Jaws Eats Claws

Joe Rocco

To hear our waiter tell it, there's no fish shortage in South Florida. You just drop your baited line or your net full of little pylon oysters off the nearest bridge, and before you can say "abracadabra, bring me some snappa," you're hauling in pounds and pounds of the hapless buggers, glistening and gasping, enough piscine flesh to stock every sushi bar in two counties and provide leftover heads for a mansion full of stray cats.

"I've got a freezer stocked with snapper and snook and sheepshead," he tells me. "Every once in a while, I pull it all out and we do a big old fish fry."

You don't say. So how do I score an invite? I want to be friends with this guy: He's a seafood freak, and I'm thinking it's an excellent sign when the waiter at your local fish joint knows his porgy from his hog. He also knows a bunch of stuff about sharks.

Like, he knows that the two-foot nurse shark trolling the 2,000-gallon saltwater tank next to our table likes to eat lobster. Or will like to, once she grows up. So we have quite a lot in common, this fish and I, even beyond the rapacious appetite, the reputation for making sucking sounds, and the tendency to bite people who step on us. For now the shark, which I've nicknamed "Fang," is indifferent to the Florida Spiny who shares her tank. P. interruptus is trying to scale the glass at my nose level and doesn't seem to think much of the shark either.

Fang, our waiter tells us, will live on two daily rations of squid until she's old enough to figure out that her jaws are perfectly designed for cracking shellfish. Seems to me raising a spoiled, lobster-addicted shark might get to be an expensive hobby.

The sharquarium separates the "shark room" from the bar at Blacktip Reef Restaurant, which opened last spring in Delray Beach. It gives both sides of the house a blue-green, submarine glow and provides enough conversational fodder to turn introverted strangers into bosom buddies in less time than it takes to down a couple of brewskis. Blacktip owner Greg McMenaman and his wife, Angie, have put in hardwood floors and a huge central bar — a magnet for a laid-back, local clientele in shorts and flip-flops or designer jeans and spiked heels. There's not an ounce of pretension here — not in the service, not in a menu featuring conch fritters and oyster poor boys. But BR goes beyond the ordinary fish shack with its extensive wine list, cocktails, upscale ingredients (Nueske's bacon, Turtle Creek Farm goat cheese), and creative twists on standards. The calamari ($9), for instance, is crusted in graham cracker crumbs mixed with cumin and ancho chili powder and served with a lemon-anchovy aioli.

I can't say that the McMenamans' culinary experiments always work for me. But I like the place so much that I'd be willing to keep going back until I figured out what my favorite dishes were and which ones I wanted to avoid. They definitely get a big fat gold star for gourmet touches — using whole-grain bread where anybody else would have served a gummy burger bun, putting chorizo in their steamed littleneck clams, and making a bunch of different tartar sauces (incorporating lemon, capers, Cajun spices, anchovies) to go with their wahoo, mahi, grouper, and conch fritters. They earned my respect and gratitude when they put lump crab and chunks of Maine lobster in their seafood salad and also for playing around with lots of tropical ingredients, from pineapple to mango, in fresh ways. Shucked oysters are $1.25 each during their daily happy hour ("shark hour," 4:30 to 7:30 p.m.) along with half-priced drinks. The lawyers, shop guys, boat captains, and temps who flood the place after work know that nothing keeps a body healthy like a tray of raw ones and a stiff bloody.

Let's get the nitpicking criticism out of the way. We found that there was sometimes a gap between the menu's elaborate descriptions and what actually came out of the kitchen. Award-worthy fritters ($9), stuffed with tender, peppery conch in the crispest, lightest fried dough, perfectly seasoned, arrived still sizzling from the fryer; I can see myself developing a serious dependency. But where had the promised "pickled carrot sticks" got to? A "Delray fish taco" ($10) took liberties with the term: the battered mahi was indeed a whole fish fillet, and it tasted fine, but I couldn't find the advertised chimichurri, and the "soft taco" was in fact a wrap. That fish would have been better grilled, flaked, and stuffed into a warm corn tortilla with a few ladlefuls of homemade salsa. The whole thing lacked flavor, kick, and texture — not that it was bad, but you and I know that a great fish taco is a mind- and belly-expanding experience. The last thing you should ever be able to call it is bland.

The matter of what does or doesn't get competently grilled at Blacktip is another conundrum. My entrée of "grilled" yellowfin tuna, served rare as I like it, didn't look as if it had been within six feet of an open flame. The surface was a cheesy, unappetizing gray, no hatchmarks — it might as well have been microwaved. I might be forgiven for expecting this $28 piece of fish to be properly cooked. What makes a slab of nearly raw tuna so yummy is the hot, smoky, semicharred exterior contrasting with the cool ruby inside. BR serves its tuna with a "ragout (stew) of roasted artichoke, shaved fennel, navel orange, red onion and radicchio salad." And grilled Peruvian potatoes. Harrumph. Those cold, marinated artichokes were so not roasted. The "ragout" was in fact a salad. The purple potatoes were room temp and underseasoned — come on, man, it's not that tough to roll a potato in some olive oil and sea salt and bake or grill it into a couple of mouthfuls of bliss. Oh, and our Bermuda fish chowder ($6) was damned good, spiked with rum and cherry peppers and generous with the chunks of fish — but who wants to eat lukewarm soup?

But enough with these mild disappointments. We had plenty to celebrate. The great stroke with the blackened wahoo club sandwich ($11) was pairing a fine fillet with that Nueske's bacon and serving it on thick slices of whole grain bread. Yummers. An informal survey I read recently divulged that if forced to become fundamentalist Muslims, the thing Americans would miss most is bacon. It beat out women's rights. Hilarious. BR understands that if you wrap a strip of cured pig around anything, they will eat.

We tried two meals off the nightly specials board: Jamaican pepper shrimp ($19), sautéed in a bath of creamy, sweet-hot curry and paired with explosively seasoned wasabi mashed potatoes, a near-perfect combo. They ought to put this dish on the permanent menu. I was less entranced by the apricot-rum scallops ($22) because I find scallops plenty sweet on their own without a fruity sauce, which made the dish cloying — although my dinner partner scarfed it up with muffled expressions of ecstasy.

My impression over several visits is that the simpler dishes at BR — poor boys and burgers, steamed clams and fried green tomatoes, along with some of the specials — generally work a lot better than the overly contrived entrées. I mean, look at the list of ingredients on the grouper-lobster platter ($28): pineapple, pine nuts, avocado, grilled Bermuda onion, red bean timbale, collards, Meyer lemon. Sounds complicated, but does it taste good? The heart's willing, but the mind rebels.

Warm banana bread for dessert and an espresso ice cream sandwich (each $7) play the right notes of nostalgia and downhomeness. But good luck breaking the cookie on that ice cream sandwich without a pickax.

Never let it be said that Blacktip Reef is skimming along the safe channels. I like the place quite a lot, as much for its good-natured warmth as its food. In the long run, the kitchen may have to scale back its ambitions. I can't imagine what it must be like to try to keep so many ingredients in stock: radish, papaya, coconut, plantains, arugula, fennel, mango, oranges, asparagus, shiso, leeks, bunches of different fish and shellfish... for a place this size, it's crazy. My hunch is that like his pet shark, Greg McMenaman is just relentlessly hungry. He wants to eat everything. And he thinks his customers do too.

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