Catch a wave

Befitting its nautical décor, this eatery does fish – and other dishes – quite well

click to enlarge FABULOUS FISH: Middle Grounds Grill's sea bass special, with fried onions and a hash of sweet potatoes and veggies. - Eric Snider
Eric Snider
FABULOUS FISH: Middle Grounds Grill's sea bass special, with fried onions and a hash of sweet potatoes and veggies.

I miss the pancakes at Robby's Pancake House. OK, so I never actually ate at Robby's before it was transformed from short-order breakfast joint to coastal Florida fine dining, but one bite of the "Robby's famous pancake stack" dessert ($6) at Middle Grounds Grill, and I'm pining for the old days — just six months ago — when the place still served stacks of these preternaturally fluffy discs of joy. With fresh whipped cream and mostly-ripe strawberries and raspberries sandwiched between the flapjacks, this is close to the best thing I've eaten at Middle Grounds.

Close, but even the pancakes aren't as good as a sea bass special ($30). Yeah, I know, sea bass — apart from being "almost" endangered — is so luscious on its own that all a restaurant has to do is season and cook it right. Middle Grounds does, resulting in a fabulous piece of fish atop strands of fried onion and a simple hash of sweet potatoes and veggies.

It's not all sea bass and pancakes, though. To be truthful, I didn't expect Middle Grounds to have anything spectacular in its repertoire. The menu looks like a clone of dozens of local midrange fine dining establishments — accessible and designed more for mass appeal than culinary excellence. Tuna sashimi is on there, as is artichoke dip and coconut shrimp and fried calamari. Coconut and fruit are popular accompaniments to the entrees, and the trend is for sweet over savory sauces. Think of it as Bonefish with a Floribbean influence.

Like the chain joints, there are some dishes best left unordered. Middle Grounds' calamari ($7) is overcooked and under-seasoned, resulting in rubbery rings and tasteless tentacles dampened by a watery ginger sauce served on the side. Lemon-infused crab cakes ($10) have the right mix of lump and shred and are fried just right, but salt is missing. Season the crab a bit more and it might manage to achieve some balance with the pervasive and fragrant lemon.

Middle Grounds' tastiest starter is actually just a glorified Hot Pocket. Well, not even glorified, really. The dish consists of two big "Creole" egg rolls ($8) stuffed with blackened chicken, cheddar cheese and onions, deep fried, blistered, golden brown and delicious. The interior gets so hot, the cheese liquifies. Like I said, tasty, but still just a hot pocket.

These three dishes are what I expect from first appearances. Middle Grounds' decor is exactly what you'd expect from an "upscale" Florida fish restaurant ("Middle Grounds" refers to an area about 100 miles off the coast where commercial fishing will soon give way to oil drilling). Wave shapes are everywhere, and there's a big fish tank at the back of the dining room. Subdued patterns and natural textures mark the furniture and walls.

The place is close to the beach, so of course there's a giant bar with an extensive list of neo-'tinis to take advantage of vacationers in a celebratory mood. There are no descriptions of the dozens of drinks on the menu, so I wonder: Has this creative 'tini craze gotten to the point where I should know what goes into a "bomb pop" ($8)? Should I even care?

"I have absolutely no idea what's in that," declares our server, but he returns a few minutes later with the mix. Who knew that blue curacao, sour mix and Bacardi Razz would taste like a melted rocket pop? Better question: Who knew that a melted alcoholic popsicle would be worth a second and third round?

'Tini knowledge or no, our server's a good guy, quickly deciding that we could handle a bit of sarcasm and familiarity. By this point, I'm feeling that I've pegged this place. Casual and adequate, entirely suitable for anyone who wants to support local businesses over national chains. Then that sea bass hits the table. Oops.

After a bite of the delectable fish, I turn my attention to a dab of deep brown sauce puddled under two hefty racks of lamb ($24). Espresso is in there, along with that distinctly Mexican combination of chocolate and cinnamon, all backed up by flavorful and savory reduced stock. Not as deeply flavored as a molé, it's still an undeniably tasty concatenation of ingredients that could only be paired with heavily seasoned lamb — one of the few meats that these days still has that hint of gamey flavor. I dredge every bite through the sauce, clean the bones and run my finger across the plate when I'm done.

Middle Grounds' salmon ($18) is as nicely cooked as the sea bass — translucent in the center with cross-hatched grill-marks striping the top — but there is almost no seasoning to give this farmed fish some extra flava. The filet is resting on a big bed of glass noodles, neither of which is helped by more of that bland, watery ginger sauce that was served with the calamari.

You can end your meal with the usual suspects — crème brûlée, flourless chocolate cake, fried cheesecake — but really, just order a round of pancakes and berries for everyone at the table. Robby's pancakes are good.

Next time, I might order those first.

Yeah, there's going to be a next time. Middle Grounds manages to inject an occasional blast of interesting flavors into a menu filled with generic standards. There is skill in the kitchen, especially when it comes to cooking the fish that is the restaurant's hallmark, and every silly blend of liquor and mixers I get from the martini list at the bar is surprisingly worthwhile. And I still have to make up for years of missing out on Robby's pancakes.

Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. Creative Loafing food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.

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