Fontainebleau gets fresh with fish

12/02/2013 9:57 AM

12/02/2013 5:46 PM

At the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach, its gilled guests have accommodations nearly as posh as its two-legged ones.

The resort recently poured $100,000 into its “Water World,” an underground stack of pristine aquariums that hold live fish and seafood for the Fontainebleau’s nine on-site restaurants. It also spent six figures on a 43-foot boat docked at Dinner Key Marina that delivers hundreds of pounds of fish daily.

Designed and built by Fort Lauderdale’s Living Color Aquariums, Water World includes fish-friendly amenities like temperature-controlled water — Florida spiny lobsters like the thermostat set to 70 degrees; Maine lobsters prefer to chill at 50 degrees. An artist painted a blue-hued sea mural on the walls, and the tanks’ lights are kept on timers to mimic the ocean’s patterns.

“We want them to feel as much at home as possible,” said Thomas Connell, the Fontainebleau’s executive chef. “The less stress a fish feels, the fresher it’s going to taste when we pull it from the tanks.

“And that’s the whole reason we did this: to give guests the freshest seafood experience possible.”

Connell said the ideas to invest in a Torres commercial fishing boat, christened the BleauFish, and to upgrade Water World came from Fontainebleau owner Jeffrey Soffer. “He’s very into the culture of food and the mystique of the ocean,” Connell said.

A Fontainebleau spokesman declined to say how much the resort spent on the boat, but a 2011 model of the same size was recently sold in Key West for $450,000. It also is unclear how much it costs to operate the boat, which carries a three- to four-man crew. The resort is aiming to haul in $1 million of retail product a year from the BleauFish.

“This is less about making money and more about our commitment to quality,” said Joseph Gerbino, the resort’s director of public relations. “You’re just not going to find this kind of setup anywhere else.”

That may be true, according to hospitality consultant Scott Brush.

“Other [hotels] have set up gardens and even operated herds of cattle, but I’m not aware of any other fishing boats,” said Brush, an adjunct lecturer at Florida International University’s Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management.

The BleauFish ships out each morning before dawn from Coconut Grove. Licensed to bring in snapper, grouper, wahoo, dolphin, kingfish, tuna, lobster and stone crab claws, the boat returns by mid-afternoon, when Connell’s staff picks up the catch and brings it to the resort.

The Fontainebleau’s food-and-beverage outlets, including Gotham Steak, Hakkasan, Scarpetta and the soon-to-open Michael Mina 74, move through about 800 pounds of fish and seafood every day. BleauFish’s live and freshly iced contributions now make up about 40 percent of that. The rest mostly comes from Maine lobsters, mussels, oysters, scallops, octopus and other species not readily found here.

“We’re literally going from ocean to table in a matter of hours,” Connell said. “People don’t realize the tight timeline that fish have in terms of freshness. That clock starts ticking the second it gets pulled from the water. With this setup, the fish tastes exactly how it’s supposed to: like the sea.”

Crustaceans are fast sellers at the Fontainebleau: The BleauFish has 1,500 traps set for spiny lobsters and another 1,174 for stone crabs, and its crew already has pulled in tens of thousands of pounds so far this season.

At Scarpetta, chef de cuisine Nina Compton (a contestant on this season of Bravo TV’s Top Chef) crisps the skin of locally caught snapper and serves it with a traditional Southern Italian condiment of parsley, olive oil and capers. She said the preparation ensures that the fish’s natural flavors shine.

“To have fish fresh off the boat is the best thing a chef can ask for,” Compton said. “The product is at its prime. Seafood as fresh as possible is the only way to go.”

Before the renovation, Water World was mostly off-limits to hotel guests, save for an occasional in-the-know VIP who requested a tour. Now, the six circular, 300-gallon tanks are ready for prime time, and Gerbino said he hopes diners will soon be able to pop down to Water World to pick out the fish they want to eat.

(The company that built the new Water World is the subject of the NatGeo show Fish Tank Kings, but the Fontainebleau project was not filmed for the series.)

Resort guests likely won’t be boarding the BleauFish anytime soon, however. But Connell frequently sends his cooks for a day on the boat, which he said helps them appreciate the food they serve.

“Putting a chef that close to the living product creates an emotional connection,” he said. “That translates to better cooking and better food.”

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