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Isla Bonita

My husband insists that, good or bad, I always get what I deserve. Which is why, when I got stopped at the metal detector before entering the courthouse for jury duty, he found it hysterical. Apparently, the security guards thought I had a pocketknife stashed in my purse, and I was pulled aside and searched in an embarrassingly public fashion. Of course, what I was actually carrying was my handy-dandy wine opener.

My husband couldn't stop cackling. "Only you would carry a corkscrew wherever you go, just in case you need it. The rest of us rely on waiters."

Well, those of us in the biz know that most average servers can't be trusted not to butcher a cork. But that's beside the point. My corkscrew did indeed come in handy several days later (though confiscated at the metal detector, I was allowed to reclaim it when I left the building) when we needed to open a predinner bottle of wine in Islamorada, where once again I had gone and done something without quite thinking it through: I'd dragged husband and family down to the Keys for the sole reason of dining at Kaiyó (8071 Old Hwy., Islamorada, 305-664-5556), chef-proprietor Dawn Sieber's six-month-old restaurant. Again, as it turns out, I quite got what I deserved: a meal that was so far from what I expected that I might as well have gone fishing for my own dinner.

I write that with great reluctance, because I've been eating Sieber's cuisine for years at Cheeca Lodge, where she made a name for herself putting together New World concoctions that highlighted local products and Caribbean/Asian flavors. Sieber left Cheeca Lodge about two years ago to pursue other opportunities in the Caribbean, but she returned to Islamorada to open this neo-Japanese restaurant-cum-sushi bar. And while the rooms are highlighted with a terrific mosaic border and the menu-writing reflects Sieber's talent for food-and-wine pairing, for the most part, it seems this style is not her forte.

Granted, the Upper Keys needed an upscale sushi bar, and judging by the lively crowd that populates the place weeknight or weekend, Kaiyó fits the billfish. The wine list, though small, is also a plus -- Sieber has chosen to put on the menu only those wines that complement Asian, with the result that a few top-notch Rieslings and sakes are available to wash down the escolar and hamachi sushi.

Unfortunately, even the best of the cooked fare we sampled -- the "small tastes" -- didn't impress us overly much. Priced per piece, these appetizers ranged from steamed vegetable dumplings in ponzu sauce (the least expensive at $1 each) to soft-shell crabs wok-seared and served with ponzu mayonnaise (the priciest at $8.50 each). The problem with the ones we ordered appeared to be that they had been pre-prepared, then reheated half-heartedly. Green tea crêpes filled with duck confit had a soggy texture and were stuffed with lukewarm pieces of dried-out duck shreds. "Mindy's ribs," also lingering in the purgatory between cold and hot, featured a pleasant candied coating but virtually no meat. Farmed baby conch tempura was greasy and flabby -- not an appealing texture for conch.

Entrées reflected poor execution as well. A bowl of sirloin tips tossed with udon noodles and sauced with a ginger-soy concoction tasted of little other than burnt meat. Whitewater clams with angel-hair pasta and baby bok choy in miso broth were bland, while a "tempura fried whole snapper" would have been more aptly labeled "tempura fried whole guppy."

As distressing as the fare was, the service was even worse. Our waitress literally sighed with annoyance every time we asked her for something, snapping for other colleagues to help her with minor tasks like clearing a dish. Her demeanor was so sour, we might as well have stayed home for the same kind of treatment. After all, the reason one visits the Keys for a few days is to relax after stressful episodes -- like getting caught with a corkscrew at jury duty.

What Kaiyó ultimately demonstrated to us was that even in the Keys, just like at home, you don't need to travel far from your lodgings for a bad meal -- Kaiyó was about a half-mile from Casa Morada, the two-year-old boutique hotel where we put up our tootsies at the end of a long, exhausting day of applying sunscreen. But unlike at your own casa, you also don't need to road-trip for a good meal: We scored excellent catch-o'-the-day fish sandwiches at the well-known bayside eatery the Lorelei Cabana Bar (96 Madeira Rd., Islamorada, 305-664-4656), which was only a block from Casa Morada (a pretty helpful distance when one considers the power of the establishment's "piña colada with a float" of golden rum). Get them grilled, blackened, or deep-fried. Whatever your choice, the fish fillet will be a generous size, the bun will be fresh, the tartar sauce plentiful, and the cole slaw a mayonnaise-less version that lends itself well to the tropical atmosphere.

In fact, the Lorelei, which also boasts a fine-dining restaurant, provided us with one of the most innovative fish sandwiches I've ever had -- a grouper Reuben, consisting of a deep-fried fillet of grouper topped with sauerkraut and Russian dressing, then pressed with melted Swiss cheese between buttered slices of rye toast. The downside is that this filling luncheon is a special, appearing only about once every two weeks. Of course, you can always order a fish sandwich off the menu and request the appropriate condiments for an approximation.

The Lorelei Cabana Bar is also the place for sunset seekers to down cold, spiced, peel-'n'-eat shrimp in quick time to the speedily setting rays. And in that Lorelei has some of its competition naturally beaten. But those looking for a truly great meal, cocktail-time or otherwise, would do well to venture into the shabby (but clean) joint called Ziggie's Gumbo and Crab Shack (83000 Overseas Hwy., Islamorada, 305-664-3391). The establishment was raised in the early 20th Century and spent several generations in the same family only to be sold a few years ago and promptly run into the ground. Now a native Conch owns it and for the past five months has been serving what might just be the only authentic Cajun and Creole cuisine -- i.e., deep-fried okra that pops between the teeth with the crunch of pumpkin seeds -- south of Rosey Baby.

Ziggie's does what many Creole restaurants outside N'Awlins do: imports filé for the gumbo and sausage for the jambalaya. As a result, such items are authentic and flavorful, rich from being simmered all day. The sausage is showcased both in the gumbo and on a roll with peppers, onions, and cheese, a mouth-challenging sandwich known as the "Bulldog Bayou." Let's just say that both preparations are best eaten with a fork.

But Ziggie's also represents its hometown and its moniker with superb oyster poorboys featuring shellfish from the local bay, lump crab cakes that fall apart at the tine of a fork, and bowls of savory crab bisque (crab lovers can glean virtually every type of crab from the dinner menu). And it nods to the Keys in general with typically amenable service and a super after-meal drink called, of course, the key lime pie. Forget the real thing. This beverage, made of Captain Morgan's Parrot Bay rum, Licor 43, cream, lime juice, and graham cracker crumbs, is precisely what you can't leave the Keys without trying. Even if, like I did, you came for a different reason entirely, and even if it's not what you deserve.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick

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