The New Fico Sea
When a casual, reasonably priced, old-fashioned Florida fish house opens on South Beach's Attitude Avenue (a.k.a. Washington Avenue) with no hype, hoopla, velvet ropes, door Nazis, or deafening disco music, it's time for serious diners to grab the car keys. But be prepared to find your own meter, because New Fico Key West Seafood doesn't have any fancy-schmancy valet parking.
What we'd heard Fico does have, according to some very non-SoBe, low-key advance publicity, is very fresh fish prepared in a mix of styles: Cuban, Peruvian, Spanish, Italian, and regular old American. And the large space, which was unsettlingly empty on both visits, also has a fish counter. Like the original Fico on West Flagler, this new offshoot is a seafood market as well as restaurant.
From the Latin-food-dominated menu, it appeared that most of Fico's Peruvian influences could be found in the cold-appetizer section. And mejillones a lo Fico Key West (mussels Fico Key West-style) were, in fact, dead ringers for the house special mussels I recently sampled in a North Beach Peruvian spot: half a dozen large mussels on the half shell, topped with a mountain of vinegar-marinated diced raw onions and peppers. The shellfish was good, refreshingly bracing, even if not as unique as suggested. What was puzzling is that though Fico's fish is (according to the menu) from Key West, the mussels were the bright green-shelled New Zealand variety rather than native Eastern U.S. black-shelled jobs. Despite pretty extensive grilling, however, our very nice waiter repeatedly insisted all fish did come from the Keys (and daily, too, which I wouldn't have guessed from the open shells of some of the obviously over-the-hill mussels and clams in the market display case).
One seldom finds fresh sardines on Florida menus, either -- but not, as I'd assumed before a few recent fishing excursions, because one doesn't find them in Florida waters; rather, like fresh anchovies, sardines are victims of prejudice from folks who've only sampled their salty canned cousins. To a convert who discovered the real thing many years ago, Fico's sardinas a la Siciliana appetizer sounded too good to be true. And though Fico's preparation was nothing like what I've eaten in Sicily (where the fish are typically stuffed with wild fennel and bread crumbs and charcoal grilled), the four whole -- headless, deboned, and neatly butterflied -- sardines that came were terrific. Lightly breaded and fried, the meat was delicate yet rich, similar to smelts.
Other appetizers we tried on two visits were less successful, for various reasons, some having more to do with togetherness than taste. Homemade empanadas, for instance, according to the Spanish-language menu, come in three varieties: spiny lobster, shrimp, or fish. I adore a good lobster empanada. The menu's English translation, however, says only "seafood," and in typical Miami language-barrier confusion, what came was a fish empanada. The filling was fine but too sparse, especially considering the formidable thickness of the pie's oily-tough rather than butter-flaky pastry casing.
Homemade croquetas, of either fish or blue crab (our choice), received mixed reviews. My dining partner, who doesn't do meat and rarely is able to find any croquetas she can eat, loved them. Since I eat almost anything except canned beets and chocolate-covered insects, my base of croqueta comparison was broader, and I found Fico's tasty but heavier than those at any number of Miami's Cuban luncheonettes and bakeries. They also seemed to taste like plantain rather than crab or any sort of seafood; there definitely was none of the definitive delicate texture of blue crab.
Tostones stuffed with crawfish were visually very stylish: Green plantains (called "Hawaiian" on the menu for unknown reasons), which must have been precooked to moldable softness, had been formed into baskets resembling upside-down doll-size top hats, deep-fried until crisp and then filled with a mixture of crawfish tails and an onion-green pepper-tomato Creole sauce. Unfortunately the tostones' taste didn't match their looks. The tiny tails were overcooked to Styrofoam dryness; the Creole sauce had no heat and little other taste.
An entrée of escalopes y camarones en salsa verde (scallops and shrimp in green sauce), which we ordered because it was listed as a Fico specialty, came swimming in sauce that made the tostones' bland Creole salsa seem like fireworks; the thin green gravy, actually sort of beige with green flecks (probably characterless curly parsley), tasted of little but oversalting -- no spice complexity, no butter or olive oil richness. The shrimp and scallops, though, were perfectly cooked, especially admirable since their small size would have made overcooking easy. A side of white rice was more pleasantly firm than that found in many Latin eateries. And four battered slices of fried sweet plantain were spectacular, naturally sweet and sinfully (but not too) greasy.
Parillada de mariscos (mixed seafood grill of Florida lobster tail, shrimp, scallops, squid, mussels, and fish) seemed the sort of simple preparation that would be natural in a place known for the freshness of its fish. And the squid was wonderful; it tasted nicely of the fire, and it was tender, not rubbery, as even slightly overcooked calamari can be. It was odd, therefore, that the rest of the seafood was dramatically overdone, notably a few tough-as-tendons marlin chunks and some small scallops, which texturally resembled pencil erasers. No sauce was offered to alleviate the seafood's dryness, and no salad dressing was served on what otherwise would have been a respectable mesclun salad. Accompanying spuds were fine if you like 'em boiled; I would have preferred one of the other potato preparations listed on the menu (mashed, French fried, or lyonnaise), but no choice was offered on either night we dined at Fico.
In certain strange ways, restaurant reviewing is not unlike extreme adventure sports, so it seemed thrilling but not unexpected that the iffiest entrée -- one that, to be frank, we'd ordered for laughs -- turned out to be the most successful. Breaded dolphin in Kellogg's, anyone? Really, trust me on this. The fine-crushed breakfast-cereal crust fried up crisp but nearly greaseless; the impeccably fresh mahi-mahi inside was delightfully moist and meaty; and a blessedly tart, not at all cloying, complement of honey-whole grain mustard sauce that would have made a soggy mess of a normal flour coating could not compromise this crust's crunch.
Oddly the most screwed-up entrée of all was the simplest: boiled stone crabs, which at Fico are offered only in season, which it still is. Fresh, not frozen, equals foolproof, right? Not if the claws are served warm. As every Miamian has known since Joe Weiss (the Joe of Joe's Stone Crab) first discovered the secret sometime around 1920, the meat of this particular crab, so firm yet tender and supersweet when chilled, is invariably a stringy, dry disappointment hot out of the pot, as our order of jumbos (the largest of the three sizes Fico's sells) was. The stony shells, which Damon Runyon once described as "harder than a landlord's heart," were only partially cracked; the entire third joint of each claw hadn't been whacked, meaning, since Fico hadn't provided tabletop tactical nuclear devices, the crabmeat inside these armored segments was inaccessible. A pound of medium claws ordered as take-out on our next visit did come cold. They also came totally uncracked. The good news: The seven mediums looked as large as our five previous jumbos (stone-crab sizing is not legally regulated), making them, at only $9.95 per pound, a fantastic deal, even figuring in the cost of the dynamite.
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