Tuesday, February 24, 2009

More Fun Playing With Food in Destin FL 2009, P. 1

I returned from the fair shores of Destin last Saturday with well over 200 photos of food we enjoyed during this year's visit. Since this post would take forever to load if I included everything in it, I'm going to break up our trip report into a few smaller segments.

We arrived at the Fort Walton Beach airport on time on Thursday 2/12, shortly before what promised to be a beautiful sunset. Things began to go wrong almost immediately. First, a long delay to get our one checked bag. Then, a long delay waiting for Enterprise to pick us up. Then, a longer delay as the Enterprise Car Rental computer system decided to be contrary. Finally - the shiny new car (a Kia something-or-other) picked out for us had a backwards seatbelt. Instead, we got a beat up Toyota Corolla with over 30,000 miles and a chemically smell. And the sun had already gone down! And - we got stuck in traffic before we even got to Route 98!

Nevertheless, once checked into our top-floor, full gulf front room at the Holiday Inn on the Beach, and settled in at our old faithful, Harbor Docks, all seemed well with the world.

And now, a repeat of last year's caveat: any professional restaurant reviewer makes multiple visits before passing judgment on a food service establishment. We go to Destin once a year. Some places are consistently excellent, others have varied. While I feel that I need to be honest to preserve my own credibility, please bear in mind as you read my comments that we usually only visit a place once per trip - so an imperfect experience has to be taken with the proverbial "grain of salt."

Now, back to Harbor Docks. Little did we know, but a new chef had taken over the kitchen just a couple of weeks prior to our visit. The impression I got from the staff was that they were not thrilled with the recent developments - but I didn't get the full skinny until later in our stay.

Since we've been to Harbor Docks so many times, we don't even look at the menu; just the specials board. First mistake - because salad no longer comes with dinner, and our server didn't tell us that. Had we known that when we ordered, we would probably have ordered an appetizer, because we were hungry. Moreover, there was confusion among the servers as to what came with the specials we ordered - Bob got his choice of carb and veggie - mine came "as is" (since mine was over rice, the carb part made sense. But no veggie or salad (or bread service) for $27/plate?).

We ordered and then we waited. And waited. The wait seemed especially long because because we were expecting salads; it was probably not so long for one not expecting a salad or other pre-entree service. When the plates finally came - the fish was hot and perfectly prepared - but the rest was cold-to-tepid.

Snapper Pontcharain

Bob's sauteed fish was topped with fresh crabmeat and a lovely New Orleans-inspired sauce. He got fries and coleslaw with his dinner.

Grouper Over Rice With Shrimp, Crab and a Tomato-Lemon-Caper Sauce

Had all of the components of this dish been at the same hot temperature, it would have been a perfect dish. The fresh fish was perfectly cooked. Unfortunately, the rice and shrimp underneath it were cold. A real shame, too, because the shrimps were absolutely perfect (no, you may not re-heat my plate and turn them to rubber). And - I do not know where anyone got the silly idea that there was tomato in this dish. No vegetable content of note. Though the sauce, albeit cold, was delicious.

Friday morning, we returned to the Harbor Docks premises for a Silver Sands breakfast. Bob and I each got the same breakfast we started with last year!

Bob's Breakfast: Eggs Over Easy, Regular Grits & Sausage

I didn't get a photo of his biscuits.

Bowl of Cheese Grits


Biscuits & Gravy

More Yum!

I peeked in the kitchen, and saw that same tall, elderly man who makes such magic with his biscuit dough - I gotta have them biscuits!

After helping our Mensa friends move the party makings into the hotel, we were ready for lunch. We decided to try a Mexican Grocery-Lunch Counter I'd read about on the SoWal Beaches Forum:

We wandered to the back of the store and placed our orders at the counter, then perused the coolers and selected beverages:

This drink went down a little sweet - like a beer that hadn't been fermented yet. Most refreshing with the spicy foods!

Bob enjoyed this Mango Boing (gotta love that name!)

Lunch is Prepared

This Wall of Spices is Opposite the Food Prep Area

Housemade Salsas

Fresh and Delicious!

First Course is Served - Bob's Beef Burrito

He opened it to add hot sauce (and let me take a photo). He pronounced it the best burrito he'd ever had (and my bite was heavenly!).

Pork Tamale Wrapped in Banana Leaf

I'd never had a tamale wrapped in banana leaf. As it does with Chinese Sticky Rice, the leaf added moisture and texture to the masa - this was the most amazingly fresh and creamy tamale I've ever tasted.

Bob's Second Course - Chicken Taco

More yums.

Chicken Tamale Wrapped in Corn Husk

My second tamale was radically different from the first - the corn husk gave the same dough a completely different, stiffer texture.

Also different from the first tamale, a sauce coated the chicken shreds. Another yum.

El Mercadito is located at 3906 U.S. Hwy 98W West in Santa Rosa Beach, right next to the U.S. Post Office (850-622-4760; no website).

As we drove West on 98 back to Destin, we spied a farmer's truck on the lawn in front of the Beall's Department Store (15003 Emerald Coast Pkwy # B, Destin, FL 32541, (850) 650-2304‎) and we had to stop.

They are located here Friday and Saturday all through the winter - and worth a visit!

From their gorgeous inventory of Southern Florida strawberries, oranges, tomatoes, peppers, and other items - we selected strawberries and a bag of Honeybells.

Despite their large size, the sweetness of these berries was intoxicating.

We enjoyed dinner provided by the Regional Gathering - Maybelle's Jambalaya and Pasta with Toppings from the Ulrich's:

The shrimps in the Jambalaya were delicious as usual.

After dinner came the Chocolate Lovers Orgy. Seven years ago, at our first Destin RG, this portion of Friday evening was called "Death by Chocolate." Foolishly, I (not a huge chocolate fiend, but one who appreciates good stuff) tried to taste everything - and I wound up practically passed out in a deep chair - to this day, I say I experienced death by chocolate. Since then, I limit my tasting - but how to choose?

Chocolate Bread Pudding

Chocolate Praline Cake

Bourbon Balls

New York Cheesecake

Yes you read that correctly - Chocolate Covered Crickets.

And yes - we each ate one (and got an "I ate a bug" sticker) - though it wasn't bad, I can't think of any reason to eat another one.

My Plate of Tastes

I could not finish it all. Thank you, Destin RG Crew, for the sweets - all of my photos of the Chocolate Orgy (including some of the people behind it) can be seen here.

But the RG was not finished with us yet! The GenX Sig (Special Interest Group) hosted a Martini Social after the dessert spread:

I hadn't had a jello shot in years, but the Gen-Xers remedied that - beware, there is a little bit of adult content here:

Yes, I had one . . . and I enjoyed it!

Saturday was St. Valentine's Day - arguably the nation's largest "Hallmark Holiday." As a rule, we've learned to avoid a lot of eat-out places when the Destin RG includes a February 14. I awoke long before Bob, and enjoyed some of Jason's Banana Bread with peanut butter for breakfast.

But what to do for lunch?

Our first couple of years visiting Destin, we had made it our business to lunch at Callahan's - but we fell out of love with it for a number of reasons. When they moved off of Gulf Coast Drive to 791 Harbor Boulevard, we barely cared. But for some reason, on this busy day, I had the urge to check it out. It turned out to be a great choice!

When we arrived, we discovered that even though it was after the traditional lunchtime, there was a wait - but Bob wanted to wait, so I agreed. As before, they have a lovely butcher case, where you can select your own choice of beast and have it cooked to order or wrapped to go, as you wish.

After about 15 minutes, we were shown to our table and provided beverages - the house iced tea (I ordered half sweet, half not) was delicious. After we'd ordered our meals, we decided to try a cup of the Soup of the Day - potato, sausage and kale.

We were so glad we ordered this - house made and delicious!

I shot this dish from the next table - chili or sloppy joe - it just looked mouthwatering!

My Fried Grouper Sandwich with Fries

Simply wonderful - fried but not a drop of grease. House made fries (or at least they tasted and snapped like house made).

Cheeseburger with Fries

Yes, Bob decided to landlubber. The sandwiches came already cut in half, BTW, which I liked.

Callahan's (850) 837-6328; no website.

We had enjoyed Valentine's Day dinner at Cafe Tango before, and I was excited that we'd be able to share it with two of our closest friends- Phil and Virginia. Chef Walter Sanchez and his wife create simply beautiful food at this 8 table restaurant set in a house. 14 Vicki Street (just off 30A), Santa Rosa Beach, (850) 267-0054 (no website). I called about 2 weeks in advance and learned I was too late to snag a reservation - then they had a cancellation and called me to book us in. Unlike most "amateur" spots, Cafe Tango does not change its approach to booking and service because of a holiday - we saw several tables empty for over a half hour, because the Sanchez's book the space with minimal turns and rush no one.

We were seated in the "porch" area - unfortunately for me, not well lit enough for my point-and-shoot to be very effective.

Our evening began with some wine, and freshly baked bread with Tango's awesome Olive Oil, Cheese and Garlic Dip:

No sooner did I see the menu, than I gasped with delight that the Tuna Mojama was back on the appetizer menu (according to our server - only as of a couple of weeks ago). Air dried, Salt Cured Bluefin Tuna is marinated in Olive Oil and eats like Salumi. Now, it was served warm with Greens and Warm Crostinis:

You can see a better photo from a prior year here.

Each diner received a salad with house-made dressing - I remain a sucker for the Habanaro Honey Mustard.

Pistachio Crusted Fish

Both Phil and Virginia opted for the fresh Grouper crusted in toasted pistachios, drizzled with Amaretto Beurre Blanc and complimented by Gulf Shrimp. They requested that all chile be left out, and their request was cheerfully accomodated.

Phil is sort of from my school of shrimp - - he thinks he doesn't like it because he's never had a good one. These shrimp, honestly, weren't the "best" I've ever had - but they were tender and darn delicious. And Phil agreed after tasting one of his that there was hope for shrimp after all!

Bob had the Panko Crusted Fish with Horseradish, which he had last year. Though I remember taking a photo, it seems to have been eaten.

I think the above was my dinner - the Dancing Fish! Sauteed Grouper topped with Shrimp, Crabmeat, one Diver Scallop (which ate like a little steak), and fresh spinach in Jalepeno Cream Sauce - yum, yum, yum!

We had no room for dessert, and returned to the party at the hotel happy and sated.

Sunday morning, the RG ended. As per usual, John conducted a hilarious auction of the weekend's leftovers, and then we helped the locals pack out of the hotel. All that was left was to join about 15 of our compatriots at Harbor Docks for lunch, which has become a post-RG tradition.

A new lunch tradition at Harbor Docks is sushi - and indeed, Chef Yoshie Eddings was in the house and making Japanese food as an addition to the "regular" and "Thai" menu offerings on the lunch menu. I got a couple of photos from others' orders:

Miso Soup

Seaweed Salad

Regular and Jalapeno Corn Muffins

We've eaten Harbor Docks's lunch for seven years - these were the best, freshest, most wonderful corn muffins yet.

Bob's Lunch

Fried Grouper Fingers, Cole Slaw, Hush Puppies, Fries. More yums.

I'm pretty sure that mine was grilled Snapper. I asked for the "fried" sides - Cheese Grits and Cole Slaw (Cucumber salad would simply not do).

Lunch was wonderful. And we bade farwell to this group of friends. And headed two driveways down from our former hotel to the SunDestin resort to check into our condo.

Well - it wasn't quite goodbye to all of our friends yet. Vera told us that she'd so enjoyed an earlier meal at Kenny D's that a bunch of our Mensa friends were planning to meet there for dinner that evening, starting with Happy Hour around 5pm! Though our only experience at Kenny D's in 2007 had been less than stellar, we were certainly willing to try it again. We were pleased with the food and the Happy Hour/Early Special prices - well done and back on our list!

We began with adult beverages - 2 for 1 draft beers and house wines.

Oysters on the Half Shell

These were enjoyed by a dining companion at a lovely Happy Hour Price ($5 for a dozen).

Bob and I decided to split a cup of the gumbo - which we had enjoyed on our prior visit. However, this version suffered from a problem we'd encountered last time - hard rice! Fortunately, the gumbo was hot enough to re-constitute the rice after we mixed it in - and the soup was as delicious as we remembered.

Our buddy moved on to crab claws after devouring his oysters and shared them - it was very good.

Bob's Entree - Fried Oysters

Delicious, and at a tasty "early bird" price.

Red Beans & Rice

Thankfully, by the time this was served, the house had made a fresh batch of rice - and they served this to our friend Stormie hot (it was cold and the rice hard when Bob and I last sampled it).

Stormie also enjoyed her order of Hushpuppies.

I followed my friend Charlie's lead and tried the Crawfish Etouffee. It was spicy and most tasty - but hard to taste the crawfish! I learned why a few days later - Crawfish didn't come into season until about a week or so after this - so the Crawfish in our food had to be frozen (though it was very tasty).

We bid our friends goodbye and returned to our condo.

And so, the Destin RG and its related socializing ended on Monday 2/16. My next post will pick up our culinary adventures in Destin and environs with a croissant we acquired Monday afternoon at Fabrice, the best bakery in the region, in lieu of bread, because Chef and Ms. Fabrice took the long weekend off (good for you!).

1 comment:

  1. I am so excited! I am headed to Destin this weekend...and am THRILLED to have found your posting. THANK YOU.