Until a recent $7 million makeover, the Rusty Pelican was becoming a musty Pelican. All of that work has freshened up the joint, but there was something cozy and unpretentious about the old driftwood-inspired seafood-house décor. The new look features an entrance through a sleek glassed-in wine corridor, but the dining room is less 21st Century. There's an eclectic decorative mix of 220 padded chairs and booths, rectangular red lampshades, blue carpeting, a forest's worth of wood tables and paneling, and a flea market's worth of light fixtures and wall hangings. The theme binding those elements might be described as "early-'60s hotel lobby."
No matter. The waterfront view from every seat steals the show anyway, whether through clear bay windows or from outdoor tables illuminated by fire pits. The vista offers such a twinkling wink from the alluring Miami skyline that any tackiness is rendered moot. Alas, even the lights of the Las Vegas Strip couldn't distract from the disappointing cuisine.
The Pelican's executive chef is Michael Gilligan, a familiar face from his time heading the kitchen of Atrio at Conrad Miami and more recently Soleá at the W South Beach. His menu here is contemporary American (implying a global influence) and, surprisingly, not very seafood-centric. There are enough shellfish offerings among the starters and entrées, but the main-course fish choices are limited to local sea bass, local red snapper, and Columbia River salmon (which is rolled with foie gras). If you want a straightforward grilled fish, it's down to the salmon or sea bass.
Seafood lovers have other options, though. Starters include a handful of sushi and sashimi selections, lobster crudo, sea scallop tiradito, fried calamari, ahi tuna tacos, and sea bass ceviche. The last, served in an oval tin set in crushed ice, lavishes luscious chunks of sea bass tossed with choclo corn kernels, red onion, small cubes of sweet potato, cilantro, lime juice, and aji amarillo, which yields a nice bite in the back of the throat.
Grouper or beef sliders are also tendered as startups, but both are really more suitable as bar snacks, especially because they come accompanied by a paper cone of shoestring fries. That's a bit much to begin a meal with, but otherwise the beer-battered fish satisfies in a brioche bun with caper-lime rémoulade.
"From the land" appetizers include a charcuterie plate; duck, foie gras, and goat cheese empanadas; an eel and foie gras combo; and do-it-yourself steak tartare, a disk of chilled ground filet mignon surrounded by garlic, shallots, parsley, capers, and a quail egg. For $14, I'd rather the waiter mix things up for me; if the idea is to customize the tartare, diners could be asked their preferences beforehand.
A square of pork belly and a similarly sized chunk of grilled apple each come paired and pierced upon three skewers — an uninspired matchup even with dabs of blood-orange/balsamic syrup on the plate. (Then again, this dish affords diners the rare opportunity to compare apples and oranges.)
A couple seated nearby were not happy with their salad selections. When the waiter came by to pick up their half-eaten portions, the woman politely informed him that the arugula leaves were doused with way too much passionfruit dressing and that the goat cheese — which comes sandwiched between golden beets and red beet jelly — shouldn't have been so cold. Her companion didn't say much about the caesar, but the two of them giggled when it was brought to the table.
We tried the caesar on a subsequent occasion and agreed it was more laughable than laudable. The so-called salad looks like a shredded-lettuce slider, the top "bun" being a Parmesan crisp (garnished with a tired orchid petal curl), the bottom being a "Parmesan custard" (really a gelatinized Parmesan puck). It's an overly cheesy rendition in both presentation and flavor (with shockingly little lettuce involved).
The Pelican's wine list boasts unique boutiques and distinctive varietals. Many of the less exotic labels are in the $40 range; most by-the-glass picks are $9 to $12. Bottled beers include Key West Southernmost Wheat, Avery White Rascal, Magic Hat #9, and Holy Mackerel ($4 to $7).
Wild mushroom ravioli with truffles and porcini essence, and tagliatelle noodles tastily coated with fresh, uncomplicated red sauce are the pastas proffered. A big basil plume centered the latter, but advertised herb oil never materialized. Instead, the sauce contained snippets of green onion and four cold spears of asparagus, each rising at quarter-bowl intervals.
A main course of two black sea bass fillets arrived skin side up on a narrow rectangular plate. The skin wasn't properly crisped, but the fish flakes were succulent and lifted by a distinctive cinnamon broth. Thick, unseasoned stalks of white and green asparagus and a cup of sticky, lukewarm jasmine rice provided weak support.
A lightly battered and fried whole local red snapper tasted fresh and fine, although there wasn't much fish for $34 (and it could have used a lemon wedge alongside). A side of udon noodles, which spilled from a white Chinese take-out container on the plate, were overcooked and bathed in sickly sweet honey-soy dressing.
Diners have the option of having entrées simply grilled and plated with mixed vegetables and a lackluster choice of mashed potatoes, jasmine rice, or French fries. Meats are an eight-ounce filet mignon ($35), a 12-ounce New York strip ($36), and a 16-ounce bone-in rib eye ($42). Jumbo shrimp are five for $34, Maine or Florida lobster tail goes for $35, and sea bass and salmon are each $28. Set entrées range from $28 to $35, except a roast half-chicken for $24.
We chose a different bird from the set entrées: poached Long Island duck breast, which was presented as three sushi-size rolls of tender, juicy meat drenched in full duck flavor. Leaves of Swiss chard served as the nori binding the duck, with each cylinder resting upon a puff of parsnip purée pooled by a Grand Marnier-accented sauce flecked with chanterelle mushrooms and duck skin cracklings. The cracklings were semisoggy, as were three spears of fried parsnip, which left the dish with little textural contrast. The flavors, too, were one-dimensionally sweet; a solution might be to serve Swiss chard as a side vegetable as the menu description implies (instead of a teeny leaf being used as nori).
Hosts at the podium up front were also sweet, as well as harried and overwhelmed. Waiters were calmer but not especially alert. For instance, on our first visit they neglected to serve us predinner bread — quite a loss on our part, because on a return trip we greatly enjoyed a breadbasket generously bulked with sliced ciabatta rolls, warm cheese buns, cornbread sticks, and even a little dish of marinated olives. We were rushed throughout that first occasion, with courses dealt to us like cards in a hand of poker. Service was more reasonably paced the next time, and our chatty but personable waiter did a steady job (though it was a slower weeknight).
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Desserts include a thin rectangular slice of key lime pie, goat cheese cheesecake, and a baked Alaska with a soft, fresh cap of bronzed meringue over rock-hard cookies-and-cream ice cream (with a sponge cake base). An apt revenge for being hurried through our meal would have been to wait for the ice cream to soften before eating it, but as the saying goes, we didn't have all night. "White chocolate, café con leche, and vanilla ice cream" translated to a warm, flourless white-chocolate lava-style disk oozing a molten coffee center. Ice cream on the side was not vanilla but a softer version of the cookies-and-cream flavor.
So much about the Rusty Pelican has changed, but ultimately the best rationale for dining here remains, as always, the view.