MesarMar is One of Coral Gables’ Most Popular Restaurants, and for Good Reason – it Serves Some of the Finest Seafood Dishes in the City
One of the great mysteries of coastal South Florida is how few seafood restaurants there are – and how few of those are really good. If you are a lover of superb seafood, however, do not despair. MesaMar is your Mecca.
MesaMar specializes in well-prepared, fresh seafood, with the added twist that it tweaks the taste by fusing Latin and Japanese cuisine. The result is a celebration of fresh fish and crustaceans, with intriguing flavors, spices and preparations that take the ocean’s catch to a new place.
It is also a well-planned, pleasant place to eat, smartly decorated with symbols of the sea and shades of Mediterranean blue trimmed with white molding; the effect is a kind of Brooks Brothers meets Cape Cod look, a natural, sophisticated feeling like being in a big, well-appointed house on Chesapeake Bay.
MesaMar is also like a secret that everybody knows about, a surprise party waiting quietly until you open the doors and find the whole gang inside. Walk through their modest entrance, slightly enhanced by two short Greek columns, and you discover an array of rooms peopled with scores of diners, and with a busy, curvy bar in the center.
One room is called the library, appropriately enough; one wall is covered with backlit bookshelves. Another more intimate room, with silver starfish on the wall, is called the Happy Lounge. The third and largest room is called the Fish Room, for here is where the parade of the day’s fresh fish are on display in a bed of crushed ice.
These fish are for the Catch of the Day, the signature dish of MesaMar. For this entrée, the waiter brings you the fish first. It’s up to you to approve; those who are canny in such things can judge by how clear the eyes look. But not to worry if you are a landlubber; it’s almost impossible to get anything but the freshest. MesaMar owner and executive chef Lilia “Fifi” Molina has such a reputation for sending back less-than-fresh fish to her suppliers on the Miami River that they only offer her their best.
The Catch of the Day is served either as a whole grilled or fried fish, or fileted, with its meat grilled or fried and placed next to the spiny fish skeleton that rides the middle of the plate like a small dragon. You can also have one side grilled and one side fried, which is the most fun and what we tried. Fantastic. While the Catch is enough to put MesaMar on the seafood map, it’s what they do beyond the traditional, mixing Japanese and Latin flavors, that make them unique.
For starters we tried their Tacos from the Sea. While the tuna in homemade cilantro sauce is good, the lobster taco with garlic and MesaMar’s creamy, tangy sauce (a secret recipe, but we suspect chipotle is involved) was spectacular. Their sashimi is another crossover dish, with thin slices of raw fish marinated ceviche-style in Asian citrus yuzu, with miso and olive oil. Light and full of flavor. Their coconut rolls – tuna sashimi on a stick with caramelized cashews, shredded coconut and capers – is another clever and scrumptious mouthful.
One of our main goals is to leave our patrons with powerful flavors they will never forgetLilia Molina
In their menu category of “hot” dishes, we tried two that were knockouts, well worth the visit. The first was a rock shrimp tempura fried in a mushroom and ponzu batter and then coated with MesaMar’s secret creamy sauce. It was the most popular item on our table. The other was their grilled scallops in pear cream sauce and truffle oil. A new and remarkably good taste.
MesaMar’s extensive menu delves into pastas and meats with great confidence – some excellent linguini dishes and a top notch filet mignon among the choices – but they had us at seafood. As a benchmark we ordered the Paella MesaMar and were impressed with the ratio of seafood to yellow rice, the copious use of green peas and the hefty chunks of lobster. On the side we ordered some tostones, deftly and lightly fried.
Now four years old, Mesa Mar is the second restaurant launched by Molina. The first, called Fifi’s Place, was started in 2007 on Miami Beach. But, says Molina, “most of my customers were from the Gables, and they always told me to open a place here.” When she was approached by Felipe Valls Jr. (owner of Versailles and La Carreta), who offered to partner with her, she knew the time had come. As for the Japanese/Latin fusion, she modestly says the inspiration came from Nobu on the beach, where she first tasted rock shrimp tempura.
“Our menu is a Japanese and Latin fusion because one of our main goals is to leave our patrons with powerful flavors they will not forget,” she says. “Because of this we have customers that frequent the restaurant every week. When we were on the beach, the restaurant was driven by tourists. Here the regular clientele [including Miami pop star Pitbull] is the important thing. “A lot of our customers dine so frequently here they have gotten to know our staff, and feel like they are owners of the restaurant.”