The big review: Marinheiro ** 1/2

Marinheiro's colossal shrimp. Photo: Nuri Villbona/ staff

Portuguese food, like all matters Iberian, takes a back seat to its Spanish cousin. Still, South Florida has a handful of Portuguese restaurants, and the food is, as expected, not far from Spanish: lots of olive oil and garlic, fish, mollusks, sausage, beans.

Plus, like Spain, Portugal has its colonial offspring in Brazil. From its Eastern excursions, Portuguese food has developed a yen for cilantro, which turns up at Miami’s Marinheiro (”sailor” in Portuguese) restaurant, flavoring a delicious appetizer of tiny clams in olive oil and garlic, the cilantro cutting the flavor of a sauce that is practically an Iberian cliché.

Another typical appetizer at Marinheiro, codfish croquettes, tastes fresh and robust, but it lacks the spunk of what one finds at other Portuguese emporiums and all the Spanish ones around town. And Marinheiro’s menu is not strictly Portuguese: an artichoke timbale is nice and creamy, but it could appear on a menu anywhere.
And therein lies the challenge facing Marinheiro.

Like its predecessor in the same locale, Mendoza, the restaurant lacks a focused identity. Portuguese, yes, but not solidly so, in the way that the pricier La Dorada in Coral Gables is Spanish.

A bit of Marinheiro’s menu floats around an international free zone, with touches of Portuguese fusion, but is nothing like the bold statements chefs make these days. And while the Portuguese dishes are a cut above our popular restaurants of that nationality in quality, they’re not what one expects.

And Marinheiro does raise expectations. It’s a white-tablecloth establishment, with the most stunning waterfront location imaginable: a luscious view from a generous two-tier terrace of the glittering curve of Brickell and downtown nestling Biscayne Bay. The interior is of grand proportions.

Indeed, the place was perfect for its first tenant, La Broche, where amazing cocina de autor was imagined (”cooked” seems too banal a verb) by a staff that, seen through a huge glass wall, was nothing but beautiful people. La Broche bombed. Too challenging for a city that does not expect intellect in a restaurant? Perhaps.

Marinheiro is the third incarnation. Judging from the spare clientele, one can only offer a prayer. Still, the service is friendly and without major flaws. And the food can be good.

The side of optional black-eyed peas with the croquettes is a delicious bean salad. Giant tiger shrimp, split and broiled and topped with a sauce, are outstanding. The signature dish of sauced mixed seafood with potatoes — ubiquitous in Portuguese fish dishes — is fine but doesn’t knock your socks off. Another classic, duck rice, is the shredded dark meat buried in a subtly seasoned rice, like an understated jambalaya. Not bad. A dessert Napoleon works, thanks to the presence of mascarpone; otherwise, it would be cloying.

All in all, it’s a pleasant dining experience and prices are reasonable — there’s a three-course executive lunch for $12.75. Wines can climb up there, but the Portuguese selection is well chosen. However, using the glassed-in wine cellar as storage for all bar liquor is less than elegant, and so are the piles of boxes behind the ultra-modern bar.
The owners run restaurants in Portugal and Venezuela and apparently do quite well. The jury’s out on their destiny here. But it’ll take a strong will to defy the broken-restaurant karma that haunts this sublime destination.

1155 Brickell Bay Dr., Miami; 305-377-4442,; Mon.-Wed. 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m., Thurs.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-12:30 a.m.; prices: starters $7-$10, entrees $16-$32, desserts $6-$7; full bar, valet parking; AX, VS, MC.