On a street with an Argentine steakhouse, French bakery, Mexican restaurant, Thai restaurant, Vietnamese restaurant, Peruvian restaurant and American gastropub, the Latin-leaning MesaMar Seafood Table could fill an oceanic niche on Giralda Avenue in Coral Gables.
Open since July in the former Zielo, MesaMar is a collaboration between chef-owner Lilia “Fifi” Molina, of the North Beach seafood restaurant Fifi’s Place, and restaurateur Felipe Valls Sr., owner of Versailles and La Carreta.
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At MesaMar, Molina’s fish-focused menu takes cues from Cuban, Venezuelan and Spanish dishes, while chopsticks on each table forecast a fusion the restaurant’s website calls “oriental influences.”
Those influences show up in appetizers like tacos from the sea: fried wonton dough shaped as taco shells, filled with cubes of raw tuna and that translucent-orange sweet chili “duck” sauce that comes in packets with Chinese takeout. As a two-bite finger food, the tacos would be more satisfying as a passed hors d’oeuvre at a wedding than as a precursor to a white-tablecloth, sit-down meal.
Chopsticks come in handy for the two no-rice tuna rolls on the menu, one with coconut and caper sauce, the other with mango, cream cheese and sesame seeds to replicate the nostalgic flavors of a bagel with … tuna and mango?
Push past the fusion, and MesaMar flashes with greatness. A generous portion of calamari rings and tentacles comes grilled (or fried) to order, delivering smoky wisps from its meeting with the kitchen’s plancha and a garlicky drawn butter for dunking.
Two skewers of well-seasoned, plump shrimp threaded among red and green peppers come on a wood plank with roasted fingerling potatoes. Someone having fun in the kitchen painted a red Sriracha smiley face over a puddle of spicy mayo.
Linguine can be tossed with mixed seafood and vodka sauce, clams and garlic oil, or carbonara with bacon. The clams option is a wholly winning experience, from tender, toothsome pasta to fresh clams that pop with ocean salinity to the last remnants of that white wine-garlic-oil sauce you sop up with bread.
A catch of the day — hog snapper recently — is a more locally appropriate choice than Chilean sea bass, black cod or salmon. A server presents the whole fish in a stainless steel bowl, then dispatches it to the kitchen to be fried or grilled. We looked forward to sharing a grilled fish, but instead it was fried to tasteless oblivion.
Cuban-style enchilado stews are topped with shrimp or lobster and served in a disappointingly small ramekin. Maybe the word “stew” connotes a larger helping, but my bigger issue with this diminutive dish was its traditional ketchup-based tomato sauce, which seemed like it would go better with smoked meat than delicate shrimp.
For the most part, though, MesaMar is a value play among South Florida seafood restaurants. Entrees come with a salad, rice and sides. And while I braced to find out what the market price was on that two-pound snapper, its $27 price tag felt like a steal.
As she does at Fifi’s, Molina includes on MesaMar’s menu a strip steak, chicken breast and mixed-grill entree for the more meat-inclined.
Servers are attentive and accommodating. A guest’s mention of the dining room’s frigid air led to an immediate thermostat turn-up. A martini order was met with an inquiry of whether you’d prefer two olives or three.
The wine list is rather thin but has reasonable prices on bottles that go very well with seafood and lemon juice and tomato sauces, like the brightly acidic, somewhat grassy Pazo das Bruxas Albariño from Spain.
The acoustics in MesaMar’s dining room allow you to hear your companions just fine, but the ’70s disco-ready playlist (we were treated to Play That Funky Music — twice) sounds out of place in a white-washed room lined with leather-bound books. The room also features an unpleasant odor, like sanitation products, that was difficult to ignore.
The scent is worth ignoring for desserts, which Molina’s kitchen makes in-house. A tall, fluffy wedge of tiramisu included all the requisite, craveable layers of cocoa, cream, coffee and ladyfingers.
MesaMar has landed on a strip of Coral Gables’ dining landscape that could benefit from a solid seafood restaurant. It has the pedigree and ingredients to be just that — no fusion necessary.