Mr. Fish Seafood
You can eat fish in a train,

You will like fish in the rain,

You will like it from a box,

You will eat it with a fox

(if you're lucky enough to be dining with one).

Owner Mike Montella, who started out as a charter-boat captain and is now nearly three decades into running this gourmet seafood market, knows a thing or two about our scaly and shell-covered friends. His fish is delivered fresh from Florida's West Coast, and he even has a local lobster diver who has been going down for about seven years to catch those local, clawless langostas. This squeaky-clean, stacked-to-the-gills place has just about every type of local fish you can imagine (pompano, snapper, grouper, mahi, stone crab claws, shrimp, lobster); it also carries cooked meals, spreads, sauces, soups, and even desserts. Rich butters are also available for dipping, flavored with everything from champagne to wasabi, and the prices are competitive. But here's the best part: You can have everything shipped overnight via the "Fish-in-a-Flash" program. Hah! Flying fish! That's something Dr. Seuss would appreciate.

If you believe in reincarnation, you probably think you'll come back in the next life as a sky princess or a space wizard. But odds are just as good you'll eke out your latter days as a skink. Dramatic transformations are the stuff of the afterlife. Hell, even restaurants undergo major shape-shifting in their reincarnations. Thus did the Armadillo Café, a gargantuan and popular Southwestern food palace, bite the dust in the summer of 2004 and reappear six months later as KM at the Grapevine. The new place is a tiny neighborhood fooderie wedged into a gourmet shop, open on Wednesday through Saturday nights only and offering a drastically pared-down menu. But there's no net loss of flavor, imagination, and personality in these scaled-back digs. Among our favorites were a $27 lobster quesadilla and a special: the "wild" Tasmanian salmon, which went for $26 and was simply poached in white wine and butter, nestled in a bed of sautéed spinach, and served with slim, crunchy green beans and broccolini. Kevin McCarthy, one of the partners from the old Armadillo, now has breathing space to come out of the kitchen and gab with customers, to change the menu weekly, and to experiment with exotic fish from around the globe. Favorite 'dillo standbys join new creations, the atmosphere is cozy and congenial, and the plain-Jane looks of the place can't conceal a heart of purest gastronomic gold.

Zona Fresca

Somehow, the folks who own Zona Fresca, a clean, bright little taqueria serving Cal-Mex style burritos, chiles relleños, and quesadillas, have managed to achieve a feat that has stumped many a local superchef: How to turn out a delicious piece of fish, consistently, honestly, and cheaply. For their fish taco, a fresh white filet is dipped in beer batter, deep fried in canola oil, then wrapped in a double corn tortilla stuffed with marinated cabbage and sour cream dressing. You pay $2.50 for this perfect minimeal, carry it over to Zona Fresca's salsa bar, which offers an array of mild to fiery sauces (we're partial to the tart, green tomatillo), squeeze on a bit of lime, eat your taco in a half-dozen bites, then head back to the counter for round two. You can spend the good part of a day engaged in this ritual, several times a week, for months or even years before you'll think of looking elsewhere for your fish sandwich. Crunchy on the outside, moist, light, and steaming inside, the fish is perfectly foiled by the bright salsa and crunchy cabbage. Zona Fresca looks like a fast-food joint with its walk-up counter and plastic utensils. It also acts like a fast-food joint -- you can get in and out in a quarter of an hour if you have to. But the strong flavors and freshness of their vegetables, lean meats, and beans cooked without lard are healthy enough to make lunch a guilt-free zone.

Kitchenetta

Brush up on your American Sign Language before heading to this stylish Fort Lauderdale eatery... because the torturous clamor prevents any meaningful conversation. What with the metal chairs and concrete floors, the tables on rollers, and the exposed ceilings, you can hear every barked order, every dropped spoon, resonate. Still, you're in sublime South Florida, darling, and you'll know it from the gnocchi with gorgonzola cream sauce ($14), the flat-screen TV, and the hot -- if sometimes unpunctilious -- waiters. Who needs talk, anyway, when you can just make goo-goo eyes and blow kisses across the table? Sometimes what's left unsaid is what really counts in matters of the heart... and, perhaps, of the stomach.

Sage Bagel & Appetizer Shop

When a restaurant makes it to 32 years old, it has to be something more than a stroke of luck and a good location. It's the food, damn it -- or, in this case, the bagels. Indeed, after three decades, Sage Bagel & Appetizer Shop is still reeling in the same loyal bagel lovers week after week. The menu covers all the standard bagel types (plain, poppy, pumpernickel), specials (jalapeño, bran), and the extra-special (bialy). The cost for a single bagel is 75 cents; make that $1.95 with regular cream cheese, $2.35 for chive or vegetable, and $5.99 for lox. If you dine in, be sure you're ready to eat, 'cause the food comes fast. The menu includes far more than bagels. There's all manner of breakfast bites, full dinners, and desserts. If you plan to do some shopping for the week, a dozen bagels costs eight bucks, and a quarter-pound of cream cheese goes for $1.59. Make sure that alarm clock's set for bright and early; Sage opens at 6:30 a.m. every day.

Silver Pond
Chelsea Scholler

The best way to find great Chinese food -- unless you happen to live in San Francisco, where it rains jasmine tea -- is to disguise yourself, Inspector Clouseau-style, and trail a Chinese family at a safe distance. A little careful sleuthing and you'll end up at Silver Pond in Lauderdale Lakes. Getting a table might be another matter, since Hong Kong families, and New York families, and Vancouver families will have gotten there well ahead of you. But the few minutes you'll have to cool your heels will allow time to inhale the scents wafting from passing trays, to pick the exact lobster/crab/flounder you want from the wall of fish tanks, and to peruse the 200 dishes on the menu. Some of these inevitably may be new to you (braised sea cucumber); some may be old friends (pork fried rice). But it's the in-betweens that will take your breath away: a whole sea bass steamed in ginger and filleted tableside (market price); a whole barbecued Peking duck for two ($35) served in two courses: the honey-sweet, oleaginous skin wrapped in a pancake with hoisin sauce first and the cut-up duck with vegetables to follow. A bamboo basket of scallops with homemade bean curd ($11.50) is as delicate and creamy as the inside of a courtesan's thigh; salted, chopped, and flash-fried crabs ($9.50) are as rich and steamy as that same courtesan's pillow book. And if you've been feeling a little slow on the uptake, shark's fin soup ($10) is an ancient -- and delicious -- remedy for what ails you.

Totoritas Restaurant
Gustavo Rojas
Lord, what foods these morsels be! Now that sushi is a staple of public school lunches and sashimi has been accepted by the apple pie/Chevrolet contingent, let's not forget the other raw fish. Spelled differently depending on where in South America you happen to visit, Las Totoritas' version is among the most traditional. Cebiche mixto ($8) is the familiar staple; fish, scallops, and shrimp are soaked in lime juice and topped with onion. A black scallops-only version, cebiche de conchas negras ($7) is a variation you won't encounter often, and the family-sized cebiche platters ($14 to $18) are large enough for the soccer team of your choice -- provided you can all fit in the tiny dining room. The combination of fish and lime juice that collects at the bottom of the bowl -- leche de tigre -- can be served with a shot of vodka as a hangover cure. Or so the folks at Las Totoritas tell us. We'll take their word for it.

"Language of Love Spoken" reads the sign in the window. Not really, but where better for a sotto voce discussion of the nice and naughty things you'd like to do with that plate of shrimp maison au beurre blanc ($14.25 lunch, $25.95 dinner) than at the French Quarter? In this centrally located spot, Paris, the city of amour, meets the Big Easy, city of sin. Nestled at a table under glass skylights, partially hidden by tropical plant fronds that are becomingly lit by gas lamps, you'll almost certainly get something going here. But if you fail -- or things are looking grim -- impress your dinner companion with your savoir faire. Just casually mention that the duck à l'orange ($22.95) was Grace Kelly's favorite dish and that the baked Alaska ($12 for two) was invented by master cooks of the Chinese Celestial Empire. It won't hurt your case to choose a bottle from one of the best wine lists in the city either. Here's a hint, you big lug: There's no romantic problem that a double magnum of bubbly won't solve.

Hong Kong Market

Owner Benjamin Wong is big into numbers. If you ask him how long his market has been around, he'll tell you 15 years. Ask how many Chinese videos he has available for rental and he'll quickly inform you, "More than 100,000." (That's including the ever-popular Kung Fu Hustle.) If you inquire about a special type of teapot, he'll invite you to choose from more than 100,000 of them. OK, so perhaps they are not all to be found in his market, but he really seems eager to help customers find whatever Asian product they have a yen for. Never tried a sweet yet salty dehydrated plum (they start at $1.25 for a small bag) or dry shredded pork ($1.65 for a four-ounce container)? Just request Wong's opinion on the product and he'll likely split a bag with you. Wondering what kind of pudding is actually stored inside the oversized plastic kitty heads? He may bust one open to show you. Of course, he can't really share some of the teas he carries -- especially since they are used to treat maladies like gall bladder and liver dysfunction -- but you would probably feel comfortable talking about PMS or erectile dysfunction with Wong, and he'd provide just the tea for the job. And since teas start at only $2.95 a box, you'll find them much cheaper than a box of Midol or a blister pack of Viagra. If you have never set foot in an Asian market, stroll into Hong Kong some evening (the market is open until 8 most nights). You'll get an instant education and possibly even some samples.

Good help is so hard to find these days. Sure, you'll be well-attended at the Captain's Table on the QE2 or in the grand dining room of the Ritz, but the servers at most neighborhood cafés might as well have been trained at Fawlty Towers. Consider it a lucky break if you don't end up with another table's crab cakes when you ordered steak Diane. Unlike so many of its brethren, Herban Kitchen has a service system choreographed like a Balanchine ballet: You're taken care of by a half-dozen pleasant and unruffled dudes who know how to maintain a precise balance of friendliness and distance. They come and go, filling glasses and removing plates. They don't share their first names or interrupt you mid-brilliant dissertation. And you won't find yourself stuck in that dead zone between dessert and the check when the entire staff disappears outside for a smoke.

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