Restaurant Reviews

Something Fishy

Even if a character in the 1989 movie When Harry Met Sally hadn't declared something about restaurants being akin to theaters, the analogy would have found its way into the dining public's consciousness sooner or later. That's largely because, as with most cliches, it's rooted in truth. Judith Stocks, a Sun-Sentinel food writer, is the latest to conjure the comparison. "At a well-run restaurant, the dining floor is set. The waitstaff is rehearsed. The audience eagerly awaits fulfillment," she enthused recently, going on to analyze every aspect of a restaurant from its "curtain" (the staff's telephone demeanor), to its "playbill" (menu), which "is one of the first character references a restaurant offers."

If you apply this thinking to Big Fish Mayaimi, you just might find yourself dining in the theater of the absurd. Located near downtown on the south bank of the Miami River, the hard-to-find indoor/outdoor restaurant features a "tri-unicorn" sculpture -- a sheep standing on a pig, which in turn stands on a cow -- in its courtyard. (This new piece replaces a gigantic shoe that converts into a gondola when its mirrored heel is detached.) Sometimes the waitstaff can be insufficiently rehearsed, as on a recent Friday evening when four different employees asked me if I had a reservation, which was kind of beside the point when the 45 or so seats outside on the dock were empty and remained so throughout my meal. Telephone demeanor can be sweet and in Spanish or curt and in Spanish, depending on who answers. And the menus, those all-important "character references," are shaped and colored like tongues that have suffered a nuclear accident.

Primary set designer for Big Fish Mayaimi is Spanish artist Antoni Miralda, who puts the "character" in "character reference." Something of a local Christo, he arranges bizarre artistic stunts, one of which joined the Statue of Liberty and a statue of Christopher Columbus (located in Barcelona Harbor) in holy-hell matrimony. (I'd love to have been at that wedding feast: "Give us your tired, your hungry, your Indian spices....")

The big shoe and the stack of livestock are mementos of some of Miralda's other projects; he has also indulged his sense of whimsy at Big Fish Mayaimi by constructing a fence of tires. Then there's his color scheme for the place: neon pink inside, with blue and aqua exterior walls. So it should come as no shock that Miralda and his wife/co-proprietor Montse Guillen don't want you to think of Big Fish Mayaimi as merely a restaurant. Nor do they want you to pretend it's a theater. (Pay attention: This is where the tongues come in.) Miralda and Guillen envision Big Fish Mayaimi as a work of art. As Miralda explained to New Times writer Judy Cantor, the tongue represents the "landscape of Miami, which is a series of different tongues.... The tongue nourishes us and it allows us to express ourselves, to communicate with other foreign tongues." Yup, that's Miami, all right: one big tongue.

Miralda has owned two other gallery-cum-restaurants. The first was in the early Seventies with wife numero uno Dorothee Selz, whom he met in Paris and with whom he fashioned edible objets. He opened the second, El Internacional, in New York City in the early Eighties with Guillen, who had also owned a restaurant in Barcelona; they met at the latter approximately twenty years ago, and he asked her to bake 1000 loaves of bread with flutes in them. She agreed. They soon left Spain for New York, then moved to Miami in the early Nineties. Here she has cooked at the now-defunct Shabeen Cookshack, an artfully created Jamaican "dive" -- the translation of shabeen -- that like Big Fish Mayaimi was better known for its decor than its food. (Mayaimi is the Tequesta Indians' name for this area, meaning "big water." The site of the restaurant was once a burial ground.)

Tourists like Big Fish because it's one of the few spots in the city where, in addition to scanning the river for manatee and admiring the occasional great blue heron, you can truly dine right on the water. If you're able to ignore the Metrorail a few blocks to the west and the Brickell Avenue drawbridge a hundred meters to the right ... and if you're lucky enough to dine before airplanes start taking off from MIA (Big Fish is directly under the nighttime flight path) but after horn-blowing tugboats have finished for the day ... and if passengers on the dinghy Praise the Lord! don't toss fish guts to a flock of squealing seagulls and pigeons (and above them, turkey vultures; Miralda should sculpt this scene for his courtyard), then you just might enjoy a really peaceful meal on the narrow dock under a corrugated metal overhang. (Approximately 50 people can be accommodated at indoor tables.)

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick