A View to a Gill

Key Biscayne and Virginia Key boast breathtaking views of sunsets over the bay and of Miami's skyline as it transforms first into dusky silhouette, then into glittering lights as night falls. Naturally there are seafood restaurants eager to take advantage of such snapshot vistas, the Rusty Pelican probably being the best known. The same initial left turn off of the Rickenbacker Causeway that leads to the landmark establishment will bring your car past another seafood joint first, one with big red letters splashed across the roof: Madfish House. This spot used to host the SouthFork Bar & Grill, which obviously didn't make it (not to brag, but I predicted as much to my wife after witnessing their cheesy promos with Stephanie Sayfie on her old cable TV show).

Just up the dusty road from Madfish's entrance is a food stand where José, from Colombia, grills big, flavorful chicken, pork, and beef skewers -- your pick, with potatoes, bread, and a choice of about a dozen salads and garnishes -- for $3.50. He sets up at about 10:00 p.m. and serves till 4:00 a.m. on Friday and Saturday evenings. So if after finishing this review you're not convinced Madfish House is a viable place to go for sunset drinks, and if I can't persuade you to overlook the nominal ambiance, lackluster (but friendly) service, and at times misconstrued menu to enjoy what happens to be freshly prepared food, well, at least the tip about José might make the read worthwhile.

I like Madfish's informality and lack of pretension; on the other hand, the place is decorated like a personality-less pancake house (with a bar). Outdoor seating, far more desirable, is defined by funkiness and fun: a bunch of bare tables with marina bay views at one end, a large tiki-hut bar at the other. Colored light bulbs are strung in rows across the patio, and party tunes like "Livin' La Vida Loca" play a little too loudly over outdoor speakers; on weekends there's live music. Like a grungier Bolero, this bar and grill really wants to be a bar.


Madfish House

3301 Rickenbacker Cswy, Virginia Key; 305-365-9391.

Open for dinner Thursday from 5:00 to 10:30 p.m., Friday 5:00 to 11:30 p.m.; for lunch and dinner Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Catering rooms available for up to 500 guests.

Still, the food was surprisingly gratifying. A combo-appetizer platter of fried calamari, conch fritters, grouper fingers, and Buffalo wings ($15.95) was faultlessly prepared, each component crisp and clean. A steamer pot of clams also was deftly done, the tender bivalves interspersed with chunks of carrot, celery, and potato in a broth aromatic with peppercorns and cloves ($9.95 for a dozen, $14.95 for two dozen, $19.95 for three dozen; combo of clams, mussels, and oysters). A starter of six "Oysters Rockefeller" ($8.50) baked with spinach, garlic, and Parmesan were tasty too, although the only thing they had in common with classic bacon-and-pimiento Rockefeller was the oysters. More menu mislabelings: "Maui" club sandwich featuring "Cajun-spiced chicken," and a decidedly untropical main course of "Caribbean seafood" ($16.95) with shrimp, mahi-mahi, mussels, peppers, zucchini, onions, and spinach -- over linguini. Other pastas are also available as entrées, as are steaks, brick-oven pizzas, and various types of seafood -- grilled, fried, and sautéed.

If all you want is some food with a view, or brew with a view, an outdoor table at Madfish House will work just fine; it's actually an ideal spot for lunch or late-afternoon cocktails with a pot of steamers. For more serious seafood dining and real restaurant ambiance, however, you'll have to keep driving up that dusty road. Then again I suspect a whole lotta skewers, salads, and beverages from José, and a late-night seat on one of the public knolls by the bay might make for the most memorable meal of the three.


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