Even if the food at Red Fish Grill were only so-so, the restaurant's spectacular setting alone would warrant many visits. Located at the furthest tip of wild Matheson Hammock Park, on the shores of a very nonwild saltwater lagoon (in fact you could call it downright gentrified; there's an extensive white-sand beach and the lagoon's water is filtered), the historic coral-rock restaurant is Old Florida as it should have been: no mosquitoes or white minilights around the palm trunks. And, thankfully, much more than so-so food. While many diners still associate Red Fish with Michele Bernstein (since it was where she made her first splash as an executive chef) and have not returned since she left years ago, current Jamaican chef Denton Hudson turns out a limited menu that, while not quite Bernsteinesque, makes Red Fish an outstanding bet for those looking for tasty fish-oriented fare and tropical elegance.
A tip: Reserve an outside patio table. The restaurant has indoor and outdoor dining spaces, both stunning. Though the warmly lit inside room has great visual ambiance, however, the ambient noise can make conversation difficult despite suitably subdued music. The lush and roomy outdoor terrace, on the other hand, is both idyllically romantic for murmuring lovers and ideally impressive for sophisticated business dinners.
Since tropical beach settings seem more suited to taking light bites than stuffing oneself (possibly owing to the thought of stuffing oneself into a bathing suit), my dining partner and I found it hard to resist putting together grazing dinners of appetizers. Fortunately the grill's starters are especially satisfying, with a few crossing the caloric line into sinful, though well worth it. In the latter category are crisp fried shrimp, tiny but terrific lightly battered popcorn shellfish. One order is enough for four to share, but two diners will have no problem polishing off every morsel if you ask the obliging personnel to substitute for the regular horseradish cocktail sauce that is supposed to come with this dish the irresistible lemon-garlic aioli that accompanies the fried calamari starter (which also is great).
Red Fish Grill
9610 Old Cutler Rd, Coral Gables
305-668-8788. Open Tuesday through Thursday, 6:00 to 10:00 p.m.; Friday through Sunday 5:00 to 10:00 p.m.
Meaty and spicy Caribbean-style crabcakes put Old Bay-bland Northern patties to shame, their heat nicely cooled and counterbalanced by the sweet of fresh melon slaw. Drizzles of three mix-and-match dipping sauces (peppery red oil, cool herbed green oil, and a creamy-tangy white sauce that tasted like piquant mayo), added further interest.
Less successful was vine-ripe tomato and mozzarella, the vegetable half of which would have been more accurately described as "barely ripe tomato." The cheese was good quality, but accompanying flavored oils and, especially, a very vinegary reduced balsamic, seemed too assertive against the mozzarella's mildness.
Both listed salads were winners. Tropical tricolor salad actually is more Asian than tropical, and the "sweet soy vinaigrette" tastes more of sesame than soy and is not sweet. But it's good. And the crisp noodles on top, which I'd feared would be those nasty things pseudo-Chinese restaurants throw on pseudo-chow mein, turned out to be terrific homemade fried strips that are exactly what I wish were really in the bag every time I break down and buy Chee-tos or chips. It is similarly hard to see how roasted cashews, goat cheese, and sherry mustard vinaigrette make the Mediterranean salad Mediterranean, and the vinaigrette's main taste is some unmentioned sweet substance, but it, too, is good.
For entrées we stuck to fish and, in response to Red Fish's moniker, grilled items. Grilled tuna fillet, which came exactly as ordered -- seared outside and nearly sushi-rare inside -- had a fine fresh taste on its own. This was overwhelmed, however, by an intense demi-glace that was not explained on the menu. To my semivegetarian dining partner, the sauce seemed queasily beefy. I found it bitter, like strong coffee -- i.e., Old South red-eye gravy. It would have been perfect on country ham but was too much for tuna. Accompanying shallot mashed potatoes, though, were real, and real smooth, and fresh vegetables were nicely crisp.
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It was hard to pinpoint whether barbecue grouper's full-flavored smokiness came from the cooking process or the marinade, but the fresh, meaty fish stood up so well to the intensity of its preparation that one couldn't help but wonder why more Florida barbecue joints don't add this local fish to the menu. Accompanying rice and red beans were more firm than is usual by Latin America's stewy standards, and tastier than any rice and beans I've had in years.
The only deeply disappointing dish of all we tried was a nightly special of spiny lobster tail prepared in a double cooking process involving grilling and sauté finishing with a sort of lime beurre blanc. The small size of the single tail (about that of two colossal shrimp) made a $31.50 tab seem steep. And the beurre blanc serving was equally sparse. But mainly the lobster meat was dry to the point of desiccation. Overcooking was an obvious reason, whether the double process was at fault or just too much total cooking or sitting-around-on-the-plate time; we did wait more than 45 minutes between appetizers and entrées. Admittedly, though, the fault was partially mine for ordering spiny lobster out of season, something I'd never have done had the tail not been a special; no restaurant reviewer should go so giddy over the idea of an otherwise skilled chef tackling local lobster (which this obviously wasn't, unless it'd been frozen) that she temporarily forgets April isn't August.
As a meal capper, key lime pie almost always is a cliché and a disappointment, at least to anyone but a first-time South Florida visitor. Nevertheless one constantly reads restaurant reviews claiming such-and-such place's pie is different, the best in the state, in fact about the best thing you've ever put in your mouth. So surely you're not going to believe a word of this review's claim that Redfish's key lime pie, recommended by our waiter with an extremely smug smile, really is different: custardy light instead of ice-cream dense; subtly rich instead of obvious; tasting mainly of tart fresh citrus instead of cloyingly sweet canned condensed milk. Absolutely swoon-inducing, right? Well, good. More for me.