Grouper Therapy

Time was when the name of a restaurant gave you a pretty good idea of what sort of fare it offered. When I was a kid you didn't go to the Burger Barn to satisfy a craving for Chateaubriand, nor did you visit the Six-Pack Saloon for champagne cocktails. In modern times, however, you simply can't judge a joint by its moniker.

Take Salty's, for instance. Conjures images of newspaper-covered picnic tables with wells in the middle for dumping shells into an under-the-table bucket. But the former sister restaurant to Key Biscayne's Sundays on the Bay is no seaside shanty. Inside is a maze of elegant rooms done up in navy carpeting, mud-color wainscoting and partitions, spanking baby-blue and white linens, and fresh carnations on each table. If there really is a Salty at the helm of this operation, he ought to be addressed as Sir Salty.

The menu has been scaled back from its previous monolithic proportions to a standard-size, two-page listing of appetizers, soups, salads, pastas, chicken and steak entrees, and the requisite seafood dishes. These last range in price from $14.95 each for dolphin, crab cakes, crabmeat casserole, grouper, and coconut shrimp, to $34.95 for twin Florida lobster tails broiled and served with drawn butter. But the biggest change that has resulted from the restaurant's revamping took place in the kitchen. While the old Salty's proffered seafood cooked plainly and embellished with the diner's choice of sauces, nearly every seafood entree now gets the gourmet treatment before it reaches the patron's table. Unfortunately, with just one or two exceptions, the gussied-up offerings are more Frenchified than tropical in preparation and presentation, so if French is what you're after, you'll be pleased. In line with the Continental focus, Salty's features an extensive wine list, with labels from France, Spain, Chile, Argentina, Austria, Italy, Germany, and the United States.

Along with the culinary creativity, there's also ample parking, good service, and a full bar (with a long row of stools outside and a number of seats facing the water for sunset viewing over cocktails). A considerable weeknight crowd flocked to the deck one recent windy night for nightcaps and table talk. It's a nice spot to enjoy the breeze and nosh on a starter - among the hot and cold assortment are oysters on the half shell; clams steamed in white wine and shallots; a selection of salads; and our choice, a bowl of homemade conch chowder.

Served piping hot, the pottage was thick enough to be served as a hot dip, though it would have benefited from a tad more seasoning than the occasional bay leaf that showed up as we spooned. Still, there was no dearth of conch morsels, which far outnumbered the diced carrots and potatoes suspended in the creamy white base. Crusty rolls served up in a basket were ideal for dredging.

For our main meal, I went for one of the tropical offerings, grouper Key West ($14.95). My dining companion, following my lead, opted for the snapper Casa Quay ($16.95), which turned out to be a moist, flavorful fillet enveloped in a rich sauce of scallions, shallots, garlic, and mushrooms. But despite the merits of his own selection, I caught him eyeing my plate from the moment it was placed before me. Coated and quick-fried in a tempura batter, the grouper was encased in a golden, flaky, parchment-thin wrapping. Just the right touch of enhancement came from a dribbling of pecan-butter sauce atop the fish, which offered a subtle confectionary contrast to the tempura-fish combination. If I were to improve this dish in any way, I would add more whole pecan pieces to the glaze, to include yet one more texture in the already-wonderful medley.

No side dishes are noted in the description of the dishes on the menu, so we were pleasantly surprised to find each of our entrees flanked by fluffy rice peppered with bits of celery and pimentos, plus a melange of broccoli, cauliflower, and zucchini that had been sauteed briefly in fine olive oil, rendering the vegetables al dente rather than limp.

Desserts run the gamut from apple pie to chocolate concoctions and cheesecake, plus that mainstay of seafood establishments, key lime pie. We passed on those, however, to join some friends we spotted among the throng of deck denizens indulging simultaneously in appetizers and ambiance. Yes, we were stuffed, but when they invited us to taste-test the shrimp dipped in batter spiked with pina colada, rolled in fresh-grated coconut, fried, and accompanied by a zesty orange-mustard sauce, we couldn't exactly refuse. Nor could we resist digging into their clams casino - and mouth-watering fried squid. In fact, we crammed ourselves so full, we had to be rolled out the door and to our car.

And that's no fish story.

10880 Collins Ave, Miami Beach; 945-6065. Open daily from 11:00 a.m. to midnight. Sunday brunch from ll:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.


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