Thanks to the media-administered anesthesia of The Little Mermaid and Splash, most people view the mythical mermaid as they do manatees A gentle and stupid. Legend maintains that they rescue fallen sailors from the sea, groom themselves endlessly, and nurture a forlorn desire A strangely and at any cost A to become human. How unfortunate for them.
Then there is William Makepeace Thackeray's description of mermaids as "marine cannibals...who dine on their wretched pickled victims," violent sirens who lure their prey to an unbecoming end. This myth, too, is somewhat fishy, as unflattering as the more traditional docile and melancholy creatures.
Either way, I've always harbored mixed feelings A dismay and intrigue A at the portrayal of mermaids as half human female. And at first glance artist Kenny Scharf's mermaid, the menu mascot for Ocean Drive's Aqua, a restaurant, juice bar, and newsstand, appears similarly stereotypical. Naked to the navel, her belly is slim but curved, her breasts full and perky. Her hair is a feminine river of curls. Under her portrait, the first menu item listed seems particularly significant: warm goat cheese and sundried tomato tart.
But Scharf, who is also part-owner of Aqua, endows his drawing with mythical ambiguity, allowing for new interpretations. For above her smiling, big-lipped mouth, you'll find a decidedly nonhuman characteristic. Like that of a Cyclops, this mermaid features only one large eye.
Her intensely direct gaze offsets any vulnerability implied by her nakedness. This mermaid is not a hapless victim. Nor is she a monster, despite the Cyclopic connotations of ugly savagery. Her lack of mobility, as suggested by her tail, tempers her fixed gaze, a characteristic that, in women, is often misinterpreted as aggression.
Scharf's mermaid is a fitting symbol for the South Beach woman who, despite her topless sunbath, can hold a man's attention with her eyes and not just her nipples. She is also a logical choice for Aqua, a restaurant that, due to its location and clientele, also embraces alternative lifestyles.
Opened February 17 at the corner of the less-populated Fourteenth Street and Ocean Drive by partners Scharf and his wife Tereza, Lou and Ronni Ramirez, Mark Leventhal, Anthony Addison and recent investor Michael Hedges (they're hoping to reel in others), Aqua already enjoys a reputation as a place to be at ease among friends. Away from the glam-slam of Ocean Drive's more southerly blocks, its relative serenity has attracted a number of celebrities, who eventually, inevitably, will draw the very manic crowds they hope to avoid.
Another paradox was the Sunday afternoon tea dance, "Tea, Tango & Tricks" (which recently moved on). Sponsored by Aqua bartender Jody McDonald, this event was originally designed to be an encoded celebration for the Beach's gay community. But the party became such a hit A for all sexual orientations A Aqua had to request permits from the city and move it outdoors to Fourteenth Street. So much for the sedate, upscale, exclusive approach.
The restaurant's instant popularity relates intimately to the Scharf connection. Recently relocated from New York's SoHo scene, where he was an acknowledged force during the Eighties boom, Kenny Scharf is also an artist of national reputation. Like Andy Warhol and Keith Haring, much of Scharf's work is inspired by contemporary American icons: cartoons, consumer goods, the media. For example, he transforms televisions, phones, and fax machines, melding the ancient and the new, mythology with technology. For Aqua he chose to represent the underwater world, imprinting blue squiggles and swirls on a white background, leaving nothing A not even the awning, not even the blades of the fans A unpainted. The result, like the expression on the face of his mermaid, is a lovely tranquility coupled with blatant flirtation. This is the only restaurant on Ocean Drive where I would request to sit indoors.
Artistic vision for a restaurant, however, must be backed by realism. Scharf's contribution, though large, is only the beginning. Without his partners and co-managers Ramirez and Addison, Aqua would be a chlorinated pool A beautifully colored but dangerously sterile. But with their collective New York City expertise A Ramirez's resume alone boasts more restaurants than a lemon tree does fruit A Aqua certainly produces some interesting flora and fauna.
If an ocean is a garden of underwater delights, as the name Aqua suggests, then chef Lee Grossman is the perfect gardener. Late of Executive Cruises and a restaurant in Maine, he creates indigenous cuisine well-suited to his South Beach environs. The emphasis is on fish and vegetables, all dispatched from the kitchen in light, flavorful sauces. For instance, my salad of frisse and mango in a mustard vinaigrette was a crisp garden of untamed frills, intertwined like the curls of a mermaid. The mango was sweet and perfectly ripe, a wonderful complement to the mellow dressing.
Other starters were equally appropriate. The sweet and spicy shrimp, though not spicy, paired beautifully with the honeydew melon served alongside them. As one might expect from a restaurant that is also a juice bar, the fruit was among the freshest I've had in Florida. And the pan-seared tuna, with a rind of black peppercorns and a swish of citrus and ginger, was as rare and tender as one might wish. Arranged on the plate as though they were petals on a flower, the graceful ovals of fish were quickly plucked to a chant of I love you, I love you not, I love you...
My dinner plate was less than gorgeously attired, though the preparation was able. A single skewer consisting of two chunks of chicken, two shrimp, and summer squash was basted with a sweet, soy-based sauce and served on a restrained bed (more like a cot) of rice. Though a "palette" of sauces promised to be an intriguing garnish, these were no more interesting than three mayonnaise-based dabs stuck side by side A oil paints from a tube. And while the price of the entree was quite reasonable, the amount of space left on the plate suggested a more substantial meal might have been served.
Fortunately, this problem was not tidal, and didn't reappear with my friends' main courses. The linguini topped with clams, shrimp, and a float of marinara sauce was, if not of oceanic pro-portions, was not a low tide, either. The pasta pleased the palate as well as the appetite with a masterful touch to the marinara, a slight, tangy gravy that aided the flavors of the shellfish instead of hiding them.
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The grilled swordfish also needed no disguise. A fresh fish selection of the day, this meaty feast was served on a hefty mattress of julienned vegetables. Though julienned anything reminds me of banquet food, once again the emphasis lingered on crisp perfection. Chef Grossman's recipes may sometimes lack a flair for ingenuity, and the assemblage of meal and garnish may range from inspired to tired, but he is nonetheless a talented seafood chef and should be recognized as such.
Recognition should also be awarded the waiters for an elegantly served meal. Our wine glasses were attentively refilled; our basket of complimentary foccacia was promptly delivered. Our waiter was solicitous but did not hover, and I was thrilled to witness something I had yet to see on South Beach: a waitress being properly trained, following the direction of the professional who was guiding her. It gave me hope.
That hope wasn't diminished by the unexpected appearance of a most unlikely character. As we capped our meal with a fantastic Kentucky bourbon pecan pie and a flourless chocolate torte as satisfying as the finest candy (my cousin, who makes gourmet candy as a sideline job, ate every mouthful except for the one I managed to steal), a Domino's delivery person in full regalia strolled through the restaurant. Someone from the 64-room Winterhaven Hotel, located above Aqua, had ordered a pizza dinner. I once exhibited the same ignorance A the evening after my daytime wedding celebration. Determined to dine at a restaurant, my exhausted husband and I made it as far as Bennigan's, where we had the single worst meal in recent memory. Later we learned the five-star restaurant in the hotel where we were staying would have happily sent up a meal.
Future Winterhaven guests, take note: Aqua is not the name of the pool. Nor is a relaxing, fulfilling meal on South Beach as mythical as a one-eyed mermaid.