I'm not a diehard baseball fan. Not that I've got anything against America's pastime, or that it completely fails to interest me. I occasionally ask my husband about the scores of important games, watch a challenging contest on television, or (more rarely) allow myself to be dragged to the stadium. To be honest, once I'm actually there I'm far more interested in the food for sale than in the team on the field -- though here in South Florida, that's also for sale.
I like to think this preoccupation with eating accounts for one of the bigger errors I've committed in a long time. Eavesdropping on a couple in a restaurant, I heard them mention something about "Go ... Fish ... Great." I broke one of my cardinal rules and contributed to their conversation.
"Oh, have you been there?" I asked. "It's supposed to be great."
I was puzzled by the odd look they gave me until they resumed their dialogue and I realized they were talking about the Marlins, and the World Series game they were about to attend. Silly me: I'd thought they were discussing Fish, the new seafood restaurant and oyster bar in Loehmann's Fashion Island mall.
Still, I was glad for my faux pas, because it served as a reminder that I hadn't visited that Aventura establishment yet myself. The restaurant is owned by Myles Chefetz (a UM law school grad and real estate attorney) and Michael Schwartz (a Wolfgang Puck protege and jewelry designer), the partners who put Nemo and Big Pink on South Beach's culinary map. Executive chef Louis Campanaro worked with Schwartz at L'Ostello in Vail, Colorado, as well as at a number of high-end restaurants in New York City, while pastry chef Hedy Goldsmith headed the sweets department at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and at the recently shuttered Mark's Place in North Miami. Carl Meyers of Studiolido did design honors, as he did for the other Chefetz/Schwartz eateries, using his creativity (and about a half-million of the owners' bucks) to place spotlights in the floor, shape the bar like a surfboard, and add plenty of blue and green fiberglass. The result is a smashing aquatic look, meant to appear like the inside of an aquarium -- a visual pun the fishbowl world of Aventura probably won't get. This lineup's clearly pedigreed. My not dining at the 220-seat restaurant immediately was the equivalent of missing a bunt sign with the game on the line.
Not that there's any sacrifice involved in dining at Fish -- unless you order the one-ounce serving of caviar, which ranges in price from $25 to $49, or the now-in-season stone crabs, five of which will cost you 30 bucks. Though that price is comparable to what they ask at a place like Joe's, these didn't come conveniently smashed; crackers were provided for a somewhat messy do-it-yourself operation. Though we could have used a hammer, the claws did yield buttery chunks of crab. An edgy, creamy mustard sauce and a zesty cocktail sauce and fresh limes completed the platter, which was lined with crushed ice to keep the crabs cool at table.
The raw bar's main attraction is its assortment of oysters. Chefetz and Schwartz did their homework at New York's toniest oyster bars, then brought their knowledge back to Miami. Four different designer oysters are offered each night, with an ever-changing selection that might include Pacific Kumamotos, Morro Bays from San Francisco, and Olympias from Washington. While I'm generally leery of raw oysters, the quality at Fish seems unimpeachable. This place is on its way to becoming Miami's premier shellfishery.
I've had some lousy specimens of shellfish bisque down here, briny and devoid of the subtle touches of seafood, sherry, and cream. But Fish's take on the classic was excellent, a smooth, pink broth supporting chunks of shrimp and Maine lobster. The French bread served at the beginning of the meal (with chive butter) was employed to great advantage when we got to the bottom of the bowl.
After such rich starters, a caesar salad with salmon "croutons" was comparatively light and refreshing. The bowl of crisp romaine was mounded with drifts from a blizzard of Parmesan, but sharper notes of anchovy and garlic cut through the cheese. Nuggets of crouton-shaped salmon, baked until crisp, were a genius touch.
The only sans-seafood starter we tried, a blood orange-glazed duck confit, fell a bit short. The confit was nicely cooked, the dark meat falling off the leg and thigh bones in succulent chunks. Grilled Vidalia onions were a sweet, textural opposition, and a citrus "salad" that lay underneath the game bird looked pretty. But apparently no one had sampled the fruit before presenting it; the sections of grapefruit were so tart they were inedible.
An intriguing New American influence extends to the entrees. One of the dozen "main plates" consisted of four large sea scallops prepared over the wood-burning grill. The scallops were just a touch overcooked and rubbery, though still juicy. But the accompanying side dish of butternut squash gnocchi more than compensated. Tossed with cashews, shredded Swiss chard, and Parmesan, the just-chewy potato dumplings were at once light and filling, an amalgam of intriguing flavors. When questioned, our server wasn't sure exactly what the greens were -- "I think they're charred or something" -- but apart from that one dropped ball, the service was unerringly professional.
A second main plate comprised Chilean sea bass partnered by another appealing concoction: shredded zucchini, toasted almonds, and shaved Pecorino. The distinct but not overwhelming flavors greatly complemented the sea bass, which had been pan-roasted to a glossy veneer.
Wood-grilled salmon, on the other hand, could have used some jazz. A plain preparation, the fillet was burned in places, and the grain mustard that underscored it was too powerful, obliterating the salmon's flavor. A side of steamed asparagus was limp, as if with shock from being cooked too long, and a scoop of wild rice tasted overboiled, devoid of nutty goodness.
I was also a bit disappointed by the wood-grilled boneless chicken half, but only because the poultry we were served looked as if it had been pan-fried rather than wood-grilled, flattened like a pair of skinless, boneless breast halves. Fortunately the meat was tender and succulent, the side dishes simple winners: a pile of fresh sauteed spinach and a large scoop of mashed potatoes that absorbed the chicken's juices.
If the New American theme doesn't appeal, check out a small a la carte section at the bottom of the menu. Fish can be a picky eater's paradise -- just choose one of the ten menu items, which range from salmon to prawns to chicken to steak; a preparation (grilled, pan-roasted, or steamed); and a sauce (grain mustard, au poivre, scallion, or arugula). Listed under a heading called "side plates," a la carte vegetables and starches (not included in the price of the main course) complete the selective diner's meal.
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Portions at Fish are plentiful, and we debated the wisdom of dessert -- until we saw the menu. Hedy Goldsmith has a wonderful touch with sweets, especially a large, elegant truffle made with intertwined dark and white chocolate. The two chocolates presented distinct tastes and textures, and the raspberries and blueberries sprinkled over them added out-of-season tartness. A cookie plate didn't sound as upscale, but that suited us fine. Four kinds of cookies -- cranberry biscotti, chocolate-almond mandelbrod (the Eastern European version of biscotti), macaroons, and almond -- were unique delights, and perfect for nibbling with a cup of steaming Tazo tea, a specialty brand worthy of being served in an upscale restaurant.
Dressed in Marlins colors and aiming for the top, Fish isn't short on either ambition or talent. A little fine-tuning and this town just might have another champion on its hands.
18841 Biscayne Blvd, Aventura; 932-5022. Open daily for lunch from noon to 3:00 p.m. and for dinner from 5:00 p.m. to midnight. Sunday brunch from noon to 4:00 p.m.
Shrimp and lobster bisque
Caesar salad with salmon "croutons"
Pan-roasted sea bass
Scallops with butternut squash gnocchi