Pupu in Paradise
Stone-crab season in Florida opened to great hoopla three weeks ago. We have five months to chow down as many mustard-dipped forkfuls of claw meat as we can pay for. The game-over bell rings May 15: Then it's a long, hot, stoneyless summer.
Our native crab is one of the few animals even a vegan Greenpeacenik could theoretically get behind eating. These hardy animals, whose claw meat contends in deliciousness with lobster, are so not overfished. Stone crabs are as fertile as the randiest rabbits. Ragged claws aplenty still scuttle across the floors of our silent seas, give or take the effect of hurricanes. And, we reassure ourselves, we can eat without guilt. Fisherfolk just snap off the pinchers and toss the buggers back into their element. If they remove the claw carefully, menippe will live to grow a new mitt. More than 3 million pounds of claws ought to be harvested this season with no more damage to the population than a little bit of bruised crustacean ego. The stone crab is resilient enough to grow her claw back three or four times in an eight-year life span.
Here's a ridiculously healthy meat — a typical claw has 60 calories, 15 grams of protein, and zero fat. That's until you submerge it in a vat of mayo-mustard sauce, of course. The only drawback is price. In 1921, you could buy four claws for 75 cents. As recently as the 1960s, our native crustacean sold for just 30 cents a pound. Last year, the wholesale price for a pound of jumbos was $14. Last week, at Nick's Fishmarket in Boca, my first claws of this season cost me a cool $35 for three big ones served on a bed of cracked ice.
Worth it? Hell yeah. I'd rather shell out for stone crab than for caviar. For one thing, you get more mouthfuls for your money. And our stoner comes with a folksy Floridian pedigree that makes you feel good, temporarily, about living and eating in the Sunshine State. The rags-to-riches story of Miami restaurateur Joe Weiss, who supposedly "discovered" the culinary potential of the crab in 1921 thanks to a visiting ichthyologist, is Southern shaggy-dog storytelling with just the slipperiest grip on historical fact. But who cares? Cozied up in one of the banquettes at Nick's, surrounded by tasteful tiki paraphernalia and ultrasaturated color photos of marine life, you're glad to be exactly where you are. The meat is sweet. And so is life.
There's something about Nick Nickolas, the scrappy son of Greek immigrants who bestows his moniker on Nick's Fishmarket, that reminds me of Joe Weiss. Like Joe, Nick started out a nobody and became a wealthy man purveying eats on the shores of a tropical paradise. In Nickolas' case, that paradise was Hawaii, where he founded his first restaurant in 1968. He went on to open 34 more, including a Nick's Fishmarket at the hoity private Boca Resort Beach Club, playland of millionaires, that he operated for 18 years. In 2006, he left the resort and started the groundwork on a new Fishmarket in the wonderful space formerly occupied by the Asian-fusiony Bong at Mizner Park. Here he welcomes the hoi polloi.
I say wonderful because Nickolas kept the best parts of Bong's décor — the stone lions and Chinese pagoda entrance, the multistory, abstract white palm trees — and touched it up with aloha-themed details. There's a bit of tiki thatch grass, a glowing, five-foot-tall pineapple over the bar, and new carpet printed with tropical foliage. The design is amusing without sliding entirely into kitsch, maybe because the colors lean toward muted reds and golds. There's an outdoor tiki bar that does good business until late at night on Fridays and Saturdays.
It's an extremely comfortable and pretty space, made even more so by a staff that goes to surreal extremes to make you feel like a movie star. I'd venture that the team at Nick's is one of the best-trained in South Florida, and it doesn't hurt one bit that Nick himself is patrolling the floor.
The 68-year-old Nickolas hasn't lost his college football player's physique, though he's long since traded in his jersey for a good suit and silk tie. He wears aviator specs and a gigantic pinky ring, and he pads around the dining room like one of the mystery cats of Maui. Both times we were there, he stopped by our table for a total of five check-ins ("Everything OK, folks? First time with us? Hope we'll see you again.") and it occurs to you that, yeah, maybe he's been interviewed on Oprah and raced his horses in the Kentucky Derby, but he still cares whether you and your date had a good time with your pupu platter.
It's almost inconceivable that a guy this rich and successful would still be greeting his customers personally at the door most nights, but from the photographic evidence in the entranceway, he's always been a glad-hander (Shaq, Tony Bennett, Sinatra, Charles Barkley, and Tom Selleck all represent). Nick's presence goes some way toward explaining the gracious servers in their Tommy Bahama shirts; they're superfriendly without being intrusive, just like their boss. Nickolas has developed a foolproof tag team of waiters, runners, and bussers who can answer any question about the menu you care to throw at them.
Not that this menu is overly complicated. It's based on Polynesian, Thai, and continental cuisines, ranging from Hong Kong crab cakes, egg rolls, and steamed seafood dumplings to "Greek chicken à la Sammy Davis, Jr." (artichokes, capers, Greek olives), a dish he debuted in 1968. The fish is fresh, and the preparations at their best are fairly simple. The chef starts you out with multigrain crackers and a tasty scoop of smoked mahi dip (happily replenished on request).
Never does the kitchen stinge on the seafood — my $35 crab claws (an appetizer; $70 as a main course) were gigantic and filled with delicious white flesh, served over ice to keep them frigid on a plate featuring an arched faux-scorpion tail. The claws had been carefully cracked for us, and the meat we swiped out with our miniature fork went down exceedingly easily with mustard sauce. We got hot towels afterward to wipe the crab-eating grins off our faces. A cold seafood salad with soba noodles and sesame dressing ($25, a main dish) was loaded with minced crab and fingernail-sized shrimp, tossed with diced carrots, celery, red and yellow peppers, and Chinese cabbage; it was topped with a butterflied fried prawn. After a meal-sized bowl of perfectly hot and sour wonton soup with spicy pork strips ($9), we couldn't eat more than a third of an absolutely divine piece of steamed halibut ($29).
Apart from the crabs, that halibut was our favorite dish. Delicately steamed in a broth of ginger, sesame oil, and cilantro along with wilted spinach, and topped with chunks of grilled pineapple, it was delectable and luscious; and, like some piscine version of Hawaiian heartthrob Tia Carerra, just barely exotic. I didn't fall as easily in love with our swordfish Stavros ($32). Maybe it's a personal quirk, but I've yet to find entirely satisfying any fish dish topped with cheese. In this case, a nicely seared fillet found itself somewhat overwhelmed with feta-dill-hollandaise sauce. Swordfish is a robust animal, and if any fish could woo a feta sauce, it would be this one. But as much as I loved those whipped potatoes and the glowing little handful of asparagus, beans, and carrots, I wouldn't order this entrée again.
The pupu platter ($26, serves two), an appetizer, works as a trip back in the time machine: All it needs is a cocktail plashed into a coconut shell and festooned with paper umbrellas and a curly straw. So it's fun and varied — you get barbecued spare ribs, steamed fish dumplings, Hong Kong crab cakes, egg rolls, and butterflied shrimp with three dipping sauces of accelerating heat. I really took to those barbecued spare ribs dusted with five-spice powder, and we dug the steamed fish dumplings. The rest of the platter was as pleasant as anything you'd find at an above-average Chinese restaurant.
Another trip through our halcyon childhoods: pineapple upside-down cake for dessert ($10). Although it lacked the crusty bottom layer of sugar like my mommy used to make it, the cake was buttery and oozing with sweet goo; the slightly pungent sour of pineapple smoothed the gack off all that candy coating. I'm not sure I've ever seen pineapple upside-down cake in a restaurant before, but I'm grateful to find it.
With its curvy lines, low lighting, pretty customers, and over-the-top service, you just can't resist Nick's. It's like being relentlessly romanced by a dude you aren't sure about at first, but the guy just grows on you. Prices here are high, and the menu is free of great risks or experiments. But if the food is a little old-fashioned, so is Nickolas' definition of hospitality. Digging a salty chunk of meat out of its shell while the man himself stops by to refill your champagne glass would make any girl feel less crabby.
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