There were two undying rumors about Big Fish back when I moved to Miami six years ago. One was that this renovated shack-complex-turned-restaurant on the Miami River had once dispensed the best cheapo fish sandwich in town. Wait: "Best"? Legendary! Mythic! To hear it told, neither Jesus himself nor even Elian could have produced a better loaves-and-fishes dish. Well, not for two bucks anyway. Needless to say this two-dollar miracle was no more by the time I first hit Big Fish.
The second rumor was that Big Fish had been a popular Miami Vice filming location. This was, and still is, very believable. In fact during one of my recent visits to the restaurant to check out its newest culinary reincarnation (it's been through three lives since those mythic fish-sandwich days), there was a real-world Miami Vice moment, when two tugs pulled a huge container ship past our riverfront table.
"What's that name?" I asked. "Rio ... what?"
55 SW Miami Avenue Rd; 305-373-1770.
Open Monday through Friday, 12:00 to 3:00 p.m. and 6:30 to 11:00 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 12:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. weekends.
"Ah, just another shipload of illegal drugs," one of my companions dismissed.
About twenty minutes later, a mean-looking Cigarette boat full of cop types stormed upriver, an appropriate time to say, "And Don Johnson arrives to make the collar." Incredibly the following week the entire nation was talking about the bust of the Rio Star and three other Miami River cargo ships for thousands of pounds of cocaine in their keels.
But even on nondocudrama days, Big Fish's setting is spectacular, in a raffish way. It's no SoBe-style postcard pseudoparadise; the Miami is a real working river, and the restaurant is buried amid scuzzy warehouse buildings on a tiny, totally unpicturesque, even vaguely threatening street that is a challenge to find. Once inside Big Fish's fence, though, the feeling is transformed, especially in the evening. With the neon-accented Metrorail glowing off to the left, the lights of downtown Miami just across the river, a drawbridge to the right, and all sorts of river traffic (freighters, fishing boats, luxury yachts, hungry pelicans) directly in their faces, diners get a fascinating instant-camera visual insight into Miami's dual nature: tropical beach-party playground and working shipping/fishing port.
Regretfully ex-owner and artist Antoni Miralda's monumentally strange sculptures (like his patriotic ankle bracelet, sized to fit the foot of New York Harbor's Statue of Liberty) no longer grace the compound's lawn. But the bar circling the banyan tree is still there, and the new owners have beautifully expanded the outdoor seating areas with new decks and roofs. They've also transformed Big Fish's formerly downright depressing indoor space into an atmospheric room with a view.
Food, formerly sort of Spanish, is now sort of Italian. The emphasis, however, is still on seafood; only two appetizers, one pasta, and one entrée are nonfish dishes. Prices also are higher than before, with starters running from $7.50 to $12, pastas and rice $13 to $19, and entrées $18.50 to $27.50. But encouragingly these prices are deceptive, as most single items feed two.
In terms of taste, almost all dishes get mixed reviews. The appetizer of potato-crusted oysters with horseradish, for instance, has neither a crust that is particularly discernable as potato nor a flavor that has a horseradish kick. But any oyster fan who doesn't have a flat-out prejudice against cooking the critters, and does not object to the flaccid texture of native Gulf of Mexico Appalachicolas, will appreciate that the oysters, though fried, are practically greaseless. And the appetizer serving was substantial enough to serve as a meal for a light eater.
Then there's Big Fish's "famouse crab cake" (their spelling). Personally I prefer a totally starch-free style of crabcake, bound only by eggs and faith, like those at the old Pascal Oudin-helmed Grand Café. In contrast Big Fish's cakes have an obvious bread binder, and a smooth texture with no tender lumps or delicate strands that say, "Yes! I'm unmistakably a crab." But the friend who ordered the cakes couldn't stop raving that they were the best she'd ever had; the crucial thing seemed to be absence of a crabcake flavor she'd always hated (celery salt?). Also a plus: The famouse cake actually was several, on a big bed of mixed greens, which, flavored by the cakes' chili-spiked remouladelike "aurora sauce," served as a side salad.
Proceeding to pastas, all were cooked perfectly al dente, but only one was a complete success: the house special tagliatelle Big Fish. With authentic Italian generosity, the featured lobster was an entire half in its shell, rather than the often meager morsels of shelled meat common in similar Italian and American preparations. The sauce was a rich yet light combination of shellfish bisque and shiitakes, flavored with truffle butter that conveys a defined wild mushroom flavor, making the fact that the mushroom sauce on the ravioli e spinaci had no mushroom flavor whatsoever especially odd. Indeed the dish had very little of any kind of flavor, though the ricotta-stuffed ravioli themselves were fine, if uninspired. Even blander was the tomato sauce on the penne gamberettti e rucola, which in Italy would have been an uncomplicated preparation, but one bursting with fresh vine-ripened flavor. An off-putting tinge of iodine from the dish's overcooked shrimp was the main flavor here.
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Main courses also could use some Emeril-style "let's kick it up a notch" sensibility. Only the honey mustard-glazed salmon was as flavorful as its menu description, and its couscous and vegetable garnishes were dull. The whole fried snapper had a nice crisp skin, though not the weightless coating one typically finds on whole fish in Asian restaurants. But the promised lemon-ginger sauce wasn't even vaguely discernable, and accompanying steamed vegetables were listless. The mixed fish grill, while formidable in size (a half lobster, calamari, shrimp, tuna, and swordfish), managed to arrive uniformly overcooked yet still, except for the smoky-edged squid rings, tasting not even faintly of the fire.
Fortunately everything lacking zest could easily be improved with a spoonful of the complimentary bread-dipping oil that arrives at the meal's start: spicy, sufficiently (but not overly) salty, and fantastic. This savory freebie made one wonder, regretfully, why nearly every other item served was so sadly underseasoned.
Desserts are limited to old standards: apple tart, creme brûlée, tiramisu, cheesecake, and key lime pie. But all except cheesecake are homemade, and while the pie was not the equal of the late, lamented secret-recipe Catalan key lime pie of third-generation female chef Montse Guillen (two chefs back at Big Fish), it was almost as smoothly tart as the legendary one at Joe's Stone Crab.
And, yes, there also is a fish sandwich. It's a lunch item. It's grilled mahi-mahi. And it's fine. But it's not as fresh-tasting or generally tasty as the fish sandwich (grilled, blackened, or fried, with many choices of fish and salsas) just upriver at Garcia's. And at $8.50, despite the fact that this Big Fish sandwich is hefty enough to feed a minimultitude, it's no miracle.