Wobbles at Stiltsville Fish Bar
Miami Beach spot can run from excellent to mediocre
It took two visits to Stiltsville Fish Bar to finally get the sweetcorn 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 goldencrusted, gooey, cheesy, cornmeal comfort topped with butterpoached 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 individualsize 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.
Crispy “coconut shrimp” is kataifi-wrapped local shrimp, roasted miami coconut and key lime.
Cobia taradito with avocado, crispy hominy and popped corn, aji amarillo chili, cilantro and lime.