Dead Fish Don't Swim
Let's pull our heads out of the sand for just a minute, shall we?
Let's rip the rose-colored glasses from our mugs and contemplate clear-eyed and sober the vast expanse of endless blue, that parallel universe that exists right at our doorstep, home to our weird and watery neighbors: the fish.
Our good neighbors are not doing so hot lately. Or maybe that's the wrong way to put it they're hot, all right. The temperature's rising; it isn't surprising: Reasonable people predict that our inland and coastal fisheries are in deep potential doodoo as the globe warms. Coral reefs are bleaching out, salinity is increasing you know the drill. A new study from the National Resources Defense Council has found that neither are things looking particularly bright for our freshwater friends. "Global warming is likely to spur the disappearance of trout and salmon from as much as 18 to 38 percent of their current habitat by the year 2090," goes the good news. No problem, right? We'll be happily ensconced in our heavenly palaces by then, with our virgins and jeroboams of Dom Perignon.
I figure we need to insert fingers firmly in ears, sing "la la la," and get all the seafood we can while the gettin's good. And if we're going out to blow our wad at a fancy new fish joint, we're not planning to tuck in with Mother Jones and her Birkenstock-clad band of eco-freaks sitting across the table. We hope we've invited, instead, somebody pretty and amusing, someone who hasn't just finished reading The End of Nature or the PMCC Rockfish Report.
It's safe to say that most of the diners on a recent evening at Fish, the chic new restaurant opened two months ago by Jack Jackson and family (who also own Jackson's Steak House), don't pore over governmental fishery reports. There were tables full of boiler-room types holding impromptu sales meetings ("OK guys, what makes for a smart salesperson?"). There were bevies of marketing ladies celebrating their birthdays. There were crotchety old captains of industry with second wives, demanding menu tours; and there were middle-aged tourists consulting at length with the sommelier. You can bet that none of them was feeling much guilt about ordering the $30 "Snapper en Papillote."
Fish has the look of a place to indulge oneself, and I already had my eye on the $39 lobster thermidor. This is a thoroughly beautiful restaurant, glittering like mackerel in what is otherwise one of the ugliest areas of Fort Lauderdale the high-rise condo and hotelville around the 17th Street Causeway, a scary six-lane highway rampaging down its middle. It's like some surreal, South Florida version of Riyadh. You know there's water around somewhere, but you'd need a divining rod to find it. It's an optimistic move to put a high-end seafood place here (with 3030 Ocean within spitting distance), but Gina DeSouza, Jackson's girlfriend, has done a smart, elegant job with the interior design. Jackson spent more than $1.5 million to refurbish the space where Stilleto's used to be; it took a year and a half to knock everything down, put up curving walls and a glass-fronted, walk-in wine room, hang inverted white parasols and pale, square ceiling fixtures, and get the juice flowing in the waterfall behind the bar. Pretty! So many nice touches to the décor: The high backs on the wooden dining chairs act as semiscreens, providing privacy from your too-close neighbors. Soothing hues of beiges and whites. A wall of flickering faux candles. The dark wood bar and the luscious wine bottles stacked in their nooks behind pristine glass. Everything sparkles. I can't imagine what their cleaning bill must be.
The servers match the décor: beautiful girls in black, tossing glossy ponytails over slender, bare shoulders. The nubile siren who brought my martini was nervous and spilled it. Most of these lovelies were probably not hired based on their vast experience in the food-service industry, although our main waitress was knowledgeable, eager to discuss the menu, and as unruffled as a clear lake on a windless day. She walked us through the various possibilities and warned us off the duds with subtlety and tact, for which I am grateful.
Alex Dziurzynski is executive chef; he's overseeing Jackson's at the same time. Steve LaBiner, who owned the old Hobo's Fish Joint, had been running the kitchen, but "things didn't work out," according to Jackson's daughter Nicole Allison (Allison manages the restaurant; her husband, Trace, is maître d'). How I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall during that exit interview. LaBiner closed Hobo's reportedly due to "personal problems," worked briefly at Michael Collins on South Beach, then turned up for his aborted stint at Fish. I can't tell you if it's LaBiner or Dziurzynski who's responsible for bizarre entrées like a dish of shrimp, lobster, and scallops with pappardelle noodles tossed with banana, mango, coconut flakes, papaya, and chopped macadamia nuts and "enhanced" with Amaretto "nage." But somebody was getting high in the kitchen the day they dreamed up that idea.
"It's very sweet," our server told us diplomatically. I should think so. No misguided sense of duty was going to persuade me to sample it. Most of the fish on the menu tuna, grouper, wahoo, monkfish, mahi, snapper, swordfish, Chilean sea bass, and halibut is served simply grilled, a grand idea, priced from $25 for mahi to $36 for sea bass.
But we wanted to put the chef through his paces. Thus, we decided on a crabmeat cocktail ($15) and a plate of fried oysters ($13); a beet and arugula salad with goat cheese ($12); the luxurious lobster thermidor ($39), and mahi in the chef's tomato Citron preparation ($26 for the mahi, $5 for the chef's additions). These chef's additions range in price and style from the relatively modest to an asparagus lobster topping that tacks on an additional $12. So if you order, for example, black grouper ($32) with the chef's rock shrimp sauce ($9) and a side of sautéed baby spinach ($7), well, you do the math; I can't bear to.
I'm sorry, but these prices are hallucinatory. I can get a magnificent plate of black grouper right down the street at 3030 Ocean for $29, and the chef there, Dean Max, will throw in his "special preparation," including the vegetables, for free. Since when do we have to pay extra to access the chef's expertise? Ready folks? Let's do the hustle!
Our crab cocktail was as good as it gets: cold chunks of crab with a squeeze of lemon, to dip in a standard tartar or horseradish cocktail sauce. There's never enough of this stuff to suit me; it must cost its weight in gold. Fried oysters were another matter. Any corner diner in New Orleans can turn out a succulent fried oyster, but Fish is flummoxed by the notion. Thin, juiceless shellfish had been coated in a hardened, gritty, herb-and-breadcrumb crust and served lukewarm with cold mango-papaya salsa. Think of the savory, pudding-like interior and light-as-feathers coating of a real fried oyster and weep.
Our $12 beet salad arrived, arugula swimming in another too-sweet bath of balsamic vinegar with two red and yellow beets. These tasted pickled rather than roasted they were missing the usual earthiness. The elements of a wonderful salad were all here: sharp goat cheese (the disk had been fried), peppery arugula, and musky beets, but somehow the salad failed to come together. It was like inviting a bunch of interesting people to a dinner party that never clicks.
We quaffed our $34 bottle of Sonoma Cutrer Chardonnay, ferried over by the wine steward whenever our glasses looked thirsty (did I say the service here is impeccable?). Lobster thermidor and mahi arrived. Thermidor is a retro, big-mouthed, flirty, feminine dish Carol Channing on a plate. Chunks of lobster are tossed around with béchamel sauce (cream, egg yolks, milk, butter, parmesan, flour, etc.), cubes of French bread, and lots of delicious tarragon, stuffed back into the shell, and baked with another coating of parmesan. Fish's version is scrumptious, except for the shards of lobster shell that you're likely to crunch down on along with a cream-laden hunk of baked bread. The lobster itself is buttery and muscular, mouth-filling, and there's plenty of it. Everyone with an income of six figures should eat lobster thermidor at least once a month.
The mahi, though, was another bust. The five-dollar extra sauce was a waste of our hard-earned dough. Tomato, onion, orange, lemon, lime, and Citron vodka, the latter lending the mix a degree of harshness it didn't need and the lemon and lime so faint as to provide no sour balance. But the mahi was a gorgeous piece of fish, thick, white, and flaky. We wished we'd left well enough alone and just ordered it grilled.
If you plan to eat at Fish, skip the sauce and go for one of our piscine friends just plainly grilled. Keep your meal as simple as possible, out of respect to these beleaguered animals. Don't be seduced by the "mélange" and the "hollandaise," the "banana rum sauce" and the dishes of $8 vegetables this is all smoke and mirrors. A glass or bottle of wine from their very good list, a glistening slab of snapper with lemon, and you've got a meal.
And you might as well go somewhere else for dessert, while you're at it. Our thick square of $8 key lime pie needed more lime and less sugar what's up with this kitchen's fear of tart flavors? The operative word here is lime, folks. In the end, eating at Fish feels a little like an aborted one-night stand. She was such a babe. But once you got her back to your pad, the talk felt empty, the caresses forced.
And then she took all your cash for the cab ride home.
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