The first surprise at Rickenbacker Fish Company Restaurant and Market was the pack of barking, teeth-baring dogs that welcomed us as we exited our cars in the self-parking lot by the eatery's entrance. A tall, white iron fence separates customers from those careening canines, but the experience was jolting just the same; you may want to park via a complimentary valet service a little farther away.
Once safely ensconced indoors, where the dining room was abuzz with a robust Friday-night crowd, there was another unexpected development: We'd made reservations and arrived on time, and there were still seats available, yet the hostess led us to a cocktail table in an empty bar lounge. I politely asked why, if the restaurant was fully booked, nobody let us know when we'd made reservations. Without saying a word, she did a turnaround and switched us to a spot in the main room. It was, physically, the same tiny, round cocktail table as before, but at least we were in with the action.
Rickenbacker's room has been remodeled since the last tenant moved out. The new space features seafaring photos, boat propellers, and a few other nautical knickknacks hanging here and there, but it isn't of the funky driftwood/fishnet genre of fish house. Instead it is a warm, handsome room defined by large picture windows lined with the slats of dark wood blinds, an opening to the kitchen, and shiny, laminated tabletops set closely together atop light grey carpeting (I would quickly learn that these tables are treacherously slippery and the carpet absorbs liquid fairly well — but more on that later). "Breathtaking views" of Biscayne Bay are touted, but the bay isn't visible from indoors, and most of the outside seats on the wood party deck face boat yards. Sitting outdoors at night yields a glittering vista of downtown skyscrapers, but you have to endure the incessant howling of hounds.
A predinner serving of one warm, crusty roll apiece was a long time coming. This gave me more than enough time to peruse the somewhat compact menu. The selection of starters (most cost $10 to $13) is fairly standard for a seafood house; it includes steamed mussels and clams, fried calamari, and ceviche in a martini glass. But it's a bit short on raw-bar picks: just clams and Blue Point oysters on the half shell, and peel-and-eat shrimp. Other appetizer choices such as bacon-wrapped shrimp with mango barbecue glaze and coconut-battered shrimp with orange marmalade seem overwrought.
We settled with less fussy fare such as a crab cake of lump backfin (mostly shredded) and a quintet of conch fritters. The plump patty of crab was lightly breaded and pan-fried, with a mustard/horseradish bite to the otherwise mellow flavor. A redundant mustard dip came on the side along with mesclun greens. Disk-shaped conch fritters were moist and imbued with pleasing shellfish flavor, but the "homemade sauce" of ketchup and mayonnaise certainly didn't enhance.
Clam chowder tasted an awful lot like potato chowder, the velvety-textured soup flush with spuds but with neither a clam nor even an oyster cracker in sight. The Caesar salad arrived woefully underdressed, but the crisp romaine lettuce was fine once a side of lemony dressing was delivered.
Entrées are, as one would expect, mostly seafood, and the fish we sampled was undeniably fresh (all but one range from $24 to $27). But unlike many fish houses, there is no option for straightforward grilling or frying of items although they will surely do so if asked nicely. Composed plates include grilled mahi mahi filet blackened and capped with pineapple salsa, crab-encrusted salmon pooled in pineapple beurre blanc, and wasabi-coated tuna with balsamic glaze and pickled ginger. The owners proudly tout their focus on serving "the freshest locally sourced fish," and rightly so: The sweetness of a recently hooked snapper is easily discerned. But when buried under such garish garnishing, the pristine product might as well have been imported from Disneyland. That's the sort of coverup treatment you give fish when it isn't fresh.
There are, to be fair, a few simple preparations. Chilean sea bass comes steamed, with grilled vegetables. Chilean sea bass, however, is in danger of extinction and seems a strange menu choice by those who boast of sustainability. "Oven-roasted" snapper, which comes pan-seared, is served straight-up with a lemon butter sauce. And whole yellowtail snapper is straightforwardly deep-fried, plated with rice pilaf and a "garlic seafood broth." The fish was beautifully fresh, and the battered crust was greasy; the rice was reminiscent of lunchroom cafeteria versions and the "broth" was thin, seafood-based tomato sauce.
It might be noted that the shrimp, clams, oysters, crabs, squid, tuna, trout, salmon, and Chilean sea bass on the menu are not from local waters; the mahi mahi, yellowtail, and snapper probably are. Then again, a big deal is also made about utilizing "locally grown organic produce." Asparagus, green beans, zucchini, and yellow squash are the vegetables that accompany entrees; side dishes are rice pilaf, coleslaw, green beans, vegetable du jour, French fries, mashed potatoes, and baked potato. There must be more potato farms in Homestead than I realize.
More pertinently, it doesn't matter where vegetables come from if you don't know how to prepare them. On both visits, the daily selection was a julienned medley of overcooked zucchini and yellow squash threaded with under-cooked carrots — thoroughly unseasoned. The kitchen crew couldn't even come up with tomatoes or basil, both ingredients listed in the menu description for shrimp scampi linguini. The "homemade" pasta was pale yellow from eggs, but instead of al dente, the noodles were al mushy. The sauce seemed to be composed of melted butter with a dash of wine, but the dozen medium-sized shrimp were moist and tasty.
Earlier in the evening, shortly after appetizers arrived, I had accidentally knocked over a glass of water. I stood up and spent a few minutes using a couple of cloth napkins to sop up most of the mess. Still, the table remained wet, with a straw lying on it and my water glass empty. No waiter, busperson, or manager observed me cleaning up. Nor did anyone notice anything when removing appetizer plates (one of which was filled with water) or delivering entrées. The staff remained oblivious when lifting those entrées and bringing them to the folks who actually ordered them. Finally, before dessert, the table was wiped, although the water glass was still empty when we left the restaurant. On another visit, we waited five minutes before anyone came to seat us. And when another ten minutes passed before a waiter arrived, I had to stand up and flag one down. Service was horrible. If my dinner guest was at all skeptical upon hearing me blame the tiny, slippery nature of the table for the water spill, doubt must have dissipated when the woman seated next to us knocked a wine bottle to the floor (splattering patrons at the adjacent table on the other side). When somebody's bread plate hit the carpet behind us, well — let's just say vindication is sweet. And let's also say I'd like to own the carpet-cleaning contract for this joint.
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We had no trouble cleaning up an impeccably smooth crème brûlée with crystalline caramelized crust. Key lime pie and flour-less molten chocolate cake are the other desserts offered.
Rickenbacker Fish Company offers a small market section where you can pick up seafood to cook at home. This might not be a bad idea, because freshness of fish is Rickenbacker's strong suit. Cooking and serving, not so much.