Restaurants that focus on serving fresh, well-prepared seafood are surprisingly scarce in these parts, which makes the recent arrival of Fish Shack & Market more exciting than it should be.
Lovingly brought to you by Venezuelan-born Lucho Cuba and Andre Revodero, it debuted six months ago just north of Coral Way on Red Road. Cuba, who worked 14 years at Caffe Abbracci, evidently learned some hospitality tricks from that establishment's master host, Nino Pernetti; he and the Shack's service staff pamper guests in a style that's rare for a casual seafood joint. Chef Revodero's resumé runs from working at Fulton Market in New York to cooking in Venezuela for, among others, the president of that country (sit down — we're not talking about Hugo Chávez but a predecessor).
The Shack's décor mimics a relaxed Keys eatery. White clapboard walls with sky-blue trim are attractive, but other design elements left over from prior ownership (Key West by the Gables) are downright dingy. These include dusty fish nets, anchors, and other typical nautical paraphernalia mixed with cheesy renderings of iconic Keys images such as Papa Hemingway and the distance-to-Cuba buoy. But the sloppy setup dissolves into a generically relaxing backdrop when the room is filled with families chatting over platters of home-cooked seafoods. Plus Mr. Cuba makes it clear he still has plenty of work to do before the Shack is where he wants it to be.
Fish Shack 305-262-6003; fishshackmarket.com. Lunch and dinner Monday through Wednesday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Thursday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., and Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
A bar on the right side of the room serves beer and wine. Across the space is a dimly lighted display case of seafood featuring half a dozen species of fish peeking through crushed ice. The dull presentation is anything but flattering to the product, yet upon close inspection, you can see its fresh, shiny-eyed quality; much of the fish comes from the waters around Islamorada. Be sure to check the display case before ordering your meal, because during our first visit, we didn't notice fresh sardines and jumbo prawns until after dinner; neither item was on the menu or mentioned as a special.
Meals begin with little plastic take-out cups of delicious mayonnaise-based mahi-mahi spread and a basket of single-serving Saltines. Diners can then proceed in many directions. Raw bar selections include fresh Apalachicola oysters and stone crabs. Among soups, New England clam chowder arrived pasty, but conch chowder was based in a bright, spicy broth. And the caesar dressing that arrived atop crisp romaine leaves trumpeted assertive anchovy notes. As a guest commented, "If people don't like anchovies, they shouldn't order caesar." The salad comes capped with choice of chicken, mahi, or shrimp, the last bringing sweet, butterflied crustaceans tenderly grilled.
Appetizers aren't bad. The crackly-battered calamari rings and tentacles come with a mild house marinara sauce, and five flavor-packed conch fritters are accompanied by cocktail sauce. Skip the crab cakes. The twosome tasted all right when dredged through scribbles of mustard sauce on the plate, but the exteriors were flabby and greasy, the interiors lumpless.
Be sure to sample one of the ceviches, which include fresh cubes of corvina that retained bite in a lime/cilantro/red onion marinade speckled with celery, red pepper, and ginger. Or try the shrimp, gratifyingly greened with cilantro, mint, jalapeño, and tomatillos.
We forwent the quartet of pasta offerings — noodles never net nirvana at a fish shack. We likewise passed on paella, whose $27-per-person charge (with two-person minimum) seemed extraordinarily pricey for the surroundings. The same can be said of the $54 mixed seafood grill for two, while caesar salads ($12 to $16) and hot appetizers (most $12) also didn't strike us as bargains.
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Other entrée prices are much more reasonable, most ranging from $15 to $19 (and many with choice of two sides). A whole, fried yellowtail snapper, hooked from local waters, came posed on the plate as though battered and flash-fried while swimming, like something found at Mount Vesuvius. The white flakes of snapper sounded nothing but pristine, oceanic notes and were accompanied by three fluffy tostones. We also liked a thick, meaty grouper steak (from Mexico), burnished on the griddle, pooled in lemon-butter sauce, and served with homemade coleslaw and a tasty sauté of red and yellow peppers.
Fish tacos turned out to be everybody's favorite — juicy chunks of blackened mahi-mahi rolled with cabbage, tomatoes, red onion, cilantro, and jalapeño into three lightly griddled corn tortillas; red and green (tomatillo) salsas are served in ramekins alongside. These tacos alone are worth a trek to the Shack; add a Venezuelan Polar beer and it's a meal. Another option is wine — a short list of uninspiring South American choices at least priced to please: most bottles under $40, most glasses $6.
A beautifully simple key lime pie impressed with a platonic teaming of pale, creamy custard and moist graham crust — tart, sweet, smooth, and crumbly. There is, however, a caveat to the kudos: Chocolate syrup splashed on the plate was like an anarchist's paint splatterings upon a Picasso. The same syrup was better, if still unnecessary, surrounding an already sweet coconut flan of impeccable creamy-firm consistency.
Fresh, well-prepared fish and homemade desserts? Try to curb your enthusiasm.