2 stars for Miami's "struggling" Casablanca on the Bay

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.

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 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.

Ambience: 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. 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.

What Worked

  • A refreshing seafood salad that 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
  • Elaborate grilled parrillada accompanied by shrimp, scallops, mussels, clams, calamari and mahi mahi mixed with tomato, cilantro and onions
  • Decadent marinade-soaked baby churrasco
  • Salty skirt steak
  • Satisfying seafood pasta

What Didn’t Work

  • Mediocre, poorly handled entrees
  • Small, thin snapper fillet that came out chewy and tough
  • Mashed potatoes whipped to a gummy paste
  • Seafood that repeatedly suffered from overcooking
  • Heavy-handed and predictable coconut flan and guava cheesecake
  • A margarita flatbread that never arrived
  • Painfully slow, unapologetic service from a young, inexperienced staff
  • Loud music, tacky outdoor lighting and a cheesy mural of fishing scenes and frou-frou drinks on the terrace