Fish Fulfillment

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I was born into a family of suburban fishermen. On weekends, vacations, and holidays while I was growing up, my father, brother, and sister liked nothing better than to drop a line into the water. They were pretty good at it, too. Show them a fast-running stream and they'd show you a string of brook trout. Send them out on a lake and they'd drag bass after bass from underneath the lily pads. Prop them on the deck of a seagoing vessel and they'd haul up flounder and fluke galore. They claimed it was relaxing.

Then there was me, the youngest of the bunch and the most inept. Fast-running streams made me feel like wetting my pants. When I fished under lily pads, I caught lily pads. And boats in general ... well, let's just say I've always been prone to motion sickness. The last time I enjoyed fishing was when I was four years old, and I have the snapshot to prove it: me standing about two feet tall wearing a sun dress and proudly displaying a two-inch sunfish it had taken me hours to hook.

Though my mother dealt gamely with dozens of perch too small to do anything with but make soup, and freezers full of bluefish steaks (in the days when bluefish -- a large, fighting member of the mackerel family -- was still considered inedible), she hated fishing too, and when I grew old enough to voice my objections to the sport, I stayed home with her. While the rest of the clan traipsed off to the Thousand Islands to rough it with the pike, Mom and I gorged on restaurant food. Chinese, Italian, Jewish delicatessen. And seafood. Always my mentor, Mom taught me the landlubber's solution to the catch-of-the-day dilemma: You order it.

Catch of the Day Raw Bar and Grill
1050 N. Le Jeune Rd.; 448-7810. Open daily from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 a.m.
The interior, emphasizing warped wood floors and seaside souvenirs, defies the traffic-clogged airport-environs setting of this rustic mariner's shack. And the great Cuban-influenced seafood defies the vague air of decay that permeates the building -- there's nothing the least bit old about the fresh grouper and snapper served here.

I always look for conch fritters like these but seldom find them. Deep-fried nuggets reminiscent of potato pancakes were served steaming hot, their moist, puffy insides flecked with green pepper and packed with more conch than batter. Dunk one in the house-mixed, horseradish-endowed cocktail sauce, take a bite, and be transported to Key West. If you want to travel farther south in your imagination, try the delicious lobster empanada, whose potato-and-shellfish filling provides a perfect textural foil for the turnover's light, flaky crust. A host of other appetizers, including fried calamari, fish fingers, fried shrimp, and chicken wings, tempts the happy-hour appetite, but the empanada is essential to the Catch experience.

Also mandatory is the soup of the day, usually some form of chowder. We savored the saffron-rich aroma of a hearty grouper soup for a moment before inhaling it. Flaky fish, hunks of potato, and white rice make this filling starter a significant prelude to a meal rounded out with fish or shrimp ceviche, clams, or oysters from the raw bar.

Main courses such as pescador linguine a la marinara, shrimp scampi, paella, and even palomilla steak might be appropriate for dinner, but the lunch staple is definitely the fish sandwich. Coated in a light egg batter and grilled or fried to a flaky finish, the snapper was delicate and sweet, sandwiched on a roll with lettuce, tomato, and onions, and accompanied by crisp French fries.

Catch is a come-as-you-are kind of place, and the attitude toward cleaning up can be just as casual. Our waitress swept the remains of our lunch from the table onto the floor, where deep grooves threaten to cradle debris for eternity. One wonders how hard it would be to utilize a bus bucket -- after all, if fish can be caught daily, so can crumbs.

6480 SW Eighth St.; 261-2406. Open daily from noon to 11:00 p.m.
Named after the popular seaside Cuban restaurant El Covadonga and rigged out in shipboard gear (ropes, lanterns, and casks abound, as do waiters in captain's uniforms), this fine seafood restaurant could just about set sail. You almost expect the creaking of the hull and the tang of salt air. Instead you get the horns and exhaust from Eighth Street and, if you go on a Sunday, a guitarist backed by an electronic drumbeat singing "La Bamba" and "Macarena."

You also get one of the best Cuban meals in town. Pricier and more upscale than most, the menu features seafood almost exclusively, though some steaks and chops are available for the fishophobic. Clams in green sauce were an excellent example of what the kitchen does with shellfish. This starter comprised a half-dozen exquisitely fresh large clams doused with a savory, buttery sauce and served in the shell. Dotted with parsley and garlic, the sauce was more like a broth, perfect to sop up with slices of Cuban bread. Another well-prepared appetizer, shrimp in garlic sauce, was presented sizzling in a terra cotta bowl, the five plump shrimp still cooking on the bed of browned garlic. The only drawback was waiting until it cooled down enough to eat it.

Fish entrees include sea bass served in green sauce or breaded, and fried whole snapper. But we opted for an all-mollusk meal and ordered stuffed calamari. This was a pleasant surprise, filled not with the typical crab-flecked breadcrumbs but with slices of mild ham. About ten times thicker than the whole baby squid that encased them, the chunks of ham steak were a great textural contrast. The squid themselves, dressed with a rich brown sauce and accompanied by a side of buttered white rice, were remarkably tender, easily cut with a fork.

For parties of two or more who can agree on what they want to eat, arroz con mariscos (rice with seafood) and paella Covadonga (seafood and chicken with yellow rice) are tempting. In the individual-portion category, zarzuela de mariscos was a capable stand-in. Smothered in a smooth tomato sauce flavored with sauteed green bell peppers and onions and lightened with butter, a Florida lobster tail, shrimp, rings of calamari, bay scallops, and chunks of sea bass were spooned out at the table from a metal casserole dish over a scoop of white rice. Each morsel was delectable, the succulent seafoods adding their essence to the sauce. A fabulous dish, in a restaurant that has earned its spars and stripes.

East Coast Fisheries
360 W. Flagler St.; 372-1300. Open daily from 11:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.
You don't have to be a scholar of fish anatomy to dine in this picturesque perch overlooking the Miami River, though it might help -- grouper cheeks and throats (not the actual throat, but the sweet little pocket of flesh between head and body) as well as snapper wings (similar to throats) are all offered deep-fried. Florida lobster is another specialty of the house, which decorwise harks back to colonial seafaring days. So are stone crab claws, king crab legs, jumbo shrimp, sea scallops, and a host of fishes, local and otherwise, in fillets and steaks.

We rocked back in our captain's chairs and partook of the tasty complimentary mahi-mahi dip -- baked fish ground like tuna salad and lightly seasoned -- served with crisp croutons. She-crab soup, a creamy blend of blue crab, cream, and sherry, was also delicious, with a peppery lilt. The surface of this bisque formed a skin within seconds, though, leading us to believe it was the bottom of the barrel and had been subjected to repeated reheatings.

For main courses, we tucked into the baked stuffed jumbo shrimp (also available in medium and colossal sizes). Firm and succulent, these eight beauties had ostensibly been stuffed with artichoke and crab; the mixture had an appealing flavor that was redolent of red bell peppers but seemed to be minus the artichoke. In addition, the stuffing was rendered too wet by a dark and oily lemon-butter sauce that lacked a citrus tang. Blackened pompano was fresh and generous, four flaky fillets pulled straight from the sea. The spice rub added depth to the fish, but not piquancy. Both these entrees were accompanied by a choice of French fries or yellow rice, as well as carrots, zucchini, and summer squash that had been sauteed in butter too long. A side of creamed spinach was awful: sandy, bitter, and ancient. The waitress, I now recall, made a face when we ordered it but didn't advise us to steer clear. She probably knew the spinach was on its way out and didn't charge us for it.

In the year 2000, East Coast Fisheries will be 75 and so, apparently, will some of its waitstaff. Our particular server was hard of hearing, which wouldn't have been so bad had she not also been cantankerous. I know "French fries" and "yellow rice" rhyme, but shouting one's choice three times is an irritating method of relaying information. It's likewise frustrating when you can't get across that you want balsamic vinaigrette on your mixed baby greens, not balsamic vinegar and oil.

That vinegar, by the way, was presented in a cruet so grubby I wouldn't have been surprised to learn that it had last been washed in 1925, when the restaurant opened; and the salad had a couple of rotten leaves in it. Riverside, the soon-to-be-revitalized area along the banks of the grimy Miami waterway, is a new concept. The landmark East Coast Fisheries should take care it isn't viewed as an old one.

Fishbone Grille
650 S. Miami Ave.; 530-1915. Open weekdays from 11:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.; Friday until 11:00. Open Saturday from 5:30 to 11:00 p.m.

I simply cannot talk fish in this town without tipping a fin to the Grille, and my last stop at this busy, funky downtown eatery left me with absolutely no bones to pick.

Sit under the mermaid mural and peruse the blackboard, which always yields a few inventive specials, such as a salad of teriyaki shrimp and soba noodles. This light but filling lunch was a cool, spicy combination, buckwheat noodles interlaced with scallions and red and green bell peppers. The sesame-and-hot-pepper oil dressing vied for dominance over the sweet teriyaki sauce painted on the half-dozen plump jumbo shrimp.

The same board lists the day's fresh fish, which commonly include dolphin, tuna, and grouper prepared any way you like. Chefs give a fry-cook performance in the open tiled kitchen, flinging out the grilled, blackened, or sauteed fish mere moments after they've been ordered. Thanks to a waiter's informed recommendation, we devoured an excellent piece of sea bass francaise. The thick fillet was juicy and hot in its greaseless coating, having been washed in garlic and egg, dipped in flour, then fried in clarified butter. Served over white rice, the sea bass was accompanied by a side of whole black beans garnished with chopped red onion. A house salad comprising crunchy romaine and red cabbage topped with honey vinaigrette, plus the Grille's justly famous jalapeno cornbread (both of which are included in the price of all entrees), make fish orders a challenge to members of the clean-plate club.

In case fish ain't your dish, the Grille bakes mighty good pizzas. We crunched through a whole-wheat crust spread with herbed goat cheese, caramelized onions, leaf spinach sauteed with garlic, and roasted pine nuts. And dessert carries not a whiff of the sea, though it can be aromatic: Chocolate decadence, a smooth fudgy torte, was perched on rich coffee-flavor caramel and covered with real whipped cream.

Mike Gordon Seafood Restaurant
1201 NE 79th St.; 751-4429. Open daily from noon to 10:00 p.m.
Applied to a restaurant, the word institution is enough to give me indigestion. I generally avoid places that are referred to as such. Yet that's exactly what Mike Gordon is -- a veritable institution that has survived a debilitating hurricane in 1965, a destructive fire in 1968, and the 1993 passing of its namesake founder. And I don't avoid it, for several reasons: the genteel seafood house atmosphere; the picture windows overlooking Biscayne Bay, where accommodating tarpon swarm in the water and pelicans perch on pilings, all of them looking for scraps; the saltwater tanks holding Maine lobster; and the significantly fresh local catches. Mike Gordon dubs itself "a touch of Cape Cod on Biscayne Bay," and though the restaurant opened in 1946 as a bait shop that expanded to serve local fish and Florida lobster, in 1996 that's no lie.

Oyster stew is available made with milk or with half-and-half; we went for the thinner version, which self-respecting Mainers and Cape Codders swear by. This large bowl featured six satiny oysters, large enough to pillow over the edges of the soup spoon. The milky broth, pooling with butter, was bland and unsatisfying, even after having been dosed with a huge quantity of salt and pepper. What it really needed was an infusion of oyster liquor and a dash each of Worcestershire sauce and sherry. Another northeastern favorite, an appetizer of steamed littlenecks, fared better. These flavorful little nuggets were delicious dipped in drawn butter.

Dungeness crab, a special of the day, took us from East to West. A good-size portion, the two clusters of crab (four legs and a section of the body on each) were soft-shelled and easily cracked. We dipped the meat from these in butter, though the rich texture of the flesh hardly required it. They could have used some more steaming, however: We were disappointed to encounter several still-defrosting spots.

Clearly, black grouper had not ever been frozen. The thick fillet, served grilled on a toasted bun, was juicy and hearty and was complimented by a delicious tartar sauce. Cole slaw stocked with celery seed, and a side of broccoli, brightened up the plate. (French fries, or yellow rice enlivened by chick peas and bits of bell pepper, are options for those allergic to vitamins.)

For dessert, homemade key lime pie is a quivery, high-meringue version.

Tani Guchi's Place
2224 NE 123rd St., North Miami; 892-6744. Lunch Monday -- Friday from 11:45 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner Monday -- Saturday from 6:00 to 11:00 p.m. (Friday and Saturday until midnight), and Sunday from 5:00 to 10:00 p.m.

Every staff member shouts "Hi!" when you walk into this friendly neighborhood joint. Some of the customers do too; most of the people who dine here seem to be regulars, known to the waiters as well as to each other. The reason for this familiarity is obvious. Celebrating six years in this Sans Souci Plaza East location, Tani Guchi's is the premier Japanese restaurant in North Miami.

Part of what makes the Place so compelling is its daily list of fresh fish preparations. We ordered a calamari appetizer from the special board, and it was fantastic, rings of squid coated in light teriyaki sauce and covered with sauteed mushrooms sliced thin as lace. Sections of portobello mushrooms also capped the calamari, which was supple and plentiful.

Gleaned from the written menu, an unexpectedly large portion of shrimp tempura was another satisfying starter. Two shrimp coated in a fluffy, bubbled tempura batter were stunningly fresh and grease-free. Hefty slices of sweet potato and zucchini, plus a shredded onion-and-carrot fritter, gave body to the dish, while a side of dipping sauce garnished with freshly grated ginger gave it flavor. We asked our server for the secret to this tempting tempura, and she told us it was the degree of heat to which the oil was subjected, a temperature that can only be achieved on a gas stove.

A main course special, tuna sauteed with vegetables, was the best cooked dish I've had in a Japanese restaurant. Our waitress described this as steaklike medallions cooked medium-rare. She got two out of three. These were steaklike, juicy and hearty, and they were a beautiful sunset-red. But three gigantic sections of tuna steak could hardly be deemed mere medallions. Marinated grilled eggplant and zucchini, plus a pile of sauteed shredded cabbage and carrots, were heaped atop the tuna. A side of sticky white rice, a bowl of miso soup, and a serving of crisp house salad with sweet ginger dressing made this monstrous meal so enticing that we felt sad and guilty for being unable to finish.

Of course, the truest test of any Japanese restaurant is the quality of its sushi and sashimi. As the Tani Guchi menu states, sometimes the best way to cook a fish is not to cook it. And the restaurant rose to the occasion, serving a beautifully designed bowl of churashi (mixed sashimi over mounds of vinegared rice). A veritable color wheel, this platter contained pieces of tuna, snapper, shrimp, salmon, conch, omelet, a fan of thinly sliced cucumber, shreds of seaweed, and two sections each of California roll (crab and avocado) and tekka roll (tuna).

Pie and ice cream for dessert becomes exotic when the pie is sweet-potato-pecan and the ice cream azuki bean or fresh ginger. Consider yourself forewarned: The staff considers it an insult if you don't indulge. Unless, of course, you've overordered, which is so easy to do here, and walk to the door holding your belly. "Bye!" everybody yells as you waddle away. "Come back!"

Gimme a day or so. I need to digest.

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