High Tide, High Hopes

In Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist, Rose is a beautifully eccentric character who cannot exit the safe realm of her neighborhood without becoming hopelessly lost. Any destination other than the local market or drugstore fills her with unbounded terror. Maps, compasses, even detailed directions are useless.

I identify with Rose, and like her I require familiar landmarks to find my way. Even then, I might not recognize my destination once I arrive. For instance, I recently arranged to meet friends at Langosta Beach Restaurant, a wonderful new seafood spot on Biscayne Bay about which I had been hearing positive reports. But as I turned into what I thought was going to be the restaurant's parking area, I noticed a squat, miniature lighthouse behind it. A familiar landmark, all right, but for a different restaurant: Nantucket.

I had just reviewed Nantucket in January. As rotten as I am with directions, I thought Nantucket was located on the other side of the 79th Street Causeway. The circular drive, the lobby's enormous holding tanks squirming with Maine lobsters, the Florida-room lounge area, and the gas fireplaces prompted in me not recollection but rather an eerie sense of deja vu. Could it be Langosta Beach was a mirror image, Nantucket's doppelganger, designed by the same architects, run by the same management?

Compounding the confusion was the fact that my dining partners were the exact same crew who had dined with me for the Nantucket review. Finally it sunk in: Langosta Beach has replaced Nantucket. Much about the place -- the open-air dining room, the thatched roof, the green-and-white decor -- has not changed. But other things have, and successfully so.

The owners, however, remain the same: Marty Dubin and Tom Billante. Dubin has been a guardian of this location since 1990, when he and Tony Roma opened Tony's Pelican Harbor, an extravagant failure featuring waterfront frolic, food, and fanfare. That was soon followed by Porto Bello, which failed as well. Dubin then teamed with a new partner, veteran restaurateur Billante, a founder of South Beach's Mezzanotte and North Miami's Luna Caffe. The result was Nantucket, whose identity wobbled uncomfortably between South Florida and South Bronx. The kitchen staff, imported from Mezzanotte, prepared satisfactory Italian seafood dishes and attracted a moderate crowd. But the constantly changing menu and some tacky touches A lighthouse lanterns on the tables, for instance A lent Nantucket an unstable, tourist-dependent feel. For Dubin, the third time was not the charm.

But if charm can be measured by clean plates and happily sated customers, Langosta Beach possesses it in abundance this fourth time around. And the charmer's name is chef Anthony Sindaco, whose Caribbean-influenced menu refreshes the soul as much as the breezes off Biscayne Bay freshen the air.

Sindaco's resume includes the Helmsley Palace Hotel, the Doral Telluride Resort in Colorado, and most recently the Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo. Impressive as that pedigree may be, it still doesn't adequately describe Sindaco's talent. From the composition of the menu to the choice of a specific garnish, every aspect of his food preparation is artful.

The menu is a sophisticated blend of restraint and tempting excess. For instance, a simple starter of jumbo Gulf shrimp with tomato horseradish sauce stands between two more complicated (and wondrous) first courses: a tuna tartare with cucumber noodles, crisp vegetable chips, and chili oil; and a salad of lump crabmeat, calamari, yellow potatoes, and roasted shallot tartar sauce. Some less confident chefs would feel compelled to add a few exotic ingredients to what is essentially a shrimp cocktail. But a good menu often reads like a well-written poem -- richly dense language alternating with unembellished white space.

Our heightened anticipation was initially dampened by the long wait for those appetizers, and a query to our waiter elicited this response: Please be patient. It'll be worth it. He was absolutely correct, both in terms of preparation and presentation. As beautiful as a banquet, the dishes could have come from a sculptor's studio. The salad of lump crabmeat and calamari was a tender mold of crab and baby squid, two inches thick and three inches across, encircled and held together by cucumber sliced as thin as papyrus. Yellow potato salad and mild, roasted shallot tartar sauce completed the ensemble, so picturesque we almost hesitated to disassemble it.

Creative presentation also highlighted the "martini" of Maine lobster, avocado, dill vermouth vinaigrette, corn chowder, and spicy shrimp. Sweet lobster and shrimp, chopped and mixed with silky avocado then folded precisely into the fresh dressing and corn chowder, was served as anticipated A in a martini glass. A spear of green olives and cocktail onions added a whimsical touch and suggested a kitchen with a "dry" wit. Individual flavors were fairly impossible to identify, but this unique combination functioned as a delicious whole.

The finely chopped tuna tartare was also worth the wait, and was a successful study in contrasts. Chili oil added heat while the noodles allowed for cooling; snappy vegetable chips interacted wonderfully with the soft caress of the raw, ruby fish. Another appetizer, the Caribbean antipasto, also offered contrasts of flavor and texture, and worked nearly as well. A tangy marinated bean salad, mild curried chicken, nutty avocado, and fruity papaya dressing provided a complementary mix of color and flavor, but the jerk dolphin fell victim to an overdose of spice.

These first-course portions were generous enough that we, too, were threatened with overdose, though that didn't stop us from finishing them and looking forward to our main courses.

Despite a crowded table, the servers delivered each entree to the right person, a reassuring sign of a well-trained staff. I ordered the yellowtail snapper, whole but headless. And enormous -- a fleshy, roasted specimen placed atop a pile of Caribbean influences: Cuban black bean stew, coconut milk, and white rice. Red and green peppers added an intriguing sweetness to this dish, which was realized with near perfection. A close rival, the onion-encrusted Chilean salmon with portobello mushroom, spinach, and puree of yellow tomato, was an example of fish cookery at its best. Salmon, so easily dried and so rarely done well, flaked at the touch of a fork, moist and meaty.

Rigatoni with a spicy duck sausage, roasted peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, and a tomato oil sounded heavy, but in fact proved to be a very good preparation. It didn't dazzle like the fish dishes, though it was a very respectable alternative for carnivores (five other meat dishes are offered, from sirloin to stuffed pork chop).

Perhaps the most imaginative dish, the French-fried Bahamian lobster, crunched delightfully but was a bit tough in places, which is always a risk when lobster is prepared by any method other than steaming. Dipped in mango ketchup (it tastes exactly as it sounds), the crustacean's Caribbean heritage was further emphasized by a garnish of grilled banana.

The lobster, along with the fish, is testimony to Sindaco's skill, a talent that, like an ocean tide, will draw me to this shore again. And I doubt I'll lose my way next time.


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