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In the Kitchen: Fresh off the boat

Owners' fishing background is key to Casablanca Seafood Bar & Grill's success

This vertically integrated business includes boats, a
    retail store and a restaurant. - Photo courtesy of Casablanca Seafood Bar &
By Joan M. Lang
August 01, 2008

Seafood doesn't get much fresher than what's served at Casablanca Seafood Bar & Grill in Miami. Third-generation fishermen, owners Lazaro and Maribel Sanchez and Jorge and Tania Sanchez own not only a seafood market, but also a small fleet of boats. With the opening in late 2007 of the restaurant, the family has completed a circle started when they fled Cuba in the 1980s.

"One of the reasons people think they don't like seafood is because they've never had it really fresh," says Maribel Sanchez. "Really fresh fish has no odor, and no off taste, but unless you know that, you could be eating old fish and not enjoying it much. We're teaching our customers to appreciate what fresh seafood tastes like, and to demand it."

Having established a reputation for quality and freshness with the 20-year-old Casablanca Fish Market, the Sanchezes already had a considerable following when they came across a location on the Miami River for a larger operation that includes the restaurant, new retail market and a private wharf. Their own three fishing boats leave the dock every morning at dawn and are back by noon with the catch; anything that doesn't go to the retail store or the restaurant kitchen is sold wholesale to other restaurants in South Beach.

Although the Sanchezes also order some staples from Florida suppliers - mostly to sell to other restaurants - the bulk of their fish comes straight off their boats. The advantage to this in quality and freshness is obvious, but just as important, says Sanchez: "I can tell the guys we're running low on grouper and they'll go out and find me some, so it's much easier to control the supply."

And, because they own the boats, they can afford to offer more items on a year-round basis.

Fully 95 percent of the restaurant's sales are generated by seafood, off of a menu that showcases such local favorites as stuffed Florida lobster, whole fried yellowtail and Florida snapper, grouper, dolphinfish, kingfish, stone crab and conch. As befits an operation that is owned by Cubans, there are many Latin-style menu signatures, including grouper and mixed seafood ceviches, escabeche (kingfish that is first cooked, then marinated in vinegar with olives, onions and spices), paella and Sopon Marinero (traditional "fisherman's soup" with lobster, shrimp, fish, scallops, mussels and calamari in a tomato-saffron broth).

An extensive Fish Market menu section spotlights whatever's freshest in the retail venue cooked to the customer's request (grilled, fried, pan-seared or blackened) with a choice of sauce such as salsa verde, garlicky ajillo or lemon butter.

"Anything that we're selling in the market can also be ordered in the restaurant," notes Sanchez.

Although the restaurant has been open less than a year, the Sanchezes are already enjoying sales that have exceeded their annual projections, on an average check of $15 to $20 at lunch, and $35 to $50 at dinner.

Approximately 50 percent of Casablanca's customer base is Spanish speaking - so much so that the owners recently had the menu printed in Spanish as well as English. And the Sanchezes have found that Hispanics order very differently from Americans.

"The Americans like fillets, and the Spanish prefer the whole fish," says Sanchez, adding this is one of the reasons that the whole yellowtail and Florida snapper specialties have become best sellers. Then, too, it's mainly Hispanics who order kingfish, a rich, oily member of the mackerel family, either in escabeche or off of the Fish Market menu.

Because some of the species and specialties are somewhat unfamiliar to non-Hispanic diners, the Sanchezes and their Peruvian executive chef, Mario Tan Jun, conduct daily 20-minute pre-shift server meetings to familiarize their frontline marketing team with the menu.

Hiring an experienced executive chef who could help with the training function was one of the first, and best, decisions that the Sanchezes made in preparation for opening. Tan Jun also supervises the prep staff directly, making sure the seafood that comes in fresh that day is handled and portioned correctly.

"We never serve fish that was cut the day before, so forecasting is critical," adds Sanchez. "Better to run into the market and get more than to end up with leftovers."

In fact, having both the market and the wholesale outlet helps the Sanchezes maintain freshness because it increases turnover.

The owners of Casablanca aimed high with the hiring of chef Tan Jun, whose background includes formal culinary education at Le Cordon Bleu School of Culinary Arts in Miami and a degree from the School of Hospitality Management of Florida International University, as well as stints at restaurants such as Le Cirque in New York and Ruth's Chris Steak House.

"We know seafood, but we don't know anything about running a restaurant," admits Sanchez.

Not surprisingly, Tan Jun has introduced several Peruvian menu items after testing them first as daily specials, including Caribbean-style mahimahi (seared and served with shredded yuca and baby Gulf shrimp with a tomato, onion and caper sauce) and Snapper al Pescador (pan-seared fillet of snapper simmered in roasted red pepper sauce with tiger shrimp, bay scallops, calamari and mussels).

"Having daily specials at lunch and dinner is very good for a restaurant, especially a new one, because it helps you understand what your customers want," notes Sanchez. In addition, the chef and owners can clock what customers order from the Fish Market selection. "It's unusual in a restaurant of this size to be able to order whatever you want from a retail store.

"Because we used to make our living fishing, we understand fresh seafood," she adds, "and now so do our customers. Selling the very best, freshest product is what keeps us in business. If we tried to save money and get by with lower quality, our business would suffer immediately."


Contributing Editor Joan M. Lang lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine


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