very small and served chilled (not having been informed otherwise, we'd assumed they'd be warm). They had a very faint flavor, requiring us to request cocktail sauce. But lack of zest was a quibble. The shrimp were overcooked and mushy -- so much so that their puniness was a comparative blessing. Some guests of mine who hail from Louisiana compared them to crawfish: big effort, small mouthful.

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