By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
By Bill Wisser
By Dana De Greff
By Laine Doss
By Zachary Fagenson
What we'd heard Fico does have, according to some very non-SoBe, low-key advance publicity, is very fresh fish prepared in a mix of styles: Cuban, Peruvian, Spanish, Italian, and regular old American. And the large space, which was unsettlingly empty on both visits, also has a fish counter. Like the original Fico on West Flagler, this new offshoot is a seafood market as well as restaurant.
From the Latin-food-dominated menu, it appeared that most of Fico's Peruvian influences could be found in the cold-appetizer section. And mejillones a lo Fico Key West (mussels Fico Key West-style) were, in fact, dead ringers for the house special mussels I recently sampled in a North Beach Peruvian spot: half a dozen large mussels on the half shell, topped with a mountain of vinegar-marinated diced raw onions and peppers. The shellfish was good, refreshingly bracing, even if not as unique as suggested. What was puzzling is that though Fico's fish is (according to the menu) from Key West, the mussels were the bright green-shelled New Zealand variety rather than native Eastern U.S. black-shelled jobs. Despite pretty extensive grilling, however, our very nice waiter repeatedly insisted all fish did come from the Keys (and daily, too, which I wouldn't have guessed from the open shells of some of the obviously over-the-hill mussels and clams in the market display case).
One seldom finds fresh sardines on Florida menus, either -- but not, as I'd assumed before a few recent fishing excursions, because one doesn't find them in Florida waters; rather, like fresh anchovies, sardines are victims of prejudice from folks who've only sampled their salty canned cousins. To a convert who discovered the real thing many years ago, Fico's sardinas a la Siciliana appetizer sounded too good to be true. And though Fico's preparation was nothing like what I've eaten in Sicily (where the fish are typically stuffed with wild fennel and bread crumbs and charcoal grilled), the four whole -- headless, deboned, and neatly butterflied -- sardines that came were terrific. Lightly breaded and fried, the meat was delicate yet rich, similar to smelts.
Other appetizers we tried on two visits were less successful, for various reasons, some having more to do with togetherness than taste. Homemade empanadas, for instance, according to the Spanish-language menu, come in three varieties: spiny lobster, shrimp, or fish. I adore a good lobster empanada. The menu's English translation, however, says only "seafood," and in typical Miami language-barrier confusion, what came was a fish empanada. The filling was fine but too sparse, especially considering the formidable thickness of the pie's oily-tough rather than butter-flaky pastry casing.
Homemade croquetas, of either fish or blue crab (our choice), received mixed reviews. My dining partner, who doesn't do meat and rarely is able to find any croquetas she can eat, loved them. Since I eat almost anything except canned beets and chocolate-covered insects, my base of croqueta comparison was broader, and I found Fico's tasty but heavier than those at any number of Miami's Cuban luncheonettes and bakeries. They also seemed to taste like plantain rather than crab or any sort of seafood; there definitely was none of the definitive delicate texture of blue crab.
Tostones stuffed with crawfish were visually very stylish: Green plantains (called "Hawaiian" on the menu for unknown reasons), which must have been precooked to moldable softness, had been formed into baskets resembling upside-down doll-size top hats, deep-fried until crisp and then filled with a mixture of crawfish tails and an onion-green pepper-tomato Creole sauce. Unfortunately the tostones' taste didn't match their looks. The tiny tails were overcooked to Styrofoam dryness; the Creole sauce had no heat and little other taste.
An entrée of escalopes y camarones en salsa verde (scallops and shrimp in green sauce), which we ordered because it was listed as a Fico specialty, came swimming in sauce that made the tostones' bland Creole salsa seem like fireworks; the thin green gravy, actually sort of beige with green flecks (probably characterless curly parsley), tasted of little but oversalting -- no spice complexity, no butter or olive oil richness. The shrimp and scallops, though, were perfectly cooked, especially admirable since their small size would have made overcooking easy. A side of white rice was more pleasantly firm than that found in many Latin eateries. And four battered slices of fried sweet plantain were spectacular, naturally sweet and sinfully (but not too) greasy.
Parillada de mariscos (mixed seafood grill of Florida lobster tail, shrimp, scallops, squid, mussels, and fish) seemed the sort of simple preparation that would be natural in a place known for the freshness of its fish. And the squid was wonderful; it tasted nicely of the fire, and it was tender, not rubbery, as even slightly overcooked calamari can be. It was odd, therefore, that the rest of the seafood was dramatically overdone, notably a few tough-as-tendons marlin chunks and some small scallops, which texturally resembled pencil erasers. No sauce was offered to alleviate the seafood's dryness, and no salad dressing was served on what otherwise would have been a respectable mesclun salad. Accompanying spuds were fine if you like 'em boiled; I would have preferred one of the other potato preparations listed on the menu (mashed, French fried, or lyonnaise), but no choice was offered on either night we dined at Fico.