Funky Tuna

It's probably me, but I just don't get Fish 54.
The seafood restaurant opened about three months ago in the Loehmann's Fashion Island space formerly occupied by Fish, a high-end eatery run by the Nemo and Big Pink folks, Myles Chefetz and Michael Schwartz.
The pair had invested a cool half-million in the first Fish, which was designed by the irreverent Carl Meyers to resemble the interior of a saltwater fish tank. That meant an ocean-blue floor that glowed with spotlights, lots of blue Lucite furniture, chrome barstools, and an aqua bar shaped like a surfboard. But the funky decor eventually proved way too abstract for the locals of Aventura, who only recognize saline in breast implants.

Chefetz and Schwartz sold the place less than a year later to Piero Filpi, owner of the Mezzanotte chain and the Carpaccio eatery in Bal Harbour Shops. (The duo set their sites farther north, with one Big Pink restaurant on Las Olas Riverfront and another set to open on Harrison Street in downtown Hollywood.) Filpi, in my opinion, unnecessarily ripped the place apart and redid it with a more sedate eye, which took months and beaucoup bucks.

I prefer the old whimsical design over the current staid interior: stone floor, cherry wood upright chairs with forest-green seats, white linen tablecloths, a brown marble-topped bar. The 200-seat, indoor/outdoor restaurant appears handsome enough, but nothing new, nothing exciting; it looks as if owner Filpi tore a page right out of a restaurant-design textbook (or simply reintroduced his Mezzanotte formula-for-success). No sense of humor, no air of distinction, unless you count the solitary disco ball spinning above the bar. The dull edge is odd, considering that, according to a press release, Fish 54 is supposed to reflect "New York City's infamous Studio 54 ... with dishes named after the popular dance tunes of the 1970s." You'd think with a campy concept like that, something in the decor would reflect the pleasure principle that was Studio 54.

It's not just the decoration that has lost its way; the menu seems confused as well. If the dishes, which are really just common Italian ones with some fish or seafood thrown in, are supposed to be named after popular dance tunes, why is there a veal Marsala called "veal Sinatra?" I wasn't aware Ol' Blue Eyes was into preprogrammed synthesized beats. And what about "angel hair Annapolis," "penne Colorado," or "chicken Aventura"? This last entree's name is self-explanatory given Fish 54's address, and it's pretty tasty, too: a pounded chicken breast dipped in flour, sauteed, and smothered in a slightly tangy roasted pepper-and-mushroom tomato sauce. But why wasn't I ordering a poultry dish dubbed "Disco Duck"?

Other items were just plain obscure, like "tuna found a cure" and "fish soup whispering waves." Maybe I'm more of an Eighties girl, but I do remember some boogie wonderbands. And I can't for the life of my years on roller skates figure out the song that inspired "fish cakes ocean reef," an appetizer. I'm also a little confused about who thought it would a good idea to pair those fish cakes, disks of pan-fried red snapper coated with bread crumbs, with tahini. The sesame sauce was far too pungent and texturally inappropriate for the delicate snapper, which actually had no flavor at all. Call this one "fish cakes 'Tragedy'" (which would give a nod to the Bee Gees as well).

Still other dishes seemed to have been christened arbitrarily, meaning that the titles have nothing to do with the ingredients. I sort of understand the connection between "Tomato Dressed to Kill" and the dish itself, beefsteak tomato and sweet white onion slices doused with a fat-free blue cheese dressing. But I'm floundering when it comes to "Beans on Broadway," a credible pasta fagioli with Maryland lump crab added to it. The fagioli was hearty and garlicky, a warming combination, but the crab was completely drowned in the stewlike soup. More off-Broadway, really.

Not to beat a dead fad, but a salad called "shrimp take your time" bewilders me. The diced fresh tomatoes, supple chunks of mozzarella, and pile of field greens complemented each other in an Italian-flag kind of way, but the main attraction of this dish was supposed to be baby shrimp. They were, however, more like teenagers than babies (medium-size butterflied shrimp) and bland in their barely-there dressing of balsamic vinegar, extra-virgin olive oil, and lemon juice. As for a hot starter titled "mussels make me feel mighty real," the farm-raised mussels, doused in a white wine, shallot, caper, and cabbage sauce, exuded such a rank odor we sent them back to the kitchen. Could have been the cabbage that produced such noxious fumes, we supposed, but we didn't want to take the chance of having mussels making us feel mighty sick.

If you can ignore all the misnomers and just weird nomers, you can enjoy "Fly Carpaccio Fly," thin-sliced filet mignon served not with wings or flies, but with several garnishes, including arugula, chopped tomato, and Parmesan cheese. Although the arugula was too mature and the Parmesan too thickly shaved for my tastes, the cured beef, squirted with fresh lemon, was pleasant and refreshing. Follow this with an entree of "spaghetti Fish 54" and you just might have a wonderfully balanced meal. This innovative dish uses red snapper and salmon instead of chopped veal or beef to make a savory Bolognese sauce, which is tossed with al dente pasta. We also admired the preparation -- and price -- of a veal chop topped with sauteed chanterelle mushrooms, a special main course during one of our visits. The meat, though slightly flavorless, was a juicy medium-rare, beautifully marked from the grill. And the "swordfish au gratin" entree, despite containing no cheese, was presentable nonetheless. The fish had retained its moistness after being both sauteed and broiled (to brown the bread crumbs that topped it). Nice work here.

Fish, chicken, and veal side dishes -- mediocre mashed potatoes, and sauteed broccoli and spinach -- seem standard, because we were served them on both our visits. The wine list, a middling offering of Italian, French, and American vintages priced from $19 to $99, was adequate if not especially interesting. Service, however, unquestionably needs some improvement. The waitstaff's manner is too facile: They use the exact patter with every table. After one server convinced us that custard-filled profiteroles were the way to go for an after-dinner sweet, he returned ten minutes later to tell us the restaurant was out of them. Then, while the busboy hovered as we thought about what we'd like instead, he snapped, "Quick, while he's still here." We ended up with a ricotta cheesecake rife with candied fruit, a garnish that I particularly dislike. Had the waiter been patient enough to answer questions, I would have avoided it.

Still prices are right, and not much is seriously wrong with Fish 54 that can't be fixed. Either drop the references to Studio 54 and disco by rewriting the menu, or make them more obvious to the average diner. Be honest about what you are: Italian food with a conceptual edge. And you might try playing some Andy Gibb and Donna Summer rather than instrumental jazz and Sade. After all that disco ball is there for a reason, isn't it?

Fish 54
18841 Biscayne Blvd, Aventura; 305-932-5022. Lunch and dinner daily from 11:00 a.m. till 11:00 p.m.

Beans on Broadway $4.25
Fly Carpaccio Fly $5.60
Spaghetti Fish 54 $11.50
Chicken Aventura $11.50
Swordfish au gratin $14.



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