Seafood Strikeout

As I noted a few weeks ago in a review of the Marlins Steakhouse and Sports Bar, I'm comfortable with spectator sports and some sports bars. But hardly all sports bars. Sometimes skillfully prepared food can be as rare as a grand-slam home run.

Like a growing number of women, I played the games -- football, baseball, basketball -- in my tomboy-schoolyard youth, at camp, in organized leagues. I understand the rules. I appreciate the nuances, the athletic motivation. So when I watch an event on TV, I can chat strategy, make informed calls, and curse in Spanish and English at the screen. So what if I'm a little fuzzy on individual players' names? I can still bet on the spread.

This always seems to amaze men, particularly my husband. He still performs a classic double take if he catches me reading the sports section (which one colleague dubs the "men's section"). I'll always remember my husband's astonishment when he came home from work and found me watching the Braves lose to the Twins in the final game of the World Series. "Is someone here?" he asked, searching the room for a guest of the male persuasion. "How come you're watching this all alone?"

But let's not deceive ourselves. I can't say I'm absorbed by every Play of the Day, every SportsChannel special. Sometimes I resemble the stereotype of the irate woman who stamps her foot while her mate engages in that lengthy channel-surfing ritual known as "checking the score."

I found myself a victim of such behavior at Marlin Seafood Grill in Coral Gables, where the outdoor television, not conversation, dominated the table as we sat on the patio. There were two couples in our party, and both of us women pleaded, in vain, "Talk to me, not the TV." But if my back hadn't been to the set, I'm sure I would have been just as stupefied by the baseball-playing Marlins' specialties: wild pitches and infield flies.

It's not that I dislike sports bars or even eating dinner at one. I just hadn't expected the Marlin Seafood Grill, especially on the patio, to be so utterly, well...sporty. At least the other sports bar with Marlin in its name attempts to create a more dignified atmosphere.

Admittedly the logo of the Marlin Seafood Grill does double duty, representing the baseball team as well as the seafood menu. But the restaurant itself is more like a Fifties diner, done in Marlin colors, with chrome-and-blue stools, a gleaming counter, several booths, and an outdoor deck with white patio furniture. The appropriate word to describe it may be "cute." Yes, an oasis of cute in the midst of Bird Road car dealerships. It is a bright and perky cheerleader where a mud-streaked athlete might be expected.

At first the bilingual, Cuban-enhanced seafood menu read a little strangely, until one recalled the marine connotations of the name. Still, a Cuban seafood sports bar with a retro appeal -- the concept could work. I've eaten sushi and frozen yogurt at a California Angels game and Italian sausage at a Yankees game. In my own home, I've served country pƒte and cornichons at a World Series party. Why not enjoy Cuban-influenced fish while watching the Marlins? For Miami sports fans, paella, a Spanish dish featured in Cuban restaurants, could certainly be a logical alternative to the omnipresent hot dog.

Unless, of course, the paella is lumpy and cold, the seafood mixed into it tasting old and tough. Our platter of paella for two was generous enough for four. But the short-grained Valencia rice, naturally sticky with starch, seemed more like a clump of Minute Rice. Which means that out of the 35 minutes that our waiter thoughtfully informed us the dish would take to prepare, it was overcooked by 34. Likewise, the split tail of Florida lobster, also overcooked, had been drained of any flavor but salt, and chewed like the skin of a baseball. Though shrimp, scallops, and oysters dotted the paella's starchy stew, they suffered the same culinary torture. An unidentifiable white fish, most likely not the hoped-for grouper, tasted as timeworn as a cliche, lowering the quality of the dish even further with its pungent unpleasantness. Shrimp were consistently overdone throughout the meal, as unappealing in the paella as when featured in a daily special, shrimp parmigiana. Under a heavy layer of marinara and parmigiana cheese -- not the mozzarella-topped casserole one might expect -- half a dozen breaded shrimp curled too tightly, as if in protest over their treatment. A soggy side of pasta accompanied the grease-saturated shellfish.

Pasta, not a major player at the Marlin, wouldn't make the minors, either. A crab linguine florentine (spinach sauce), also a special, featured strands of pasta afloat in a tidal wave of cream; this dish, which the menu describes as being cooked "with a little cream," might have been better depicted as made "with a little spinach." Crab and mushrooms, delicate flavors, were overpowered by the Alfredo-like sauce. The silky texture, however, played well off the noodles.

Appetizers were a more successful venture. Baskets of fresh, Parkerhouse-style rolls graced the table again and again (per our requests, of course). These pull-apart treats dipped perfectly into the Caribbean grouper chowder, a chunky, slightly spicy version of tomato-based fish soup. A New England clam chowder and a black bean soup are also offered, as well as soup of the day.

Conch fritters, those fried doughy balls accented by bits of tooth-teasing conch, reminded us of the attempts at any one of numerous Keys restaurants. Not startling in taste, they were nonetheless a decent, dependable version of a common starter.

Still, the fritters were merely a warm-up pitch compared to the restaurant's fried calamari. It's tough to maintain the tenderness of calamari in the deep fryer; the Marlin, which opened this past April, has succeeded where other, more experienced kitchens have failed. We fought over these lovely crisp rings, neglecting even our beers in favor of grabbing our fair share of the amazingly light-battered squid.

In the northern part of Dade, where the bay is a view as well as a source of food, seafood shacks are common; here in the Gables, despite the restaurant's culinary difficulties, it seems a welcome A or at least convenient A addition to this area. (Any restaurant, actually, is assured of at least a lunchtime rush on this stretch of road.) Though we joked about the desolate, isolated atmosphere of the Marlin Seafood Grill, we parked as close as possible to the restaurant's doorway and were in reality a bit nervous. The Grill appeared to be the only open business on Bird; and the crowd, to put it mildly, was not large. Once seated, we felt fairly comfortable, although the location still seemed odd for an outdoor cafe. And with the additions of the Cuban influences and the retro-look diner, the stale seafood and the tremendous television, we found it difficult to reconcile the idea of dining here with the grim foreground music of the Marlins losing their fifth game in a row.


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