The first duty of food is to be really delicious."
Cindy Pawlcyn, one of my favorite chefs in the Napa Valley, made that statement, and it's God's own truth.
Of course, in our little town, that's like shouting "Long live Fidel!" from atop the Freedom Tower. Too many local restaurateurs believe the first duty of food is to relieve sun- and booze-addled tourists of as much moolah as humanly possible. Or to cram a culinary United Nations on a twelve-inch display plate, or empty out a giant Sysco truck, or prove the chef isn't bound by trivial conventions such as flavor, freshness, and common sense.
1223 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach; 305-532-3061
Open Sunday through Thursday 5:00 to 10:30 p.m., Friday through Saturday 5:00 to 11:30 p.m.
All of which is why Alta Mar, an exceedingly modest Lincoln Road restaurant on the wrong side of the Alton Road tracks, is as thoroughly delightful as it is anomalistic. If you're looking for progressive décor, or food so cutting-edge it will slice and dice your taste buds, or the kind of "scene" that has made South Beach synonymous with "idiots behaving idiotically," then you're going to want to skip this place.
On the other hand, if you're hungry for Italian-influenced seafood that's exquisitely fresh, simply prepared, and really, really delicious, then your first duty is to squeeze into Alta Mar's cramped, tiny dining room and see what all of those other people have been missing.
What they've been missing is some of the best frito misto on the planet. It's light, delicate even. Diminutive rings and tentacles of calamari, bits of fish, and plump little shrimp are given a gossamer dusting of flour and then fried crisp and golden in oil as new as a just-born baby. Even the calamari typically Italian for "fish-flavor rubber bands" almost melts in your mouth. Instead of the usual heavy mayonnaise, it comes with a sprightly marinara every bit as delicate as the seafood.
A sort of nouveau shrimp cocktail brings a quartet of fist-size, heads-on shrimp redolent of Old Bay seasoning together with mango-pineapple salsa. The dish might sound like something on the menu of every restaurant from Pensacola to Key West, but the sea-sweet freshness of the shrimp combined with the assertive punch of the Old Bay and tropical lusciousness of the salsa makes it taste like anything but.
With it drink a versatile Italian wine off the user-friendly list; perhaps the 2005 Cerreto Arneis Blange, whose mild citrus flavors and slight effervescence make it gentle enough to complement delicate dishes and zippy enough to stand up to heavier ones.
Alta Mar's small but serviceable menu offers several palatable entrées, but the kitchen's heart is really in its daily specials. A swordfish special arrives as two thick, meaty, perfectly grilled steaks dabbed with a pungent relish of sun-dried tomatoes, olives, and capers that enhances the fish's rich flavor and meaty texture. Smooth, creamy mashed potatoes and a mix of sautéed vegetables reflect just as much care and attentiveness.
Linguine with Florida lobster and lobster sauce is admirable, too, even though the stingy amount of the main ingredient is inexcusable. The ubiquitous cream sauce infused with lobster is an elegant tomato sauce perked up by an intensely flavorful lobster base, making it kind to both expanding waistlines and palates wilting in Miami's brutal summer heat and humidity.
Ubiquity, however, never tasted so good as Alta Mar's tiramisu, a huge square of everyone's favorite Italian dessert finished with mocha crme anglaise and sweet, crunchy amaretto cookies a dish that, like everything else at this engaging little eatery, fulfills its first duty thoroughly and deliciously.
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