We’ve been a fan of Casablanca since it was a wee shack selling catch-of-the day on Watson Island 20 years ago. The market at the rustic Casablanca restaurant, which opened in 2007 on the Miami River, is still one of the best places in town to purchase fresh snapper, mahi-mahi and grouper.
With its own small fleet of fishing boats, the Sanchez family knows Florida seafood well, so expectations ran high when they opened an upscale Casablanca outpost late last year near the Venetian Causeway.
Commanding the rear second floor of the DoubleTree by Hilton Grand Hotel, the restaurant and its floor-to-ceiling windows offer panoramic views of Biscayne Bay. If boaters call Sea Isle Marina before 6 p.m., they can arrange to dock for free behind the hotel for dinner. Landlubbers must find street parking or pay $5 for the hotel valet, then stroll through the Grand’s mishmash of shops before taking the escalator up to Casablanca’s cool oasis.
The restaurant is yacht-club casual with a Latin flair. A circular granite bar commands one side of the room, with high-back wicker stools around it and an exposed brick oven in the rear. About 20 tables of varying heights are spread across the restaurant, with another eight on a small, enclosed balcony. At least 10 flat-screen TVs hang at various points throughout.
The menu sticks to Casablanca’s sea-to-table concept. The complimentary smoked fish dip, which comes with tri-color chips, is packed with Old Florida flavor. The conch fritters have just the right balance of chewy conch meat and breading.
From the raw bar, a refreshing seafood salad was a chunky, bracing mix of shrimp, scallops, conch, calamari, octopus and fish marinated in a citrus-tomato-cilantro sauce, with fresh avocado and white corn chips. Served in an elliptical white bowl, it made a promising starter for three.
Grilled parrillada accompanied by shrimp, scallops, mussels, clams, calamari and mahi mahi mixed with tomato, cilantro and onions made for an elaborate entree, served on a steel grill that looked like a small speed boat. We added a marinade-soaked baby churrasco for extra decadence.
Unfortunately, the salty skirt steak and a seafood pasta were the only satisfying dishes among otherwise mediocre, poorly handled entrees. A small, thin snapper fillet came out chewy and tough, served with mashed potatoes whipped to a gummy paste. Seafood repeatedly suffered from overcooking, hardly the careful handling Casablanca’s fresh catch deserves.
Both of the desserts we tried, coconut flan and guava cheesecake, were heavy-handed and predictable.
I can’t tell you about the margarita flatbread we ordered because it never arrived. With painfully slow, unapologetic service from a young, inexperienced staff, we didn’t want to prolong the experience by pointing out the mistake.
Loud music, tacky outdoor lighting and a cheesy mural of fishing scenes and frou-frou drinks on the terrace tilt the scene toward tourist-trap territory.
Until the cooking and service can match the view and prices, it’s probably best to stick to this bayside retreat for lunch or drinks. For now, dinner here is the big one that got away.
Miami Herald critics dine anonymously at the newspaper’s expense.