When one fantasizes about a perfect fish house, certain criteria are universal: waterfront location, preferably with an outdoor dining deck; fun décor; friendly "no shoes, no problem" ambiance; and a fresh fish market component, which imparts a certain confidence that the food is supremely fresh.
Captain Nate's, which opened about a year ago with its kitschy hanging fishnets and all, fulfills many of these expectations and then some.
But let's get the bad news over with first. This restaurant is not located on the water, and there's no outdoor dining area not that dining on the noisy, exhaust fume-filled causeway extension that is Sunny Isles Boulevard would be desirable anyway. And as far as the water element goes, there isn't even a live tank. Given that the place's fish market counter features Maine and Florida lobsters, this is unfortunate. Instead Nate's packs the crustaceans on ice, something seafood experts consider a major no-no. When live lobsters drink melted fresh water or even salt water without circulatory units to reoxygenate the H20, it upsets their saline balance. In laymen's terms, they drown. Although the unmoving antenna of the Captain's critters might have meant they were paralyzed rather than dead and decaying, they appeared far too subdued to tempt this ex-New Englander.
171 Sunny Isles Blvd, Sunny Isles; 305-945-8853.
Open daily 11:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.
Also unsettling was the crab salad or rather its name. It was actually made from Sea Legs, not crab. The misnomer is common, and in a sushi bar, merely annoying. But in a fish eatery whose proprietors, according to the menu, are former commercial fishermen, it was shocking. That said, the dish was well prepared with lots of ersatz crab, just enough diced red and green peppers to provide a crunchy contrast, and minimal mayo. Had it been called "surimi salad" or even "seafood salad," I would have had no complaints.
If the salad had been made with genuine crabmeat, it probably would have been as dynamite as the minimally treated soft-shell crab starter: simple and perfectly pan-fried. The two crabs arrived with delicately crunchy exteriors, despite their lack of breading or batter, and burstingly juicy interiors.
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Sparkling specimens in the market's display case convinced me to go for an entrée of precision-sautéed scampi-style Key West shrimp. Although most main dishes at Nate's are served with a choice of side in addition to ultracrisp coleslaw that's obviously freshly made, the scampi came with obligatory white rice normally too bland to be one of my favorites. But the dish's savory sauce balanced garlic with a mouthwatering citrus tang, making the choice a good one.
Captain Nate's Trio Platter demonstrated that even the most traditional fried treatment can be respectful of the seafood if it's prepared correctly. Those discouraged by the overcoating and overcooking typical of battered-and-fried plates at most chain seafood restaurants owe it to themselves to try this assortment. The genuinely jumbo shrimp, large fillet of fish (mine was a meaty mahi-mahi, but selection varies according to availability), and adeptly tenderized conch steak were minimally coated in flour and lightly flash-fried.
Speaking of fish house traditions, two words: conch fritters. Three more: must not miss. With big chunks of conch, fresh red and green peppers, and a wake-up jolt of cayenne, Captain Nate's fritters are flavorful enough to eat plain. A terrific accompanying tartar sauce, which was more like a tangy New Orleans rémoulade, is a bonus but by no means a necessity.
Finish with another old-fashioned fave, housemade blueberry crunch. Even those who hail from Maine a place as famed for blueberries as lobster couldn't ask for a better version.