Top Five Seafood Restaurants: Beyond Best of Miami 2011

Casablanca Seafood Bar & Grill was Miami New Times’ pick for Best Seafood on the River this year. We also honored Blue Door Fish with Best Seafood on the Beach, and my neighbor Sal was thrilled to receive the Best Seafood by Lee’s Neighbor award. Still, there are a few other fine fish restaurants — too few for a coastal city, really — that are worth mentioning in the same breath. Here are five:

5. AltaMare: Chef Simon Stojanovic, who honed his craft under Michael Schwartz, presents line-caught fish and free-range, organic comestibles with a bright Mediterranean sensibility. Local fish such as sheepshead or yellow jack swim alongside snapper, grouper, and shellfish on the menu. These pristine specimens are then prepared with an array of light, potent ingredients — tropical fruits, palm heart shavings, artichokes, cipollini onions, saffron, Meyer lemon, and vivid broths. If you want to pair a wine with your meal, there are more than 200 bottles to choose from. Guess that’s why AltaMare has been a hit since 2002 (back then it was called Alta Mar). Guess that’s also why we chose it as Best Seafood Restaurant in 2010.

4. Area 31: Chef E. Michael Reidt has smoothly kept up the quality that his predecessor John Critchley established. This means sustainable seafood largely sourced from waters of the Western Central Atlantic (from the Florida coast to the northeast coast of Central and South America). You can start with wahoo crudo or mackerel ceviche or crispy octopus with chorizo, farro, blood orange, and smoked tomato. Entrées include flounder with Maine lobster, green asparagus, grapefruit, and vanilla turnips, or creamed Key West pink shrimp ravioli with uni butter, spinach, and pea sprouts. Chef Reidt creates clean, cutting-edge fish dishes and somehow brings them in — within the swank confines of the Epic Hotel — for $30 and under.

3. Garcia’s Seafood Grille & Fish Market: Where are Miami’s fish fry joints? Where are the informal grills where you can sit at a counter and get a fresh (affordable) fish fired up right in front of you? There’s a real shortage of these for a city situated by water, which makes us appreciate Garcia’s that much more. The father-son team of Esteban Jr. and Luis Garcia have been frying and grilling the fresh fish they net for their market since 1966. Grouper and mahi-mahi are two of the local favorites, either plated with sides or plunked into a sandwich. There are chowders, seafood-and-rice dishes, and a wide menu of fish and shellfish preparations. Eating this seafood, perhaps with an ice-cold beer, while sitting outdoors by a wistful stretch of the Miami River is what makes Garcia’s an all-time Miami restaurant favorite.

2. The River Oyster Bar: Glistening oysters and other shellfish delectables are packed in ice along a mahogany and slate bar at chef/owner David Bracha’s downtown venue. Bracha has been lending contemporary flair to fresh seafood fleshed from the waters of Key West to Trinidad to Alaska (since 2003). The River has kept up with the times, nowadays serving small plates such as fire-roasted oysters with sofrito butter, ancho, queso manchego, and chorizo, or crabcakes with tart cherry-apple slaw and smoked almond tartare. Along, of course with an array of simply prepared (grilled, pan-seared, or steamed) or more creatively plated fish dishes and a well-priced wine list. It most recently copped our Best Raw Bar 2009 award.

1. Captain’s Tavern Restaurant: Like Garcia’s, the Captain’s venue is a Pinecrest — and by extension, Miami — institution (since 1971). The market is worth a trip alone — very wide selection of fish freshly caught in local waters (as well as some specialty fish flown in from the Mediterranean). There are often a dozen or more varieties of oyster and a nice breadth of shellfish in general. Once you’ve got the fresh goods, the job of the chefs in the restaurant becomes a lot easier. The menu is extremely extensive: Raw bar items, conch fritters, chowders, bisques, fried fish, grilled fish, baked fish, stuffed fish, fish risotto, fish with pasta, lobster variations — just figure any fish and any preparation you can imagine. Captain’s Tavern is an old-style seafood house, not all gussied up (the décor has been described as “seafarin’ ’70s”). And the menu and prices are such that many first-timers are shocked to learn that the wine list is one of the very best in South Florida. Captain’s Tavern was named one of the “50 Great Wine Destinations in America” by Food & Wine magazine. Even more impressive, it copped Best of Miami’s Best Wine Selection in a Restaurant in 2004, 2005, and 2008.

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