The problem with restaurants with a view is that their customers don't want them to change. We want to freeze them in time so we can always remember the big anniversaries, the bigger birthdays, the graduations and holidays exactly as they were celebrated.
So just what were the owners of the Rusty Pelican thinking when they spent $9 million redoing this Key Biscayne institution? You could say they wanted us to get unstuck. To move on. To create new memories. After dining at the new Pelican, I'm glad they did.
I never dined at the old Rusty Pelican. I'm told the menu was classic Americana/continental, including items such as shrimp cocktail and stuffed mushrooms, osso buco and steak Diane. I hear it was awful.
The Pelican's reinvention started with a complete physical redo. The owner — California-based Specialty Restaurants Corporation, which concentrates on restaurants with a view or a theme — closed the Pelican for five months.
The long, low-slung sofas in the lobby feel very midcentury-modern country club. So do the paneled walls and the wooden armchairs in the dining room. The wine cellar and the lounge with the white upholstered stools feel entirely modern. It all adds up to a sophisticated restaurant that matches the view of what can now truly be called Magic City.
Chef Michael Gilligan was the next piece of the reinvention. He was most recently the chef at the W South Beach Hotel and Residences, but has worked at Robert De Niro's Tribeca Grill in New York and at Miami's Rumi and Conrad Miami. Gilligan's challenge was to create a sophisticated menu that still has wide appeal. Much of the menu comprises small plates, including sushi, sliders, salads and ceviche.
You can come to the Pelican for drinks. (During happy hour, drinks and appetizers cost between $5 and $9). You don't have to wait for a special occasion to check things out.
Fried calamari ($13) gets a crowd-pleasing citrus "Buffalo" sauce that will remind you of your favorite chicken-wing joint. A baked crab cake ($13) includes chives, grilled corn and a nice chipotle aioli.
Gilligan stretches his wings with sea-bass ceviche ($12), kitschily presented in a tin can set on ice. The lime juice shines through in this mixture of tender sea bass, corn and sweet potatoes. A dish called eel and foie gras ($16) isn't so successful. It has a base of tostones, which you can't really taste, along with ice-wine gelee and soy-truffle glaze. Much better is a pork-belly skewer ($9), with caramelized apples and a blood-orange-balsamic reduction.
Grilled filet mignon ($38) was superb, served with a decadent Nueske's bacon pee-wee potato hash and guava barbecue sauce. Pan-seared Australian rack of lamb ($42) was just as good, served with goat-cheese potato gratin, piquillo pepper sofrito and mint-pea puree.
If you like snapper, I recommend crispy fried whole local red snapper ($34). It's battered and then flash-fried — bones and all — but it's miraculously easy to eat with the fillet easily separating from the bones with a fork. The fish comes with udon noodles, Asian slaw and soy-honey sauce. Less successful was pan-seared ahi tuna ($34). It was a quality piece of tuna, and perfectly grilled, but the chef was a little heavy-handed with the Chinese five spice. Neither the accompanying watermelon, braised bok choy or basmati rice could calm down the five spice. It took over.
The Pelican offers an impressive wine list. It's short but sweet with reasonable prices. If cocktails are your thing, check out the menu. We couldn't resists the Garden Cooler ($12): Grey Goose vodka, prosecco, cucumber, fresh lemon and basil with a hint of honey. It is indeed a wonderful summertime drink.
We could tell the Rusty Pelican was well managed. Service was superb, and just friendly enough. Our waiter used to work at the Mandarin-Oriental in nearby Brickell Key. That's quite an impressive resume.
Dessert was as inventive as the savory side of the menu. Miami cheesecake ($10) is a mango creation on Oreo cookie crust covered in milk chocolate. Key Biscayne lime-pie ($10) updates traditional Key lime pie with a more-elegant lime curd. Warm cafe con leche ($10) combines the best features of warm chocolate cake with Cuban coffee. It's served with vanilla ice cream.
Maybe it's that magical view out the windows, but you'd never know this place was so big. There's seating for 218 in the dining room, 110 in the bar and 108 on the patio. Want to hold a special event here? A ballroom upstairs can handle another 500.
When we looked around the dining room, we saw all kinds of people having a good time. There was a big group celebrating an elder's birthday. There were young couples out for date night, families with teens, tourists and, yes, the hip Miami crowd looking for a scene. But no group drowned out the other.
If I have one overriding criticism of the place, it's the name. The Rusty Pelican? There's nothing rusty about it.