Something Fishy

But while history and eccentricities distinguish Big Fish, its food has met with indifference, or outright dislike, since 1996, when Miralda and Guillen convinced Brickell to let them renovate the place and rename it Big Fish Mayaimi. I've heard lots of complaints from friends about Sykes's famous grouper sandwich being replaced by a gaping pita pocket stuffed with chunks of pan-fried mahi-mahi, pickled red onions, and chopped romaine (potato sticks garnish the lunch item). I confess to enjoying the pita fish sandwich, despite its tendency to disintegrate, but I also have found the fare in general to be, well, less than scintillating.

Guillen has made some changes in the kitchen. In November she hired Miguel Marrero, a Puerto Rican chef with a multicultural past: lived in Hawaii, owned a restaurant in Germany, and worked at Mark's Las Olas in Fort Lauderdale. My first meal under his direction left me relatively unwowed. Mediterranean fish soup was attractively presented, with tiny clams in the shell, chunks of snapper and grouper, and chopped leeks, but the soup itself was so salty we sent it back virtually untouched.

We had the same problem with a grilled wahoo fillet, a special entree that evening. From the waiter's description we expected the fish to be topped with lump crabmeat; instead, the generous and flaky fillet was sauced with a briny crabmeat reduction. Simple grilled snapper, dressed with a squeeze of lime, fared much better. Likewise, a lunchtime dish of grilled whole baby squid, tender and succulent, was delicious, so I'd recommend sticking with uncomplicated items. Dinners were accompanied by a good rice pilaf, livened up with kalamata olives.

The proprietors' Spanish connection is evident on both the regular menu and the specials blackboard posted at the entrance to the outside eating area. We ordered an interesting escabeche appetizer from the latter, the marinated swordfish steak arriving breaded and fried. The swordfish was tasty, served at room temperature over a bed of frilly greens and topped with pickled onions. Ceviche, which given the size of the portion can be ordered as an appetizer or a main course, was at once mild and flavorful with onions and oregano. But some of the marinated fish chunks were tough.

We passed over fried squid in favor of fried smelts (not always available here); these tiny little fish, which you eat whole, were battered and deep-fried. But the oil they were cooked in seemed old, so the smelts were somewhat stale-tasting. Fried mozzarella and tomato salad was an improvement oil-wise; here the coating on the melted cheese slabs was a light and crisp golden-brown. Our only complaint was that the honey-mustard dressing that moistened the dish was too sweet, failing to harmonize with the mozzarella.

Big Fish Mayaimi is known for its paella: seafood, seafood and chicken, and wild mushroom. We watched as customers docked their yacht just for the privilege of eating some. Officially, the restaurant will serve the rice dish only to a minimum of four persons, but the staff was agreeable enough to make an exception for us one evening and prepare it for two. (An option for parties of less than four is black rice with squid and baby octopus.) Served in a large, shallow pan, the wild mushroom paella was enough to feed a half-dozen people. While the rice was evenly cooked, the woodsy mushrooms were overdone and slimy; and with its numerous sprigs of rosemary, the entire dish was just a bit too aromatic.

The restaurant could develop a well-deserved reputation for its churrasco, the menu's only beef entree. (Rosemary-garlic chicken is the sole poultry item.) The marinated and grilled skirt steak was one of the best I've had in awhile: juicy and supple.

Dessert, limited to three choices (and even these aren't always available), was the finest part of our first meal. We tried brazo gitano, a light sponge cake rolled with creamy, sticky dulce de leche. The short wine list is also a delight, yielding some good Spanish bottles for less than twenty dollars. And I should add that the overall fare has improved exponentially with each successive visit I've made, though waiters continue to remove wineglasses that aren't empty when they bring a new round. I feel more confident now than I did in the past, that Big Fish's food might someday become a draw in itself.

Big Fish Mayaimi
55 SW Miami Avenue Rd, Miami; 305-373-1770. Lunch and dinner daily from 11:30 a.m. till 11:30 p.m.

Mediterranean fish soup $6.00
Grilled squid $9.00
Churrasco $16.00
Wild mushroom paella (per person) $18.00
Brazo gitano $4.

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