One of the focal points of the elegant room at Ke'e Grill in Boca Raton is a pair of blue marlin mounted on a bamboo wall. The other is a sheet of floor-to-ceiling glass windows overlooking a tropical garden. But it's the marlin, each the size of a Mini Cooper and flashing iridescent blue along the spines, that I can't take my eyes off of. Concentrated symbols of everything we hold dear about Florida, these long-billed beauties are the coveted favorites of sport fishermen — most famously Ernest Hemingway, who was photographed more than once with prize marlin twice his size. In his late novel The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway's hero Santiago takes roughly 100 pages to snag a marlin and drag the animal home; by the time the old guy gets back to shore, all that's left of his prize is a shark-ravaged skeleton. "I tried to make a... real sea and a real fish," Hemingway said of the story. "But if I made them real and true enough, they would mean many things."
The marlin at Ke'e Grill mean many things too; they're gorgeous ciphers of our turn-of-the-century ocean blues. A decade ago, ecologists, worried about the extent of marlin damage by long-line fishing, predicted that by 2008, blue and white marlins would be "functionally extinct." Legislation regulating long-line use in the Gulf of Mexico has saved the white marlin; the blue is still threatened. And bluefin tuna, another of Papa H's quarry, are in serious trouble too.
Not to lay a major bummer on you or anything, but your favorite seafood restaurants might be extinct by the time you retire. In your golden years, you'll have the time and maybe the money to eat all the snapper, blue crab, grouper, and tuna you want, but unless sustainable fish farms and smart ocean-management save the day, we're going to be a relatively fish-free society. Just last week, the New York Times reported that scientists mapping the Earth's oceans found 40 percent of our seas strongly polluted and only 4 percent pristine — and those are all in the Arctic. Cargo ships ferry non-native jellyfish and other fauna into waters where they don't belong, and there goes the neighborhood; vast fields of plastic trash, oceanic garbage dumps, stretch hundreds of miles; the "democratization of sushi" means we're all suddenly crazy for tuna belly. If there's a contest between the devil and the deep blue sea, the devil is winning.
None of us wants to quit eating seafood; those omega-3s prevent hypertension and depression. Besides, the stuff tastes luscious. If you're like me, you find two or three really good fish houses and you're pretty much married to them for life. Places like Ke'e Grill and its fresh-faced little sister, Cool'a Fishbar in Palm Beach Gardens, figure strongly in my foodie fantasies. Through the course of years selling crab cakes and grilled salmon, Palm Beach County restaurateurs Jim and Debbie Taube, who also run Jetty's and Bimini Twist, have perfected the arts of sourcing, cooking, and presenting the freshest seafood in the most appetizing variations, infusing them with the spirit of Hawaiian 'ohana.
The Taubes' Ke'e Grill is white-tablecloth formal and haunted by wealthy Boca retirees. This sophisticated restaurant is the place to take your parents for their birthdays or out-of-town guests for a special meal. The recently opened Cool'a is an entirely different kettle of fish: Packs of 20- and 30-somethings squeeze into the wooden booths and perch on stools around the bar, partying to piped-in reggae music under lazily rotating ceiling fans. Mounted hog snapper, grouper, pompano, and yellowtail swim along walls glittering with thousands of tiny blue scales. But both restaurants share this: They're lusciously comfortable. You sink into them as into a sun-warmed tide pool. Ke'e is moderately expensive, Cool'a moderately cheap. They're always crowded. And they serve terrific food.
Salmon, blue crab, sea bass, Florida snapper, grouper, gulf shrimp, lobster, king crab legs, and sole figure on Ke'e's menu, along with grilled chops — pork, veal, lamb — and mixed dishes like surf and turf or seafood platters. We started with a mixed appetizer of Cajun spring rolls and volcano grilled shrimp ($10.95), boiled gulf shrimp with remoulade ($10.95), and a tomato salad with sweet onions ($4.95). The Cajun rolls were some of the best spring rolls I've tasted — a nontraditional take on the Asian standard made with chopped chicken, smoky andouille sausage, and minced root vegetables, the fried casing impossibly delicate. Grilled gulf shrimp alongside hadn't lost a drop of moisture. Six boiled shrimp were sweet and tender; a mustardy remoulade gave them a bit of a kick. And if we were intimidated by the thick slabs of sliced onion with our fresh tomato salad, we needn't have worried — the sweet onion, without a hint of sharpness, complemented the beefsteak tomatoes perfectly.
Baked lemon sole stuffed with blue crabmeat ($27.95) was our favorite entrée — the fish pliant, fresh, and buttery, the crab denser and assertively seasoned, a ladle of citrus beurre blanc for tropical tartness. Two South African lobster tails ($46.95), partially removed from their shells and served with a cup of melted butter, were an indecent splurge — a dense, sweet hunk of white muscle so rich we could barely finish it. Palm Beach snapper ($25.95) was a piquant dish, the golden fish sauced in a tomato-based Provençale with artichokes, hearts of palm, and mushrooms. And ruby slices of yellowfin tuna ($26.95) had been rolled in sesame seeds and drizzled with two kinds of wasabi sauce — one sweet and bland, the other emanating the root's heat.
All our main courses and their sides of vegetables (sautéed mushrooms, baked creamed spinach, blanched broccoli, asparagus) were perfectly seasoned and wonderfully savory — and that's a lot harder than it sounds. If these dishes weren't breaking any new ground creatively, they were still doing exactly what they were meant to do: pleasing palates by combining traditional elements in precise and highly skilled ways. Desserts were no exception: An ethereal strawberry shortcake with fat berries, whipped cream, and vanilla ice cream could be served to angels in heaven. And a key lime pie with graham cracker crust was the real thing. Just like Mom makes it. Each was $6.95.
We liked our meal just as much, and spent less money, the night we stopped in to Cool'a Fishbar. Cool'a is situated in Legacy Place, the new Gardens shopping extravaganza, along with the Brazilian Amazonia, another seafood restaurant; a Chili's; a Friday's; and a handful of sandwich and quickie cafés. It seems to be the most popular spot in this weirdo faux city. Things were still hopping at 9:15 last Monday night, and the staff acted like they expected the crowds to keep coming for quite a while. Service here is friendly, maybe a little too friendly for some of us, but the vibe is total relaxation, total tiki surfer-dude casual, and with the beautiful décor — a big bar, bamboo, mounted fish, and high, high ceilings — you can't help but unwind.
Maybe because the place is designed to attract a bar/small-plate-eating crowd, Cool'a cuts a few corners. It doesn't serve bread before the meal. You don't get any little amuses. If you're hungry, you're encouraged to order apps with your signature martini — and those appetizers will make you happy. At Cool'a, the food's a little heavier, sweeter, and saltier than at Ke'e; it's served on plastic plates. And if you tip over your margarita, it's going to pool conveniently on the laminated tabletops. Smoked fish dip ($9.95) with jalapeños, carrot and celery, and packaged saltines was delicious. A single crab cake with mustard sauce ($9.95) was all crab and no filler, just the lightest coating of crisp bread crumbs. Other small plates and apps looked good too: coconut shrimp, Buffalo wings, a crispy ahi tuna roll, marinated fillet steak tips, pan-roasted mussels with andouille. The menu reads part sports bar, part fish shack, part tapas bar.
The quality of our barbecue snapper ($19.95) and blackened mahi ($17.95) with mango béarnaise sauce was right there with the fish we'd had at Ke'e — fresh, beautifully seasoned, and perfectly cooked. The barbecue sauce on the snapper was a spicy new twist I hadn't tasted before, and it worked; the potatoes with it were already word-of-mouth famous around these parts. Shredded potato baked in a custard dish with Monterey Jack and Colby cheese forms a thick, crunchy, brown crust on top that keeps what's underneath warm and creamy — a comfort food with an adult nip of pepper. My partner's blackened mahi was moist (these folks are expert at not ruining seafood), and its mango drizzle made an ideal topping. Every bite of food we ate was fattening, rich, and satisfying. Cold chocolate mousse pie ($4.95), one of two desserts (the other is key lime pie), hit its sweet and fat notes dead on.
There's a lot of hype and doomspeak about fish — mercury, die-offs, dwindling populations — and what you hear is mostly true. The ocean is probably our next big problem after we get a grip on global warming. That doesn't mean we need to stop eating fish, because if anything, our appetite for seafood is what may just save our sea creatures. But we need to be aware, while forking up that last sliver of sweet-potato-crusted grouper with mango drizz: Any animal that decimates its own food supply doesn't have much of a future either.