As per usual, it's been a summer of fish stories.
Last year was high drama: The Season of the Shark Bites. But these past few months, the sharp-toothed predators lurking in shallow waters have been eclipsed by the ominously named red-eyed northern snakeheads, migrating to a pond near you; and scaly, armor-plated Gulf sturgeon.
Not to worry, at least about the former. The snakehead, an exotic species accidentally (or irresponsibly) introduced to South Florida waters about twelve months ago, is a threat only to fellow fish: Up to three feet in length, snakeheads are said to have voracious appetites. And once a pond is depleted, they can slither across short distances of dry land to a new venue. All we humans need to know is that some of our favorite freshwater fish could become a scarce commodity. Of course we can always catch and consume the snakehead -- the Asians consider them a delicacy, which is how they wound up for sale in U.S. markets (and released in U.S. waters) in the first place.
The sturgeon, on the other hand, is a different story entirely, one I'd be all too happy to label a rumor if not for eyewitness accounts and encounters. It appears that not only do these prehistoric fish live in Florida waters, where they used to be numerous and valued for both flesh and roe, but they're designated as "threatened" and can't be fished or harvested in any way. Which means they grow as big as 9 feet, as heavy as 300 pounds, and as stupid as your average block of cement. They have been jumping from their rivers so indiscriminately -- apparently for no reason other than they have the ability to do so -- that they've been hitting boaters square in the jest. I mean chest. No really, it's true: The monster fish have been breaking bones and bows, a case of sturgeons requiring the afflicted to seek surgeons. And boat repairmen.
Naturally I'm fascinated by the sturgeon scare, especially since there seems to have been one rather serious attack per month this year. But I'm not about to lurk on a riverboat just to see a really big fish do a cannonball. I can go to Sea World for that. Plus, when it comes to fish stories, I prefer shrimp.
Not to mention monthly promotions like the Full Moon Shrimp & Chardonnay Festival. Held at the Blue Water Café, located on the pool mezzanine at the Hotel Inter-Continental, the event takes place over the course of two evenings per month during the wax of the full moon. I attended, coincidentally enough, during the most recent Sturgeon Moon, named for the month when that rocket-launcher of a fish, according to native Indian legend, used to be most readily caught. Could be that they migrate at this time from salt to fresh water, or vice versa; I'm not all that up on sturgeon trivia. Or that they're more active at night, particularly when the rising full moon lights up a virtual runway on the water. Talk about incentive to fly.
At any rate I prefer being far above the water peeling a scaly creature than being in it with one on top of me. Especially for $34 per person, which gets you a prix-fixe meal that highlights the crustacean, no matter what the name of the moon is during that particular month. The range of shrimp dishes -- three appetizers and three main courses to choose from -- is incentive to put the next full moon (September 19 and 20) in your datebook. We were wowed by the silkiness of a shrimp bisque, highlighted by nutmeg cream, and mesmerized by the size and suppleness of the shrimp tempura. Shrimp stew, served with wild rice, is too big and rich to finish comfortably, but who cares if it feels like a pre-evolutionary sea creature is sitting on your stomach? You'll still want to sample the "shrimp crown," or giant prawns in brandy sauce.
The Blue Water Café overlooks Biscayne Bay at nearly every angle, an impression heightened by the floor-to-ceiling display windows. And what a display it is: Bayside, party boats, and moonbeam-bright waters miss only a nine-foot sturgeon -- hey, I'd settle for a dolphin, or even a lazy manatee -- glinting in and out of the wake of the moon. As long as the snakeheads stay out of sight.
But if the very sound of that crafty fish's name makes you long for Asian fare, then there's another tide-driven event at which to indulge exotic tastes. On the last Thursday of every month, China Grill hosts a "VIP" Wine Party. What makes you a VIP? "If you know about it," says one of the organizers, Brad Kinder.
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Certainly it's not a hefty price tag that allows you some legitimate chest-puffing. The ticket only costs $25 per person, without tax and gratuity, of course, which comes to an additional $5.50. Admittedly the addition is tough to figure: The hostesses have double-duty checking off reservations (required) and explaining why they're charging you $30.50 instead of the billed $25. In fact they wind up making so much change (and soooo slowly) you wonder why the management doesn't just round down the whole thing to $30 even and publish it that way without the "exclusive of tax and gratuity" tag line. But then some sturgeons seem to have human counterparts.
Idiots -- that is, idiosyncracies -- aside, the Wine Party is a great deal whether you're laying out $25, $30.50, or a business card that could make a red-eyed snakehead just the tiniest bit nervous. Five stations promote five food offerings from the menu, all paired with wines pulled straight off the restaurant's list. Because the pairings are subjective and not exclusively designed for the event, they don't always work. For instance I didn't think the tuna "yuke" spoon, a succulent dab of mildly spiced tartare, performed up to the sweet challenge of the Schloss Vollrads Riesling the way the Szechuan beef gave grave bite to a Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz.
But taken separately, both individual dishes and refillable glasses were delicious. Add unlimited Nicholas Feuillatte champagne to start, chocolate truffles with dessert wine to finish, and a host of young, vino-happy professionals who would've been called yuppies in another generation, and the Wine Party has the makings of a ritual even the most overworked and disorganized of us can attend on a regular basis.
The noncommitment involved in a monthly soiree allows you to look forward to an event without feeling obligated to attend, and at the same time makes you not want to miss it because it'll be several weeks before another one occurs. Drink one dry, and you can migrate at your leisure to another. And that's no fish story -- shark, snakehead, sturgeon, or otherwise.