Wob­bles at Stiltsville Fish Bar

Mi­ami Beach spot can run from ex­cel­lent to medi­ocre

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - Showtime - Broward - - DINING - By Michael Mayo

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.

PHO­TOS BY MIKE STOCKER/STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

Co­bia tara­dito with avo­cado, crispy hominy and popped corn, aji amar­illo chili, ci­lantro and lime.

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