Just Add Water

"You could really learn some food-avoidance behaviors in this place," my friend Rick said when we walked into six-week-old Cafe Aqua, located between Euclid and Pennsylvania avenues on the newly revamped Lincoln Road. He peered at the moray eel, nurse shark, and spiny lobster that cohabit in one of the cramped saltwater tanks near the front of the restaurant, then at the nearly all-fish menu. "Since when do you eat fish to save them?"

He was referring to the eatery's credo -- Benefiting Reef Conservation -- which is stenciled above the doorway. According to the menu and your check, 30 percent of the cafe's net (no pun intended) profits fund "reef buoys, artificial reef programs, and other conservation efforts." Owner-designer Kenneth L. McClintock's decor reflects that intention at every turn: Numerous wall tanks hold a variety of tropical fish, menus are permanently frozen in a stiff wave of Caribbean Sea-blue Lucite, photos of whales' tails hang above customers heads, and shellacked giant conch shells serve as baskets for the bread sticks and focaccia. Even the last four digits of the phone number spell out SURF.

You might suppose, as my nature-writer friend Rick did, that a restaurant with this kind of sensibility would serve vegetarian cuisine. But Cafe Aqua is thematic to the end. Of course, executive chef David Schindel doesn't use endangered species in his "eclectic Floridian cuisine"; he sticks to the commonly fished and farm-raised suspects: salmon, tuna, snapper, grouper, mahi-mahi. And he tarts them up well, with a variety of Caribbean and Mediterranean influences and a host of complex side dishes. So in the end, the only thing left to feel uneasy about is the condition of the fish tanks, which could use a good cleaning.

Still, Rick's comment proved eerily prophetic for me on my first visit -- almost immediately. Inexplicably, over a beautifully designed bowl of vibrant yellow-tomato gazpacho, splashed Jackson Pollack-style with roasted beet puree and a multitude of colorful pepper oils, I felt my appetite recede. I could barely force down a bite of the tantalizing almond-coated goat cheese that garnished the cold golden soup. Minutes later I discovered the reason: a very badly timed bout with what (fortunately) turned out to be the 24-hour stomach flu.

I've worked through a number of assorted ailments during my four years at New Times -- hobbled into places on crutches, written reviews in the throes of a full-blown case of viral meningitis, sipped my way through wine lists while suffering from hepatitis. But there's no arguing with the stomach flu. While I was reduced for the time being to watching my guests consume what looked and smelled like a wonderfully prepared meal, I resolved to return to Cafe Aqua the very next evening.

And with the first bite of a rock shrimp spring roll, it was great to be back. The crisp exterior was filled with sweet chopped shrimp and sauteed cabbage. On the side a fried won ton skin covered with julienned carrots and fresh green sprouts was dressed with a chunky pineapple-scallion ponzu sauce that served as a garnish.

We also chose a braised jumbo artichoke from the list of six appetizers. This was a sturdy specimen, the large leafy vegetable dominating the Parmesan crostini that partnered it. A creamy lemon broth, cheesy from an extra sprinkle of Parmesan and studded with tomatoes and toasted garlic that tasted like shallots, was ladled over the 'choke, providing great dipping for the softened leaves. Artichokes are offered too rarely around these parts (only the Gourmet Diner in North Miami seems to offer one on a regular basis), so take advantage.

But don't assume, as I did, that all the appetizers are served hot. A blackened pork and yuca "tostada" was surprising, intentionally served chilled but not described that way on the menu. Fried yuca slices made up the tostada, which cradled the pork, balancing on a bed of calypso beans (round, blotchy, and black-and-white, they're also called yin-yang beans because of their distinctive color scheme, but they turn gray when cooked) and sun-dried fruit salsa. The salsa gave the perfectly cooked, al dente beans a welcome sweetness, though I couldn't detect the fruit. The pork was also good, succulent thin-sliced meat generously piled atop the yuca. Still, I couldn't help thinking this starter would have more flavor as a hot dish.

Salads were artistically arranged, casually complex. The arugula and Brie version consisted of bright, peppery greens on a pestolike champagne-basil dressing. Scattered dried apricots and intensely flavored slow-roasted tomatoes added great textural contrast, though the chunks of the mild Brie should have been a little bit runnier -- closer to room temperature -- in order to counteract the fragrance of the basil. Another salad stretched the definition of the word a mite, as it was more like a cold vegetable side dish. Two groups of pencil-thin asparagus were bundled with strips of smoky grilled eggplant, then draped with sweet-and-sour onions. A tangy tomato-thyme emulsion was less a dressing than a savory sauce, accented by capers.

Like appetizers, entrees are architecturally proportioned and often seem to contain more than one main focus on the plate -- a trend that has begun to die out as our city's master chefs (Norman Van Aken and Mark Militello come to mind) head toward simpler plate designs and menu descriptions. The result at Cafe Aqua is something of a three-ring aquarium, with side dishes becoming more like side shows.

Fortunately, the main events are worth watching. Key lime grilled tuna was a steak, grilled very rare, then sliced in half widthwise to show off the tomato-red interior. The tender fish had everything to do with a good grill but nothing to do with Key lime; a whole sliced lime was served on the plate as a garnish, but I couldn't get any juice out of it. Similarly, a stack of grilled vegetables -- red onion, yellow squash, quartered endive -- was delicious but lacked the billed yellow-curry flavor. Pretty with chives, a vinegary culantro-quinoa salad was a successfully cool contrast to the warm tuna. (Often confused with cilantro, culantro is a spatula-shape herb with sawtooth leaves that has a similar but slightly more bitter flavor than the well-known herb.)

Mango-barbecued mahi-mahi was testimony to Schindel's fish-cook ability. Moist and flaky, the glazed fillet was surrounded by a circlet of plump, buttery domestic East Coast blue mussels. Wilted arugula and a spicy red bean and corn succotash kicked up the mild fish a notch and made this a fairly filling plate.

Five out of the nine main courses feature fish (there are no specials); as I'm perverse to the end, this situation made me crave meat. The single steak that was offered, a tenderloin, was marinated in balsamic vinegar and pepper before being grilled. The vinegar at once softened and sweetened the meat, adding an almost sugary glaze to the filet that complemented its muskiness. The meat was supple and rare, high-quality beef accented by strips of garlic-roasted eggplant and an appealing tomato-chive orzo salad. An unqualified success.

An annatto-chipotle rub tenderized three pork loin medallions. The meat was juicy, crosshatched by the grill, but the mild, smoky chilies were canceled out by the stronger annatto. A tomatillo-pineapple chutney likewise dominated the vanilla sweet-potato mash on which the tenderloins were perched. As a one-dish meal, however, this made a good showing.

Not so a poultry entree, the truffled polenta-stuffed chicken breast, which was overdone. Pan-roasted, the skin-on chicken was too browned, the flesh dry. While a good idea, the polenta stuffing was bland, and it lost out to the roasted pepper puree that dominated the poultry, as well as to the asparagus-endive salad that accompanied it.

Desserts here eat like a meal, and I don't mean simply because they're large. Our dark chocolate souffle cake, for instance, came complete with side dishes and sauces: white chocolate mousse and a fresh blueberry, raspberry, and strawberry salad; a chocolate fondue and a berry infusion. Rich, rich, sweet, rich. The whole thing went wonderfully well together, but I just might order this for dinner next time around.

Cafe Aqua supports reef conservation, an admirable pursuit. But you don't need a bleeding heart to dine on the tasty fish entrees under the watchful, albeit dirt-impeded, gaze of trapped marine life -- just a healthy appetite.

Cafe Aqua
647 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach; 674-7873. Open daily from 11:00 a.m to 11:00 p.m.; Friday and Saturday until midnight.

Yellow tomato gazpacho
Braised artichoke
Mango-barbecued mahi-mahi
Dark chocolate souffle cake


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