Lost at Sea
Though I come from a family of fishermen, I'm not much of one myself. Oh, I've trawled for my share of yellowtail in South Florida waters, and I pride myself on the three piranhas I caught while visiting the Peruvian Amazon. But for most of my life, I've avoided the vacations my father, sister, and brother seemed determined to take year after year: dropping deep-water lines for bluefish off the coast of New England; scooping up pike after pike in the St. Lawrence River; casting hip-deep in Oregon waters for pregnant salmon. I can sum up my opinion of these trips in one word: yawn.
On the other hand, I've always been a champion fish-eater. It comes with the territory of staying at home; whatever the patriarch or siblings caught, my mother and I would cook and consume. Now I'll taste just about any type of fish at least once, from smelt to shark. I'd rather broil the bait than waste time putting it on a hook in the hope of snagging bigger prey. After all, if the bait is too small to fillet, there's always fish soup.
Speaking of, the signature soup at Islamorada Fish Company in Dania Beach is so popular, the two-month-old restaurant had run out of it when I dined there recently. I made do with New England clam chowder, which was brimming with tender clams. But when you're talking about Islamorada Fish Company, the northeastern dish just doesn't cut it. The restaurant is named for its sibling restaurant located on Islamorada Key, which is best known for its tiki bars and ultrapowerful rumrunners. Eating New England clam chowder there just didn't seem right , partly because the cup in which the soup was served wasn't much bigger than an ashtray.
In fact, the entire restaurant feels out of step, like a fisherman who's forgotten to bring along his lucky lure. The faux-rustic place, which is furnished with wood tables, elongated booths, and captain's armchairs, is big enough to seat an entire school (of children, that is). But the enormous octagonal fish tank in the middle of the dining room was inhabited by just one angel fish, which caused us to wonder if the staff had done some fishing during break time. The dishes coming out of the kitchen were inconsistent; some of the appetizers, such as steamed clams, were perfectly succulent, while the grilled shrimp entree was charred. And the young wait staff was also uneven. They'd been prepped on some menu items; our waiter knew, for instance, that the lightly smoked fish-dip starter served with red onion slices and a handful of packaged crackers had been prepared with minced amberjack. But I'd been hung up on when I called for the restaurant's address, and when I phoned back, I was given incorrect directions. (Hint: The restaurant is west, not east, of I-95.) And a conversation about the drink menu went something like this:
Me: Is the Key West Sunset beer a red ale?
Waiter: Um, I don't think so.
Me: Is it a brown ale?
Waiter: Sort of.
Turns out it was a red ale, and one of the tastier draft beers available. (Wine choices are limited to a bottle of Meridian chardonnay for $18.95 or Kendall-Jackson chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, cabernet, or merlot for $28.95.) To be fair, the waiter did offer me a taste of the beer before I ordered a glass, and I have to give him and the other servers props for dealing patiently with us as we sent back a couple of plates of food.
Islamorada Fish Company is located in a complex that includes Outdoor World, a huge fishing and sporting-goods store, and the International Game Fishing Association Hall of Fame and Museum. Located just off I-95 at Griffin Road and arranged around an artificial lake, the complex gives new meaning to the phrase "commercial fishing"; I've never seen a more blatant attempt to squeeze dollars out of potential diners. A fish market at the front of the restaurant offers terrific bargains, and several cuts of fish served in the restaurant were fresh and delicious. We particularly enjoyed a grouper Reuben -- grilled rye bread dripping with a moist fillet of grouper, excellent coleslaw, and Thousand Island dressing. And despite being undercooked at first, then a bit overcooked on the return trip, an entree of blackened mahi-mahi was beautifully seasoned with mouth-tingling spices.
The folks at Islamorada Fish Company could, however, benefit from some advice, especially because owners George Hertel and Johnny Morris (who also owns Outdoor World) have three other locations in the works in Orlando, Charlotte, and Nashville, which will be modeled after the Dania Beach operation. For instance: Don't fry clam strips in the same oil used for coconut-battered shrimp; everything winds up tasting the same -- slightly sweet, inappropriately nutty. Also, don't serve grilled tuna steak rare when it's not sushi quality or cut by a sushi chef, as the stringiness will be self-evident. And turn the garlicky golden crab appetizer, a generous pound-and-a-quarter serving that takes forever to separate from its shell, into a main course, and use fresh, rather than jarred, garlic.
Now for some nuts and bolts -- or, if you prefer, bones and scales -- issues. Try not to pile plain shoestring French fries next to one entree and seasoned fries next to another, particularly if they're destined for the same table. If you're going to serve grilled scallops on skewers, make sure the diner knows this beforehand, and while I'm on the subject, smell the scallops before you send them out of the kitchen -- ours were spoiled. And if a server is going to offer a table a free piece of moist and tangy key lime bundt cake to compensate for a botched meal, instruct him not to tell the diners that he "stole" it. In other words, make sure a manager approves of such a gesture.
Speaking of managers, don't expect to find one when you need one. Though we sent back two dishes the night we dined, no one in charge ever appeared. And when I called to chat with someone at the restaurant, I must have gotten the same fellow who gave me directions.
Me: Can I speak to the manager?
Him: Which manager?
Me: The general manager.
Me: Sure, OK.
Him: Oh, he's not in.
At Islamorada Fish Company, I wonder if anybody is.
Islamorada Fish Company. 220 Gulf Stream Way, Dania Beach, 954-927-7737. Lunch and dinner daily from 11 a.m. till 10 p.m.
Smoked fish dip
Steamed clams (one dozen)
Key lime bundt cake
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