Tuesday, January 12, 1999

Flying colors

Posted on Tue, Jan 12, 1999 at 4:00 AM

My friend had a theory: The walls were bugged at the Flying Fish Cafe. We couldn't figure out how else the waiters seemed to read our minds when we had dinner at the restaurant at Disney's Boardwalk. As the wait staff roamed through the dining area, stopping by this or that table to bring food or answer questions, they always seemed to wind up at our table at the precise moment when we were thinking of asking for more (and more) of the moist, rich and chewy sourdough bread or wondering, "What's in this sauce?"

It's rare to find a restaurant staff that anticipates your needs without becoming a distraction or invading your space. But Flying Fish Cafe has this one down. And the menu – new American cuisine with a seafood spin – is creatively and attentively prepared, though most of the entrees are in the $20 range. This is luxury dining that becomes affordable by virtue of the quality and value. Cooking guru Julia Child had visited two days before we were there, and she proclaimed it the best restaurant in Florida, our waiter told us.

Located along the waterfront collection of clubs, shops and restaurants, Flying Fish has a whimsical atmosphere inspired by the golden age of rollercoasters, the 1920s. There is a faux ferris wheel and a collection of fish sculptures parachuting from the ceiling. The colors throughout the dining area are watery blues and oceanic greens.

The menu changes daily to reflect what's indigenous and in season in the United States, which amounts to a constant logistics challenge for head chef John State. He consistently and successfully pulls off his synchronized fresh selections.

For appetizers, we chose the "Flying Fish sampler" ($11) and had "snapper escabeche," which was cured in a spicy vinaigrette of olives and capers. There also was a chilled "rock shrimp roll" of sushi rolled up with wasabi, scallions and mayonnaise. But our favorite was the "peeky toe crab cake." It was so packed with premium crab meat, and just enough peppers, onions and parsley to bind it, that we wished we'd ordered this one as a full appetizer ($10-$20).

Meanwhile, we stayed busy with a delicious bread basket that was so alluring we couldn't stop dipping in.

The evening's entrees included pan-roasted golden tilefish ($23), a Florida fish that takes its sweetness from swimming deep and living on shrimp and lobster. Teamed with a subtle chervil créme fraèche, which had anise undertones, it was a real treat.

Another entree, the red snapper ($24), is so popular that it has become one of several standard items on the menu. It was gorgeous in its presentation: The moist, flaky fillet was delicately wrapped in a crisp potato casing and served with leek fondue and cabernet sauvignon reduction.

Desserts were equally impressive. We took the waiter's advice and had "banana Napoleon" ($7), a concoction of cinnamon crème brûlee, caramel sauce and whipped cream. Also delicious was a warm crepe filled with hazelnut praline and Granny apples, topped with vanilla-bean ice cream ($7).

A tall crystal mug of Spanish coffee warmed our bones, thanks to a shot of Tia Maria. It was a perfect end to a perfect dinner.

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