Under the Weather

Still hungry? We kind of were, and ordered dessert. A key lime tart was tangy if a bit dense in the crust area. Cappuccino-chocolate torte was flourless, silky, and rich. Like everything else here, sweets were less than huge in size, and hearty appetites will want to search elsewhere. But for light grazing and sangria-sipping on a perfect spring evening when El Nino has forgotten to harass us, Tapas Under the Trees is predictably pleasant.

Dining at the sixteen-month-old Red Fish Grill -- located in Matheson Hammock, a popular family beachside park in Coral Gables that closes at sunset -- is both more and less problematic. Like Tapas Under the Trees, the grill is open only for dinner. Park officials mark the route to the restaurant with pylons. We still got lost. At first we also couldn't find the restrooms, probably because they're located in a building separate from the restaurant. Once we got there, we wished we hadn't. Red Fish patrons use the same facilities that beachgoers have abused all day. My advice: Go before you leave home, and avoid drinking the water.

Red Fish offers indoor and outdoor dining. On fair evenings the staff unites the two by throwing open the French doors that lead to a beachside patio. On wet ones the doors stay closed, and the long, narrow room becomes a cozy lodge, with an open kitchen situated at the far end.

The kitchen turns out mostly seafood items, particularly appetizers. Choosing between fried calamari, fried shrimp, and fried conch fritters ($5.50) can be a dilemma, given their similarity of preparation. We went with the golden-brown fritters, which were the size and shape of thumbprints. A couple of nuggets of conch bolstered each little grease-free dumpling; a side of horseradish cocktail sauce and a squeeze of lemon provided most of the flavor.

Lobster bisque, on the other hand, was a bit overpowering. The creamy soup was a pinkish-brown, and while it was rich and soothing, it would have profited from a dash or two of sherry. The Mediterranean salad ($6.50) was also strongly flavored, but this time to its benefit. Sherry mustard vinaigrette was bright and tangy, coating mixed greens, sliced roma tomatoes, and dollops of mild chevre (goat cheese). One caveat: Both the salad and soup were served already seasoned with cracked black pepper, so when the waiter offers you a twist of the pepper mill, hold off until you taste your food.

A main course of fettuccine with spinach pesto sauce, one of the five nonfish entrees, actually could have used the double blast of pepper. The sauce was a mossy mixture of basil and spinach, gloppy and rusty. Soapy pine nuts and a few shavings of pecorino (aged sheep's milk cheese) garnished the pesto, which was helped enough by a dose of salt to be edible if not delectable. Nothing could be done for the noodles, however, which were not fettuccine after all but soggy penne.

Lesson learned: Order fish here -- snapper, grouper, tuna, and salmon are all available. A sea bass special ($19.50) was particularly superb, the thick, flaky fillet stunningly fresh. The bass was set over a cold salad of callaloo, or taro leaves, which our server described as Jamaican spinach. Callaloo actually tastes more like kale, and its strong flavor was balanced here by chunks of turnips and chopped tomatoes.

The somewhat pedestrian dessert menu was limited to key lime pie and a black-and-white walnut brownie ($4.50). The brownie was made richer by a scoop of vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce, just as the environment of Matheson Park enhances the Red Fish Grill experience as a whole. Rain or moonlight, a meal served amidst mangroves makes us remember why we live in South Florida -- El Nino or no.

Tapas Under the Trees (in the Fontainebleau Hilton)
4441 Collins Ave, Miami Beach; 538-2000. Open for dinner nightly from 5:00 to 11:00 p.m., weather permitting.

Red Fish Grill (in Matheson Hammock)
9610 Old Cutler Rd, Coral Gables; 668-8788. Open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday from 5:00 to 10:00 p.m.

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