Two if by Sea


The sun streams through a west window, highlighting contemporary wicker furniture and walls that could use a paint job. Lounging on the couch and watching early Eighties classic The Breakfast Club, a RESTAURANT CRITIC reaches lazily for the phone. Without looking at the numbers, she punches three buttons in quick succession and holds the receiver to her ear.

BellSouth. What city?

Coral Gables.

What listing?

Fishbone Grille.

Thank you.

The critic waits for the phone number to be played. She appears mildly surprised when an OPERATOR cuts in on the line.

Have you been there yet?

Uh, no, not yet. I was thinking about going tonight.

Do you happen to know if it's the same owners as the Fishbone Grille downtown?

Actually, it is the same owners, Patrick Gleber and Kevin Rusk, who also own Tobacco Road.

Great! Fishbone is one of my favorite restaurants.

Mine too.

Really? Well, have a good meal. Here's the number.

The above scenario really did happen. I'm not sure why the Grille is such a story starter. Perhaps it's the Caribbean/Asian-accented fare, quickly cooked and generously served. Or the reasonable prices. Or maybe that the restaurant seems emblematic of Miami's growing and eclectic downtown scene: The first location, which anchors the corner of the block that also houses Tobacco Road, opened in 1990 as a grilled chicken offshoot of that venerable bar, the Wishbone Grille. When that concept didn't take off -- there wasn't enough space for a drive-through, says Gleber -- the partners switched to fish, particularly fresh-caught South Florida varieties, whereupon the place became an innovative success.

I'm an admitted Fishbone fanatic, but unlike most of the folks who frequent it, I like the restaurant for more than lunch, when business really hops. I consider it a quality dinner destination: At night the atmosphere mellows, and service, which can be brusque during peak daylight hours, takes on a more soothing tone. And I especially admire Gleber's intentions when it comes to wine. Not only do he and general manager/investor Michael Daly avail themselves of seven different distributors (most restaurants have just one), they have an admirable -- especially around these parts -- pricing policy. Lower-priced bottles are marked up only double the wholesale cost, plus liquor tax. If the cost exceeds twenty bucks wholesale, a wine is marked up only an additional fifteen dollars. His intent, says Gleber, is not to build a great cellar or to educate the public about unusual vintages; he just wants to offer average citizens something we may not be able to afford at other places. He carries this philosophy over from Tobacco Road, where he often runs specials on microbrewed beers and obscure single-malt scotches, turning little profit but building loyalty.

I've already paid several visits to the Fishbone Grille's six-week-old second location in Coral Gables, across from the University of Miami campus, where the owners have transformed cheesy into chic: Fishbone Grille 2 is attached to a Howard Johnson motel, occupying what was formerly an unmemorable coffee shop. Dinerish qualities remain -- and appealingly so. In particular, the green terrazzo floor is an original (found under a rug, a layer of linoleum, and another of tile). The long narrow room, lined with booths upholstered in green vinyl to accent the floor and trimmed with blond wood, widens toward the back, where a second dining room accommodates bigger tables, for a total of about 130 seats (not including high chairs, of which there seem to be plenty, to judge from the number of pint-size occupants). But clean white walls, dropped spotlights, and a gleaming open kitchen disguise the building's history. If you were to approach this Fishbone from the south and didn't see the motel connection, you'd never guess.

The neighborhood mob that has already found the restaurant without my help jams the place from the minute it opens for dinner. Reservations are an option, but only for parties of six or more, and the crowds can cause some problems: On one visit main courses took an hour to appear. Also, because the owners buy relatively small amounts of fresh seafood daily, specials and fresh-caught fish from the blackboard list may run out. Of course, I'd rather have to make a new choice than be served something old and stinky. And unlike the downtown location, where special starters and main courses are inscribed on the blackboard, here they're all a permanent part of the printed menu. As a result, the Coral Gables Fishbone advertises only raw-bar appetizers (such as Malpeque oysters and Bahamian conch salad) via the blackboard on weekend nights. When they sell out, you're likely to see "Sorry" written after them.  

We were disappointed in one of the specials, peel-and-eat shrimp. Steamed in coconut milk and lemon grass, the head-on shrimp were very small and served chilled (not having been informed otherwise, we'd assumed they'd be warm). They had a very faint flavor, requiring us to request cocktail sauce. But lack of zest was a quibble. The shrimp were overcooked and mushy -- so much so that their puniness was a comparative blessing. Some guests of mine who hail from Louisiana compared them to crawfish: big effort, small mouthful.

A grilled vegetable salad was also mildly uninspiring. Red onions, yellow squash, red bell peppers, and zucchini, all marked from the grill, all exhibited an excellent smoky aroma and flavor. The mixture of pink lentils and quinoa that topped it, interspersed with juicy chopped raw tomatoes, was perfectly cooked. The problem lay in the lack of piquancy: This cold platter needs a vinaigrette of some sort to give it punch.

Smoked fish mousse did have that extra zing. Pink from salmon and fluffy from whipped cream cheese, this delicious spread was molded over romaine lettuce and sliced tomatoes, and garnished with rings of red onion and vinegary capers. Another starter, Peruvian ceviche, was fabulous too, succulent hunks of grouper marinated with lime juice, ginger, cilantro, and chilies, accented with red onion and dished up on a froth of romaine.

The best of the cold appetizers carried a decidedly Asian flair. Vietnamese spring rolls were rice paper packages stuffed with lettuce, rice noodles, and pink Gulf shrimp. A tasty, lime-infused nuoc cham, fermented fish sauce, was a welcome enhancement.

A chowder of conch, roasted corn, and smoked chilies took us to the Southwest. Served in a coffee mug (hello HoJo!), the zesty stock was rich with minced carrots, celery, and onions, and chunky with white potatoes and conch. Overly roasted corn was a slight flaw, as the dark nuggets were a little too chewy.

Lobster fritters were a wonderful hot appetizer, four crunchy nuggets rife with Maine lobster meat. Delicately browned from the deep fryer, these greaseless fritters were ideal dipped in a sweet passion fruit condiment that came alongside. These were particularly good when followed up with wedges of the Fishbone's signature homemade crumbly corn bread, a justifiably famous jalapeno-spiked treat. Gleber expressed some consternation to me over the difference between his downtown and Gables clientele -- "I didn't realize we'd have so many babies here" -- but after watching Kathryn, the grinning nine-month-old I took to dinner one night, down an entire slice of corn bread, I can assure him he has no worries. Both the corn bread and a crisp romaine salad accented with red cabbage, shredded carrots, chicory, and tomatoes accompany main courses. Either of the two homemade vinaigrettes, tomato-basil or honey Dijon, would be a snappy choice.

From the aforementioned fresh-caught list, which included yellowfin tuna, cobia, whole Keys yellowtail snapper, and Chilean salmon, we picked the salmon, a good-size fillet served with white rice and a choice of black beans, oven-roasted sweet potatoes, pigeon pea rice, mango chutney, yuca with mojo, vegetable of the day, or cole slaw as a side dish. The Cuban-style black beans were firm and rich, a zesty partner for the mellow fish, which we requested grilled. Other options of fish preparation are sauteed, blackened, a la francaise (in a fish-stock bechamel sauce), a la nage (poached and topped with julienned vegetables), and a la meuniere. We liked this last method, a wash of egg, lemon, and butter, for a chunk of red grouper. The thick fillet was sealed by the egg coating, steaming and juicy, and was delightful with the separate grains of beautifully cooked white rice. The yuca side dish, unfortunately, was too acidic and unpleasantly soapy.

I always find myself indecisive when faced with an array of fresh seafood choices, so I tend to order those dishes that offer a variety. Seafood pasta was a tasty toss of sea scallops, shrimp, steamers, mussels, rings of squid, and chunks of salmon. Sauteed in a light tomato sauce scented with basil, the seafood was great textural contrast to a nest of al dente linguine. But it was another entree where variety is key, cioppino, that got my vote for best dish. The same variety of seafood that topped the pasta was instead soaking in a rich tomato-fish broth. Pan-roasting the seafood first with garlic and shallots provided an intense, smoky flavor; a swirl of green sauce (a puree of blended parsley, garlic, and olive oil), a Portuguese touch, was an additional flavor booster.

I used to maintain that you can enjoy Fishbone Grille even if you don't like fish, but I'm no longer sure that's the case. This revised opinion is based on an encounter with a bone-dry skinless chicken breast on a French roll with lettuce, tomato, onion, and tangy cole slaw. And on a skirmish with a burned skirt steak that had been coated in adobo and then grilled to a literal crisp. The side dishes, scooped-out baked sweet potatoes (sans skin) and sweet corn relish (a blend of corn, green bell peppers, and cilantro), were appetizing but couldn't outpace the overdone meat.  

Key lime pie with a ginger-snap crust or cheesecake with macerated berries give a meal here a sweet finish. I'm also partial to the Fishbone's bread pudding, loaded with raisins and drowning in melting vanilla bean ice cream.

Another odd coincidence had me chuckling recently: Fishbone Grille's chef, David Bracha, was an owner of one of my favorite restaurants (before it folded) on South Beach. Named for its address on Washington Avenue, the erstwhile eatery was called 411. I'd dial up BellSouth and relay that tidbit to the operator, but I didn't catch her name.

Fishbone Grille
1450 S Dixie Hwy, Coral Gables; 668-3033. Lunch Monday -- Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Dinner nightly from 5:00 to 10:00 p.m. (Friday and Saturday until 11:00 p.m.)

Smoked fish mousse
Vietnamese spring rolls
Seafood pasta
Bread pudding

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