Right off the bat, we have a confession: We never ate at the former Rusty Pelican before the recent remodeling. We feared it would be musty inside and found it an ordeal to trek out to Virginia Key. Also, the menu didn't look any more appealing than a Ruby Tuesday's. But we've already been to Rusty Pelican once since our "first bite," and we're making plans to head there again. Here's why.
Though we can't say we're entirely smitten with the décor, at least it's lacking anything tacky-nautical or overbearingly South Beach-chic. The steel and glass wine cellar just behind the hostess stand is a striking, welcoming sight, but the rest of the restaurant is pretty nondescript (and mildew-free -- yippee!). Kudos to the designer, though, for remembering why people flock to the Pelican in the first place and return often: that view! Even on a random weekday late afternoon, it's nearly impossible to find a seat near the water, but thankfully, every table seems to offer a sublime panorama.
Now on to the food. We dined with one of the restaurant's public relations reps and his wife, so the meal was gratis, but, as always, we weren't shy about sharing our opinions freely with each other and, yes, even the chef. Based on our consensus, the runaway hits of the night were (1) the sea bass ceviche ($11) in a charming can within a bowl full of shaved ice, because the flavor profile had just the right mix of tartness from the citrus marinade and sweetness from the corn and sweet potatoes; (2) the baked crabcake ($11), mostly because it was a hearty portion and, blessedly, 100 percent crab with a chipotle aioli (order extra sauce) and none of that cheap breading; (3) the filet mignon tartare "D.I.Y." ($14) with garlic shallots, parsley, capers, and quail egg (because there's nothing better than making the flavor profiles suit your tastes); and (4) the eel and foie gras dish.
Before you shriek in horror at the last, hear us out. According to our server, this dish has already become the runaway hit at the Rusty Pelican, and we know why. Not only did Gilligan do an amazing job preparing the foie, but also then the eel adds a wonderful flaky texture that perfectly complements the silky liver, and he tops the entire thing with a soy-truffle glaze that totally sets it off. Icewine gelée dots are a bonus -- they're charming to the eye and are a refreshing break from all the richness, not unlike a spoonful of sorbet. Our photos did this dish no justice, so we refrained from posting, but to hear critics who really despise gelée-anything and cringe at the mere thought of foie tell you to give it a go should be all the incentive you need.
Also nicely prepared were the pan-seared day boat scallops with saffron risotto cakes, sweet eggplant, and roasted pepper coulis ($28); lobster crudo with cucumber, piquillo peppers, and key lime dressing ($9); and the palate-cleansing Rusty salad with heirloom tomatoes, palm hearts, avocado, lotus root chips, and vanilla-jalapeño vinaigrette ($12).
One member of our group wasn't smitten with the pork belly skewers and caramelized apples in a blood-orange balsamic reduction ($8). We suspect it was because it was missing a smoky flavor and had either too much or too little of the fatty texture we expect from pork belly. The caesar salad ($9) got a lot of points for being big on presentation -- we loved the cheese crisp and edible orchid "hat" -- however, the flavors weren't wow-inducing.
The dish that made us kinda tilt our heads and play the guessing game was the poached Long Island duck breast with Swiss chard, parsnips, and chanterelles. The incredibly tender, scarlet-hued duck was somehow wrapped to look like sushi in what we thought was nori. Gilligan schooled us when he told us it was actually leaves of Swiss chard serving as the skin. We also mistakenly thought the parsnip whip was plantain, but either way we found it a strange match. Regardless, the presentation was fun and unusual, and we had never tasted duck with that unusual texture and rich flavor ($28).
On another visit, we tried the $6 Rusty slider (the chef told us the secret to its richness is using part short rib in the grind), the G.L.T. slider with beer-battered grouper and caper-lime rémoulade on a brioche bun ($7), and mini ahi tuna tacos with guacamole and fennel pollen ($8). We regretted asking for small portions after we sunk our fangs into the sliders. Nom, nom!
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Next time, full-on burger attacks will be in order. And we've also committed to trying the avocado fries, regardless of our fear that perhaps they'll be battered. Deep-fried fat sounds as threatening as a seeing a political campaign office's number show up on our caller ID. And we're sure as hell not sharing our desserts: Gilligan and his crew whipped up Miami's most divine molten chocolate cake and a key lime pie that makes the journey to Key Biscayne seem more than appealing compared to the drive down to Key West.