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Review: Stiltsville Fish Bar in Miami Beach wobbles with inconsistency

 

★★½

It took two visits to Stiltsville Fish Bar to finally get the sweet-corn spoon bread with lobster that I ordered. I suppose I’ll say it was worth the wait, because it was great, a hot skillet of golden-crusted, gooey, cheesy, cornmeal comfort topped with butter-poached lobster, a vibrant heap of fresh herbs and microgreens, and a dollop of crème fraiche. The fact that I had to return to taste a signature dish that never arrived the first time shows things are not quite shipshape at this promising Miami Beach restaurant from power culinary couple Jeff McInnis and Janine Booth.

McInnis and Booth, who recently got engaged on ABC’s “The Chew,” have created an unfussy seafood vibe that pays homage to the Keys and other relaxed watery locales in the picturesque Sunset Harbour neighborhood. One can sip cocktails served in heavy copper globes adorned with mermaids and watch the sun melt away at dusk from the sunken front patio. Unfortunately, one can also get stuck at a painfully loud table by a rear wall near the bar with a mumbling rookie waiter. That was my fate on my first visit, a night marked by uneven food and service and many surprising gaffes — like double-billing one entree and not removing a dish I sent back from the final tab — even after my cover was blown and I was recognized midmeal.

I don’t know how many diners would have come back for an encore after that first experience, but I did. I sat at the bar, enjoyed the spoon bread with lobster ($23), crispy red royal shrimp wrapped in shredded fried phyllo and coconut ($14), and a perfectly balanced snapper ceviche with sour orange mignonette ($15). I finished with the best dessert I have eaten this year, an individual-size strawberry rhubarb pie topped with rhubarb ice cream from pastry chef Gail Goetsch, and wondered how two visits could be so opposite.

Chalk it up to the vagaries of Miami Beach dining, where mediocrity and excellence can alternate under the same roof.

Stiltsville opened in September 2017, a few weeks after Hurricane Irma, and it has attracted locals with its lively bar scene and good values at happy hour and weekend brunch. The telegenic Booth (from Australia) and McInnis (from the Florida Panhandle) met when they worked at Yardbird in Miami Beach earlier this decade, and both have competed on the Bravo TV show “Top Chef.” Booth was named a semifinalist as best emerging chef (a category for people under 30) in this year’s James Beard Awards. They have operated a string of restaurants in New York and Miami Beach, including Root and Bone (still open in Manhattan) and Sarsaparilla Club, which closed last year.

Stiltsville, at the former site of short-lived Pubbelly Steak and long-running Joe Allen, was going to be a personal venture for the couple, but they partnered with Grove Bay Hospitality Group (Stubborn Seed, Glass and Vine) after build-out costs, rent and delays added up. A rooftop bar is still in the works. McInnis and Booth want to create a casual atmosphere, which McInnis acknowledges can be a challenge in trendy South Beach.

“It would be great if we could have a changing station where we could hand out flip-flops to women in high heels,” McInnis said in a follow-up interview. Instead, he has been faced with the reality of creating a “skinny mermaid” lunch menu for health- and weight-conscious diners. “There’s, like, 50 gyms and 100 yoga studios on the block,” he cracked.

The intended vibe is Jimmy Buffett-relaxed, but there are high culinary aspirations on display (McInnis also is a past James Beard Award nominee). Huge, fresh fish brought in daily sit on ice in two antique bathtubs near the bar. An herb wall spices up the entrance, near sliding see-through garage doors that were installed to replace smaller windows and give the room a brighter, airier feel. Nautical decor includes swordfish bills used to draw tap beer and ring buoys on the wall.

I felt like throwing my first server a ring buoy on my initial visit. He was clearly in over his head.

McInnis took ultimate responsibility, explaining the server was working solo on the floor prematurely because of manpower issues. Training is supposed to include multiple days of shadowing other servers.

My group was seated at a wobbly table, a harbinger. Besides the loud bar (which eventually quieted when the happy-hour crowd left), we were seated near a bathroom hallway where a leaky AC unit was on the fritz. The server, clearly nervous, was a low talker who rattled off specials we could not hear and insisted on bringing us the smoked fish dip (“the best fish dip you’ll ever have”) and the spoon bread.

It was a clear case of overpromising and underdelivering. The spoon bread never showed up. And the fish dip ($10) was not the best I had that week, nor was it good, a mayonnaisey blob that hardly tasted of fish. McInnis said it is supposed to be a 75-25 ratio of cherry-wood smoked fish (typically snapper) with housemade aioli, pickles and onions, but ours tasted like the formula got flipped. Green eggs with ham ($7), a playful take on deviled eggs, were OK, but someone in the kitchen sliced the bottom off one egg, which led to a glop of green goo falling on my lap as I ate it. Buffalo fish “wings,” ($11), fried pieces of snapper jaw and neck collar with a protruding fin and coated in a spicy Buffalo-wing type sauce, were a disappointment, soggy on the outside with sweet meat that was hard to excavate.

Cobia tiradito ($15), whimsically garnished with popcorn, was terrific, with cool, fresh slices of fish playing perfectly with a puddle of aji amarillo with lime, ginger and a touch of coconut milk. A salad of pickled green tomatoes with a crisp pimento-cheese croquette ($15) was very good, but overdressed in sweet molasses vinegar.

The daily catch is listed on a specials sheet with preparation style (grilled or cast-iron seared) and tasting notes (“firm” for striped bass, “buttery” and “incredibly rich,” for escolar, “delicate” and “sweet” for tripletail). These fish fillets ($34 to $37) are the menu highlight, cooked well and served with a choice of sauces that were all very good, including cilantro salsa verde, black garlic and classic remoulade.

Meats were not as good. A gremolata-coated New York strip ($38) had perfect medium-rare pink but a soggy exterior and mealy interior. A surf and turf burger ($36), seemed an overpriced gimmick, a beef burger topped with a butter-poached piece of spiny lobster, kale and remoulade. I took one bite of the forced marriage and asked, “Why?” McInnis’ fried chicken, ($22 for half) brined for 24 hours and coated with dehydrated Key lime salt, was overseasoned and had an off-putting taste of citrus bordering on chemical. I sent it back. McInnis later said it might have been dredged with a heavy hand, but the dish still showed up on my check.

And then, there was the fried whole snapper. We ordered the smallest, 2 pounds, and when I asked our waiter, “How much?” he said it would serve two to three people, not understanding that I was asking about price. I didn’t push it. He then returned to say the small size wasn’t available, so we ordered the next smallest at 2 1/2 pounds.

By meal’s end, after a manager who worked at a restaurant I previously reviewed spotted me, a relief server had been sent to our table. The fried snapper was very good, perfectly cooked inside and served with lemon-basil sauce. McInnis sent a round of comped desserts to the table to make up for the glitches, and they were good.

We were feeling better until the check arrived. It seemed inordinately high. It turns out we were charged for both the 2 and 2 1/2 pound snapper, at $70 and $93. I flagged our new waiter. The house removed the higher-priced fish. Both prices seemed excessive for a fish from local waters. I recently had a grilled whole snapper of similar size at a similarly vibed restaurant in Charleston, S.C., that cost $29.

Miami Beach rents are obviously tough on restaurant owners, but for diners who don’t have trust funds or expense accounts, these prices are getting ridiculous. Those ring buoys on the wall may also come in handy for restaurantgoers without sharp eyes who end up drowning in debt.

mmayo@southflorida.com, 954-356-4508. Follow my food adventures on Instagram: @mikemayoeats. Sign up for my weekly dining newsletter at SouthFlorida.com/EatBeatMail.

Stiltsville Fish Bar

1787 Purdy Ave., Miami Beach

786-353-0477 or StiltsvilleFishBar.com

Cuisine: American seafood

Cost: Expensive. Appetizers cost $7-$30, entrees $22-$39, whole fried fish market price ($70 and higher), sides $8, desserts $8-$12

Hours: Lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday. Brunch 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Dinner 5-11 nightly (until midnight Friday-Saturday)

Reservations: Accepted

Credit cards: All major

Bar: Full bar with specialty cocktails, craft beers and interesting wine list grouped by growing altitude and proximity to sea

Noise level: Ear-splittingly loud in certain areas, more pleasant on patio

Wheelchair access: Ramp to restaurant, which is a few feet below street level

Parking: Metered street

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