by Ron Bernthal
270 Biscayne Boulevard Way
Miami, FL 33131
tel 305 424 5226
There can be no better name for a restaurant that specializes in fresh fish than Area 31, a mapping designation created by the Fisheries and Aquaculture Department of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization that marks a large patch of ocean stretching from the top of South America, through the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean, and halfway up the eastern seaboard to the Carolinas. Major Fishing Area 31 is one of the nineteen major fishing areas in the world where sustainable fishing is monitored by the UN.
The restaurant Area 31 is not in the middle of the Atlantic, of course, it is not even located on a coastal pier or rural estuary facing the sea. As a matter of fact, Area 31 is about 175-feet above sea level, hidden away on the 16th floor of the two-year old EPIC Hotel, an ultra-modern, 54-story curved glass skyscraper in downtown Miami. The lobby of the EPIC, one of the Kimpton hotel properties, is filled with trendy designer furniture and lots of artwork, but a quick elevator ride to the 16th floor brings a visitor to a more traditional setting — an attractive restaurant with plain wood tables, Scandinavian-style, an off-white tiled floor, and a large pool deck just outside the sliding glass doors. Even on a partly cloudy day, the restaurant’s interior was bathed in a soft natural light.
From the large, wrap-around pool deck there are views of Biscayne Bay, if you peer between the downtown buildings that surround the deck, and directly below the restaurant is the Miami River, where fishing trawlers come in with their catch, heading to local fish markets after a night at sea. There are no kitschy decorative fish ornaments on the walls, or illustrations of Nemo on the menu, but don’t let the Miami-casual, family-oriented ambience fool you. Area 31, with its slogan “From Ocean to Table,” is all about offering some of the best fish in south Florida, and sustainable fish at that.
The beginning of the service, however, did not start well. A bread basket placed on the table, but the bread was not warm, and a bit stale. A small dish of red sauce accompanied the bread, I assumed for dipping, but, whatever it was, it tasted too much like ketchup, and my glass of an Italian white wine was brought to the table already poured, without an opportunity to see the bottle or taste the wine. I knew that the restaurant’s chef, John Critchley, had a great reputation for fish, and that Esquire magazine called Area 31 one of the “Best New Restaurants 2009,” but I was beginning to have some doubts about the rest of the meal.
I should not have worried. My appetizer, three house-smoked kingfish croquettes in lemon aioli was excellent, and the main course, a yellowtail snapper from the Florida Keys was perfectly cooked, moist and flavorful. A frisee salad with wax beans, almonds and Dijon dressing was refreshing and a good match with the fish. The menu offers a choice of four different sauces for fish dishes, and I chose the simple salmoriglio (olive oil, lemon, herbs), which sometimes can be a bit pungent, but this one was subtle, and did not overpower the flavor of the snapper. For dessert I needed something sweet and chocolaty, and the espresso chocolate cake, with almond cream and madelaines hit the spot.
The other fish items on the lunch menu include an Atlantic bass and mahi-mahi, day-boat Florida swordfish, and corvina from Ecuador. The dinner menu lists some additional fish choices, as well as a selection of chicken, pasta and veal dishes. Most of the fish served at midday meals is purchased in the morning, directly from the fishing boats or at the local fish markets, which means last-minute menu changes are not uncommon. Various sandwiches and salads are also offered, including a roasted vegetable wrap, Cuban Panini, and an arugula flatbread salad.
Chef Critchley, who came to the table following the main course, was younger looking than I expected, and when I complimented him on the flavor and presentation of the fish, he told me about his early years growing up on Cape Cod, cooking in Boston-area fish restaurants, and spending time travelling and cooking in Asia. He also stressed how important it is for him to maintain a sustainable fish menu.
Area 31 is a casual restaurant that serves three types of diners: hotel guests come in for breakfast; office workers on lunch break, and out-of-town business visitors, love the fresh fish specials and the affordable bento-style lunch box meals; and Miami residents, especially those living in the downtown condo’s nearby, including local professional athletes and celebrities, come in at night for the popular five-course chef�s tasting menu, using sustainable fish and seafood from, where else, the Area 31 designated fishing territory. Wine pairings are also available with the tasting menu, and evening patrons will often hang-out afterwards at the pool deck bar, which Travel & Leisure magazine rated last year as one of the best hotel rooftop bars.
Because my fish entr�e was as fresh and wonderfully cooked as I had hoped, I was willing to overlook a few service errors at the beginning of my meal. On my next visit I will sit outside, at one of the umbrella tables on the 16th story pool deck, and enjoy the urban views of downtown Miami’s reflecting-glass office buildings with a plate of fresh fish from Major Fishing Area 31.
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