One summer when I was very young, my father drove us to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, famous for the hurricanes that bombard the coast there. As it turned out, August was not the best month for a visit; it rained on us for twelve days straight. Essentially a beach town in those days, Cape Hatteras offered no amusements other than sand and sea. But seafood houses abounded. So we occupied ourselves with our favorite family activity: eating.
The weather wasn't our only disappointment. The restaurants had the requisite rustic charm, all weathered wood and mellowed brass, but the fish tasted frozen, not fresh, and was usually served fried. Though my little palate was delighted with fish sticks and French fries, my mother was crushed, and we spent many evenings fruitlessly searching for an eatery that fulfilled the just-off-the-boat promise of its nautical decor.
I remember -- and appreciate -- her frustration as I scour Miami for a seafood place that suits me. Sure, fresh fish excels around here sometimes. But most often you wind up paying a premium for it, taking out a second mortgage to cover the cost of your stone crab claws and snapper fillets, which unbeknownst to you have been previously frozen A a shameful situation, given the proximity of their source. What I'm looking for is simple enough: fresh seafood served in a restaurant that practically hovers over the ocean, accompanied by a bottom-dwelling price tag. I thought North Miami's Tuna's Waterfront Grille might finally fit the bill. But just like North Carolina, it was sorry, Charlie.
In December of last year Charlie Tuna's abandoned its spot on a construction-ridden stretch of Biscayne Boulevard near FIU's north campus, took over Runaways on the Bay's space a few dozen blocks north, and changed its name to reflect the slightly more scenic surroundings. Despite its bay border, I've always considered Biscayne Boulevard a strange haven for seafood restaurants. But several eateries have survived, if not flourished -- Tark's and the Fish Peddler (which recently reopened after standing vacant for a few months) among them.
The new Tuna's takes advantage of its waterside digs with indoor and outdoor seating, a lounge with a full bar and live music, a fish market, a marina from which you can tie up or launch your boat, and a menu that is wide-ranging and not outrageously priced. Forgoing the wicker-and-cane dining room, we sat at a table on the deck overlooking the water, which was not as pleasant as we had hoped. Distracted by the very audible traffic whizzing by on the boulevard, we munched on complimentary garlic bread (greasy, stale-tasting, and overheated) as we waited for our appetizers. The list of starters is extensive, covering everything from sashimi (complete with wasabi) to fried calamari. We chose a traditional oysters Rockefeller, three large mollusks baked with spinach and topped with bechamel sauce. The oysters themselves had a strong, clean flavor, helped along by the iron zeal of the spinach. But the bechamel was overpoweringly sweet, burnt to a caramel color on top as if sugar had been sprinkled on at the last minute. Squirted with lemon, it was a face-twisting mix.
The aptly named stuffed mushroom sampler was ridiculously chintzy, two quarter-size caps filled with tiny chips of artichoke heart and a blend of unidentifiable cheeses so mild it tasted like cream. Two other small mushrooms were bursting with a nicely browned, credible crab-meat stuffing, more tender shredded crab than dry breadcrumbs. The mushrooms themselves were appropriately firm and juicy, but certainly not worth $4.95.
Chilled conch gazpacho salad was a fair-size portion that would have been better defined as ceviche A the conch was on the raw side. Chopped tomatoes, onions, peppers, and marinated, chewy conch had a bitter flavor, probably stemming from the less-than-summer-sweet green peppers. A hint of vinegar, a vigorous perfuming of lime, and a twist of pepper would have livened up this soupy salad.
In the spirit of a waterfront grill, Tuna's very appropriately offers onion rings, one of the few fried delicacies I can never resist. I like them any way I can get them A except frozen. Uniform and neatly breaded, these rings were clearly not the batter-dipped, homemade variety. Stacked on a pole like the colored plastic "doughnuts" I played with as a child, the rings floated above a moat filled on one side with an unremarkable horseradish sauce, and on the other with an unspicy salsa that tasted much like the conch gazpacho salad.
Turning to warmer climes, we tried the tropical shrimp entree, a Red Lobster kind of dish. A dozen medium-size shrimp were marinated, skewered, and grilled, then served on a bed of creole rice. The overwhelming flavor of an old grill and a liberal brushing of teriyaki sauce lent the shrimp an odd aftertaste, particularly when paired with the starch. Stewed with tomatoes, onions, and celery, the creole rice and seasonings didn't complement the shrimp.
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Broiled ginger-honey scallops proved to be another mismatch. Pearly bay scallops were teasingly tender but the ginger and honey did not combine well, overpowering the delicate shellfish. An accompanying side dish of fresh leaf spinach, sauteed with butter and garlic, was tasty but not quite the right choice for the scallops; oven-roasted potatoes, laced generously if inappropriately with rosemary, failed at every count, the large slices of baking potato nearly uncooked.
Surprisingly, we found success with the pastas on the menu. Shrimp linguine was a lovely, generous affair of large pink crustaceans, marinated artichoke hearts, and slices of oven-roasted red pepper. A garlic-and-butter sauce laced with chardonnay dressed the pasta simply and effectively.
A special that evening was not only the star of the table, it was the restaurant's namesake: a fillet of tuna gently blackened and laid over angel-hair pasta threaded with a black-olive pesto. Though once again the pairing of main course and side dish sounds, well, fishy (how 'bout some creole rice here), this time it worked. The tuna, requested medium, was a juicy pleasure, the blackening not too spicy, not too mild. The mound of angel hair was redolent with salty black olives, garlic, and just a touch of olive oil, nicely dry where it might have been greasy.
A significant delay between courses and another after we finished our entrees quelled our desire for dessert. At Tuna's, though our waiter was cheery and well-meaning, every dish was presented lukewarm at best, which in the end was exactly how we felt about the meal.