Oceanview outdoor restaurants on Miami Beach are like the weather is in the rest of the nation: "Everybody talks about the weather," as the nineteenth-century saying goes, "but nobody does anything about it."
Of course nobody has to do anything about it down here; perfect beach weather -- and lots of water frontage to enjoy same -- is the main reason many of us live in Miami Beach. Which makes it all the more puzzling why nobody has done anything about maximizing our enjoyment, by opening up some places where we can kick off our shoes after work and de-stress with a bite and some booze while surveying our beachfront kingdom -- because truly, there's nothing more satisfying than eating and drinking and thinking, "Hey, we may be too stupid to use ballots, but we're smart enough to live here."
Yet you walk along the boardwalk from 21st to 46th streets, and what do you see? On the right, beach and ocean. On the left, hotels and condos, some with some sort of outdoor "beach bar"... from which you can't see the beach.
Aquatica, 4525 Collins Ave, Miami Beach, FL
Open daily 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m.; Call 305-674-5551.
So Aquatica, the Eden Roc resort's new second restaurant (the fancy room remains Harry's Grill), with an extensive wooden dining deck practically on top of the boardwalk, is a welcome addition. Actually, there was an eatery of sorts in the same spot before, but it was a sports bar; the two-fisted burgers were good, but the atmosphere wasn't. Aquatica's redesign has a sleeker, younger, casual "welcome to paradise" feel -- you can actually wander right in off the beach in your bathing suit for a meal, though the diners at adjacent tables are equally likely to be dressed-to-kill club kids, businessfolk in suits, or hotel guests in resort wear -- and even if inclement weather drives diners indoors, floor-to-ceiling windows, plus portholes into one of the Roc's pools, bring the outdoors in.
And the menu, mostly light-dining fun food with some back-to-basics big entrées, is designed to appeal to the same wide range of young/old, local/tourist/ Latin/Anglo/Jewish patrons. Where else could you put together a meal that starts with an appetizer of chicken matzo ball soup, followed by a Cuban sandwich, with an old-fashioned all-American ice cream sundae for dessert?
All were good, too, though personally I feel that noodles in matzo ball soup is starch overkill. I'm also more of a butterscotch than fudge sauce person, and would have preferred a choice (or both), but it was an amusing -- and very large -- chocolate sundae. And the Cuban sandwich was entirely satisfying, if not, as the menu claims, "traditional"; the pickles on your usual Cuban sandwich are not half-sours. The crunchy fresh Jewish deli pickles were an improvement on the usual, however, as was Aquatica's bread.
Instead of the usual long pressed roll, the high-quality mustard/mayo-garnished ham, Swiss, and roast pork came enclosed in crustless triangles of bread that had been flattened in what looked like a panini press, so the toast had rows of geometric ridges. Due to pork a tad too polite (no good grease), the sandwich may not have been as tasty as the classics at the Latin American Cafeteria or Versailles right after the roast comes from the oven, but it is surely Miami's most elegant Cuban sandwich.
Even more sophisticated was the grouper sandwich, a huge piece of perfectly grilled fresh fish on chewy Sicilian ciabatta bread, with a side of "key lime creole dip" that is actually exactly the same as the "creole remoulade" that comes with the fried calamari. Our server's extensive negotiations with the cooks brought no enlightenment about the confusing double labeling, but the stuff under any name is not French but New Orleans-style remoulade, the herbed multi-onion mayo sauce flavored with mustard and cayenne pepper rather than anchovy essence.
It is impossible for me, in any hotel eatery, to resist the ever-present club sandwich. Unfortunately, Aquatica's came to the table with the toast cold and soggy. Additionally, there was way too little of the excellent Applewood artisan smoked bacon, and way too much mediocre smoked turkey. Poultry's supposed to be on one layer of a club sandwich, not piled on both.
All sandwiches come with ample good, thin-cut French fries to make the sandwiches a full meal. The same is true, sizewise, of every "starter" we tried. In the case of South Beach fish stew, a server even warned one of my companions who'd ordered the dish as an appetizer that though it was wonderful, most people made a meal of it. The big bowl of lime-accented tomato broth packed with fresh, and not overcooked, fish (plus onions, celery, and lots of cilantro) was indeed wonderful, and could indeed have served as a full meal. Borderline too-salty ancho chili-spiked Cuban black bean soup was almost as filling, thanks to numerous big rounds of smoked andouille sausage.
Fried calamari was a mountain of delicately battered squid, with two sauces (roasted tomato marinara and the abovementioned creole remoulade), both of which I found tasty -- but, since some might well prefer one to the other, should be served on the side as dipping sauces, rather than spread on the bottom of the plate. And the rock shrimp quesadilla, four big flour tortilla wedges loaded with the tender/firm flawlessly cooked native Florida shellfish and mild melted jack cheese, couldn't have been better, or bigger; accompaniments of tomato salsa, smooth guacamole with a pronounced lime tanginess, and sour cream came in three individual deep-fried corn tortilla cups that had been dyed, in keeping with Aquatica's name, eye-popping Day-Glo blue. Most festive.
Under the category "light dining," a niçoise salad featured a major hunk of grilled fresh tuna instead of standard canned stuff, plus a huge helping of romaine lettuce, genuine haricots verts, hard-boiled eggs, red potato, and kalamata olives. But the dressing was, inexplicably and inappropriately, Italian, doubtless homemade but a dead ringer for Wishbone. Request balsamic vinaigrette instead, for a satisfying salad.
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The actual entrées we tried, from a limited list of mostly simple steak 'n' spuds-type preparations, were less successful. Roasted Atlantic salmon was obviously grilled, and for many minutes too long; fatty farmed salmon is hard to dry out, but this fillet was close to petrified around the edges. A citrusy tropical fruit juice sauce and a refreshing raw veggie salsa helped, but not enough.
And smoked chicken penne pasta with peas and sun-dried tomatoes was totally weird. The pasta was overcooked; the peas more so, mushy, and a sickly gray-green color; the plasticky rind had been left on the smoked chicken; and the alleged vodka sauce was like no vodka sauce I've ever encountered -- not pink, not creamy, just kind of greasy.
But with satisfying entrée-sized starters, sandwiches, and salads, who needs main dishes? Linger over a bargain-priced "light" bite dinner, plus one of Aquatica's cocktails -- the not-too-sweet Floridian (Stoli, Cointreau, fresh lime, orange juice, and a splash of cranberry) is especially recommended -- and enjoy the real main event, our Floridian domain. Those tourists on the boardwalk have to go home. We are home.