Monday, March 8, 2010

Fun Playing With Florida Food - 2010 Destin Part 2 (of 3)

When last we left our recent visit to Destin Fl, we had celebrated Fat Tuesday at HarryT's at the Harborwalk complex located in the Emerald Grande development. The impeccable service, even more than the food, had endeared us to HarryT's - and service was about to become an even bigger issue for the next few meals on our trip. It actually pains me to share the details, because the premise of this blog is to emphasize what is fun. But we encountered such poor service in so many places - I hope some of the proprietors see their places out here and realize that service matters.

Our second installment begins with Wednesday's lunch at 790 on the Gulf. We'd read and heard mixed reviews about this place (and it's sister restaurant in Fort Walton Beach), but most of the buzz seemed positive. And in fact, most of the food was very good - but the absolutely abysmal service ensured a poor dining experience.

There is a time-honored saying in the restaurant biz - if there is time to lean there is time to clean. Any time you patronize a restaurant where the help is literally leaning against the wall - it is not a good sign. And so, we headed into 790's Destin location in The Inn at Crystal Beach. The gorgeous view was obscured a bit, but for possibly the only acceptable reason - pots of fresh herbs, which we were assured were being cultivated for culinary purposes.

It should have been a red flag when, in an otherwise empty restaurant, it took our server so long to initially visit our table. It took him even longer to return with Bob's coffee and my iced tea. I quizzed him about the menu and specials - trying to avoid disappointment by clarifying the offerings. Our server talked a big game about how fresh and local everything was. And some of it was. But the most delicious of preparations will turn to crud if allowed to stew at the pass for 20 minutes or more.

Although Bob and I both ordered entrees, no bread or cracker service ever appeared. After what seemed like a very long wait after receiving our beverages, we gave the server our orders. As we sat and sat, we noted several other tables being seated and waited on by each of the three servers. The table to my right had two suited businessmen, and was served by our waiter. The table to my left was served by another gentleman who was, from what I saw and heard, not much more knowledgeable about the food than our server, but a heck of a lot more diligent. The young lady who had seated us was likewise very diligent in serving her two tables further across the room.

As should be expected when a not-so-busy  restaurant takes 20+ minutes to serve up a couple of entrees - ours were delivered well below an appropriate temperature.

Lafayette Beans and Rice

Per the menu: "Slow cooked until tender and flavored with a seasoned Cajun smoked sausage! Served with white rice and hushpuppies." Bob's lunch was all of these things.

Had the dish not been tepid, it would have been fantastic. Bob was very hungry, however, and decided to eat it as it was.

I ordered one of the day's "Specials" - sauteed grouper with a crab meat stuffing. I knew the moment I saw the plate that we were in trouble:

As you can see, a large quantity of the butter used to cook the dish (which was over-generous to start with) had cooled, congealed, and pooled unattractively all around and under the entree. Honestly, I was as hungry as Bob, and was prepared to overlook this (and the tepid, but tasty grouper) - particularly since our server hadn't checked on us after quickly depositing the plates, and was no where to be found (Bob later spied him hanging on the wall by the kitchen chatting with the cooks).

However, one taste and smell of the crab-meat stuffing was all it took to reject the dish.

The crabmeat smelled and tasted old, so I tried to flag the waiter down to tell him. Except that he was nowhere to be found. For . . a. . rather. .  .long. . . time. It took so long to get any service that I ate my coleslaw (which was actually pretty darn good).

and a half of one of Bob's hushpuppies - which would have been delicious if it wasn't cold:

When we finally got our server's attention, he removed my entree plate and asked if he could bring me something else, without any emotion or concern that the crab was bad. We seemed to be bothering him, actually. I asked for the other "fresh fish" special - fried grouper cheeks.

This plate again took way to long to get to the table - and when it did, it was actually pretty good. Of course, by then, Bob was almost done with his plate and watched me eat. Seems only fair, since I had sat and watched him eat.

The tarter sauce was very good - possibly house made. But the long waits and cold food really put us off -  and Bob waited more than once for a long time to have his coffee cup refilled. What really sucked was the realization that the other two servers were busting it for their tables. Despite the amazing views and some decent tastes - I don't know if we'll be back to 790.

On our return to the condo after lunch, we decided to stop at Donut Hole for some donuts. We didn't actually eat any until later in the day - and they were are wonderful as we remembered them from last year:

I believe this section was from the chocolate-iced devil's food cake donut. The filled ones were key lime (fantastic!) and raspberry, and others were the apple crisp cake-style, devil's food not cake, chocolate frosted cake, and Bob's all time favorite - a cinnamon roll. We shared these over the course of almost a week, and every bite was lovely! We'd learned when we bought these that Donut Hole now does all of its production at the Miramar Beach location, which is why as they day went on that the donut display got more and more emptier without replenishment.

For dinner this Wednesday, we were picked up by our good friends Mary Ann and John, and joined by their daughter Terri. They wanted to try someplace we hadn't been to before, so we settled on The Great Southern Cafe in Seaside. The on-line menu of Southern-inspired favorites looked wonderful. Too bad that the menu offered at the restaurant was completely different. And again, after walking in and standing around for way too long, we finally found an employee willing to deal with us, and steeled ourselves to prepare for inadequate service.

Truthfully, even though the menu we were were presented with underwhelmed, some of the white board items looked good. However, it took Bob quite a while to see the dinner menu - the server mistakenly gave him the lunch menu, then disappeared. When he re-appeared, Bob asked for  a dinner menu. It never appeared as drinks were served  slowly (and mine didn't taste quite right - seemed like either a cheaper substitute was used for one of the ingredients, either the rum or the amaretto, or one of the ingredients was off). When the server asked to take our orders, Bob asked again for a dinner menu and finally received it. The reason I was drinking run and amaretto was that I wasn't feeling 100% - I'd had a minor sinus infection blossom over the first few days of the trip, and I'd beaten it back with some antibiotics I'd brought with me, which proceeded to upset my stomach. Wednesday, I was still not feeling fully well in the throat.

Overall, the food was good - but hardly worth the buzz this place had received, or the mid-to-high $20s price points for entrees. We were started with some stale food service bread, then the entrees came out.

John's Plate: Gulf white shrimp cracker-meal crusted, with coleslaw, hushpuppies, roasted corn tartar sauce, and choice of one Southern Side  (John chose fries)

John was happy with his meal.

Catch of the Day: Blackened Grouper with Blackeyed Peas, Mashed Potatoes and Hush Puppies

Bob's food was good, but nothing outstanding, and the portion of fish was rather small for the high price.

Meat +3

Mary Ann and Terri shared the Meat +3, which tonight was an interesting stew of chicken thigh meat, mushrooms and gravy, served up in a delightful miniature kettle. They chose fried okra, mashed potatoes, and a third side I obviously failed to photograph (I think it was salad).

My entree was a white-board "special selection - the "pasta of the day":

Gulf White Shrimp with 3 Cheese and Bacon Mac N Cheese

This was a very original dish. The cheeses used in the mac were bold choices that played well together, and the kettle was topped with some wonderfully fresh tasting sweet corn.

As lovely as the dish and the presentation were - the shrimp lacked the amazing excellence of truly fresh seafood (but not the pricetag) - though I detected no chemical smells or tastes. And, the shrimp was already tepid by the time the plate was served, though the crocked food was very hot. My guess would be that the shrimp were frozen - even though I'd questioned the server very specifically about the shrimp. So the verdict is - perhaps we'll try Southern Cafe for lunch next year - and perhaps not.

For lunch on Thursday, we decided to revisit Callahan's, where we had enjoyed a lovely lunch in 2009. Unfortunately, by the time we sat down (well before noon, and the place wasn't that busy yet), I was in urgent need of the facilities, thanks to Ceftin. I asked Bob to get me a half-sweet half not sweet tea, and took off. When I returned some minutes later - our server hadn't even taken the drink order, let alone filled it. Here we went again! Again, we watched other servers busting it at other tables, while we couldn't even find our server in the room. Two tables next to us that started about the same time as we did were completely turned before we ever got any food. Now - I had taken the attitude of "no hurries, no worries" several times, but this was getting ridiculous.

The orders finally went in - a burger plate for Bob and the Grilled Mahi-Mahi Plate for me. And again, we waited. By now, the restaurant was in it's customary noon hour  blitzkrieg, but again, we watched tables turning, and steaming plates being served to others. Not to us.

Not only was the burger cooked way past the "medium" Bob had requested, but the plate was served a mere  degree or two above cold.

Grilled Mahi-Mahi with Rice and Steamed Broccoli

This should have been a fabulous lunch. The fish was pristine and cooked to the correct level of doneness, and the rice had a little more finesse than we typically see on $10 lunch plates. But the entire plate was soggy and cold - water was dripping off the cold, otherwise perfectly cooked broccoli, and as you can see, had pooled unappetizingly in the bowl.  The bread, which was probably soft when first toasted, was rock hard and indedible. The fish was "ice cold". It killed me to have to send this back (because I knew, at this price point and type of place) that they'd probably re-heat the plate in the microwave. But at this point, I didn't care!

When we finally got the server's attention, she made a big production of concern, then took the plate to the kitchen. As time ticked by - I already knew I was going to get a re-warmed, but cold, plate. Sure enough, when my plate was returned (and it was the same plate - the wound to the fish  from where I had cut out Bob's taste remained exactly where I had left it), it was again cold. By now, we'd had enough, and I complained rather forcefully to the server (who'd dropped the plate and took quite a while to come back to see if it had improved from the first). Our server then committed the cardinal sin of telling an out-and-out fib - insisting that she'd watched the kitchen remake the plate with a new piece of fish on the grill - until I showed her the divot. To which she replied, "they aren't supposed to do that." Huh? If you watched it being prepared, how did you not know which it was???? Since I knew another turn in the microwave would destroy the fish,  and I just wasn't in the mood to fight over the food any longer, I ate it (and it was such a nice piece of fish - if only it had been served warm!). The rest of the plate became compost. They did take it off our check, but this was starting to get old. I want to pay for my food. I want to love playing with my food. Cold food = no fun, for either me or the house. Callahan's - I hope you get your act together!

Our "quad-fecta" of crappy service continued into the dinner hour. With my stomach remaining too tempermental to seek out fish, we decided to landlubber this dinner, at McGuire's Irish Pub. McGuire's is a brewpub, and though it serves some nautical items, it does its best work on meat.  Their prices are very reasonable and their quality has always been very high. A singer-guitarist was rendering Irish ditties (and he was actually very good). The atmosphere was busy and boistrous.

As luck would have it, we learned shortly after being seated at a very wobbly, almost misshapen, table that our server was new. We learned that the table was wobbly after Bob's soft drink wound up practically in his lap, due to the table's instability. Incredibly, no staff noticed the spill when it happened (ice splattered all over the floor; my lawyer-brain clicked on and all I could think, as it sat there, was - workers comp claim, here we come!); it was only after I made an effort to wipe up the mess around us that another server came over to help, and matter-of-factly explained that this table had issues and our server was new. Why, pray tell, would such a boobie trap ever be left in a dining room and why would any customers ever be seated at it! We probably should have gotten up and left right then. But we were hungry, darn it!

Bob ordered Prime Rib, medium rare, and I ordered a burger the same. His came with choice of sides, and he ordered the infamous 18 Cent Bean Soup as one of them. His mouth was watering for the beef, which is smoked in-house, and which he'd had during a previous visit and enjoyed very much. So imagine his disapointment when the server re-appeared about 10 minutes later, with the sad news that there was only one order of prime rib left in the house, and it was already well done. Having 86'd the prime rib, Bob retreated to a cheeseburger.

But something was screwed up somewhere. Within a few minutes of the order change, Bob's Bean Soup nevertheless arrived.

Bob had gotten to take about two bites (as our track record of under-heated soups continued) when both of our burger plates arrived.


Even curioser, a few moments later, the server dropped this on the table:

Yes - bread service, after our dinners, which consisted of sandwiches, had been delivered. While this seems comical in retrospect, at the time, we were juggling plates on a tempermental table, and Bob didn't get to enjoy his soup at all before the burger arrived. And the biggest shame of it was that the burgers were very good and cooked to medium. But by the time we got to that point . .  .

Determined to enjoy a great dining experience someplace, we ate breakfast, intead of lunch on Friday. We dined at Silver Sands Breakfast at Harbor Docks. A bit of great service and lots of wonderful food, and all seemed right with the food world again!

Eggs Over Easy, Sausage, Hash Browns, Biscuits

Bob's breakfast was everything he wanted it to be!

Biscuits and Bacon, Bowl of Cheese Grits

I changed my "usual" breakfast up a little, going with bacon instead of gravy. Yum.

Cheese Grits, Butter

Mr. Ship was in the house and making biscuits!

One reason we'd opted for breakfast was because we'd be dining relatively early for us this Friday night - the local Mensa group was having a Happy Hour at The Hog's Breath Saloon starting around 5pm (ironically, the same place we'd joined them for Happy Hour last year). I didn't photograph any of the food we ate (mostly bar snacks) and as it turned out, we didn't eat anything else out that night - I wasn't hungry (more drug side effects) and Bob nibbled some leftovers from our fridge. The food was pretty meh (which I expected, and which was why I left the camera holstered). And since this blog is about having fun with food, and  I've already spent way too much time discussing poor service - I don't even want to get into the horrible service our group of about 10 people received - suffice it to say that our server was more interested in flirting with a table of young guys in the restaurant than in serving our tables by the bar.

We awoke Saturday seeking a simple, yet tasty lunch. I had my fish/seafood legs back on. And so, we decided to try a place that we've passed many times and never visited. The High Tide Oyster Bar and Lounge on Okaloosa Island has often been the subject of jokes by our good friend John, who refers to it as the ultimate area "meet market". Still, it occupies an unpretentious shack right by the bridge to Fort Walton Beach and another of our local Mensa friends had mentioned that it was a great place to grab a fish sandwich for lunch. Sold.

We walked into a room populated mostly by snowbirds, with locals sitting at the Oyster Bar. Service was warm, friendly and attentive - hallelujah! After prompt service of coffee and tea we each began  our lunch with a cup of soup.

Shorty's Oyster Chowder

Bob exclaimed his pleasure with this dish (and I liked it too).

Seafood Gumbo


The gumbo was packed with fresh seafood, thickend with okra, and generally delicious. Alas, it was served a little too cold. The good news is that our server was nearby and alert - and promptly brought both of our soup bowls back to the kitchen for a zap, then back to our table steaming hot. Oh yes - yums!

Bob and I both ordered the same entree:

Char-Grilled Grouper Sandwich Plate

This is what we'd been trying to get! A fun and tasty meal! A modest portion of impeccibly fresh fish, grilled with a deeply smokey flavor, served on a food service bun that wasn't going to win any awards, but was fresh in taste and texture and perfectly acceptable for a lunch sandwich. Bob had fries, I opted for the seasoned rice, which had surprisingly complex flavors (we both noticed a bit of jalapeno, among other things) and a nice toothy texture. The slaw, which we each received, had too much celery seed for my taste (I'm not a big celery fan) but was freshly made and otherwise delicious.

The Hightide has earned a spot high on our "yes" list. From the wonderful service to the hot and tasty food - and, yes, you could see that there might be some evening action on the "bar" side of the place - we expect to return to The Hightide.

After our terrific lunch at Hightide, we were anticipating "two in a row" to the good, since we were planning on going to Stinky's Fish Camp for Saturday dinner.

I'd been highly anticipating our annual visit to Stinky's and I was hoping this year to also sample the more formal goods at The Lake Place Restaurant. But there were major changes at the premises. As has been widely reported, Stinky's Fish Camp moved into a new building constructed on the site, and the old building (which had been a nick-knack/dress shop prior to becoming Stinky's) had become The Lake Place. Upon entering Stinky's, we were advised of a 45 minute wait for a table (and no, they still don't take reservations). Since Stinky's now has a full bar, we didn't think the wait would be so terrible. The bar, like the restaurant, was very busy, and it took a few minutes to get served our bar drinks. Loved the wine-bottle light fixtures:


While waiting, I noticed one of the two bartenders doubling as oyster shucker:

All seemed good. I ordered a top shelf rum (don't remember which) and Amaretto Disaronno (I saw the Disaronno bottle, but always specify Disaronno when ordering it in a mixed drink). I then watched the bartender top my rum with "bar" amaretto, and charging a full call drink price for a drink that didn't taste very good. But I just couldn't bear to let another meal get off to a negative start, so I let it go and ordered a sipping rum straight up for my second drink. If Stinky's would let me down - would there be any hope left for getting good eats on this trip?

Over an hour after we signed in with the hostess stand, we were summoned to our table. Uh yes. The WORST table in the room - a deuce just across from the kitchen doors, with nothing close to it but other tables. And there were at least three other empty tables available, all nearer to walls and farther from the kitchen door. When our server came over - I asked about moving, and he immediately accommodated us. That was the only "immediate" thing this gentleman did for us all evening. And - no other parties were seated at that first table for the rest of the evening.

After waiting for a long period of time for our server to return to the table after we moved, he told us about the special. What's so strange about that, you may ask? Well, it turned out that there were several more than one special. Except - he didn't bother to tell us about them. The only reason I knew about one of them was because I overhead Jennifer, who had been our wonderful server last year then we visited Stinky's (and who remembered us and said hi later in the evening), describing it to two other tables within earshot.  In addition to asking about the pasta dish I'd heard Jennifer mention, I asked our server about some of the menu items, wanting to ensure that everything we ordered would be fresh and local (or at least, exquisitely fresh). He assured us that all of the fish and seafood was locally procured and very fresh. I found out after we placed our orders, by continuing to listen to Jennifer, that there were several other specials that we still hadn't been told about.

My stomach wasn't yet up to the decadence of Stinky's Stew (my usual "go-to" entree). We decided to start by sharing a shrimp appetizer. For entrees, Bob ordered the Seafood Platter, and I ordered one of the almost-mystery specials - pasta, vegetables and crawfish (which the server assured me were fresh in terms of both their age, and having not been frozen), topped with grilled Wahoo.

Our appetizer came out first:

Unca Dukes Geaux Jus BBQ Shrimp & Garlic Crouton

Looks great, don't it? You don't want to know how it smelled. A combination of sodium polytriphosphate and "old seafood" hit our noses before the plate even hit the table. How could Jim Richard allow something so foul to be served at one of his restaurants? It was, for us, a "last straw" sort of moment. Every other place we went to could suck - but not our dear Stinky's! Oh - and despite several requests, we didn't get any silverware until after our appetizer was served, and then only when we flagged someone other than our server down. We started doing the old "taste the soup" joke to one another, so neither of us would explode from the inept service.

The manager, Diane, came to our table shortly after we returned the smelly appetizer plate to our server. She apologized, and asked what she could do. We told her - you don't have to give us anything, but please let the next course be good! Bob changed his order from the Seafood Platter, which the smelly shrimp had ruined his taste for, to the Surf and Turf (Shortib and Catfish Meniure).

And again - the theme you've heard over and over on this blog installment (for which I apologize) - we WAITED. I heard and saw Jennifer bragging about the house-made white bean dip, served with crackers, that apparently came to each table. Except ours. I looked around and every table with customers had a scoop of bean dip and a bunch of crackers. Not us. Not even a freaking cracker. I flagged down one of the FOH people who was passing by (since neither our server nor the manager was anywhere to be seen). "What's with the bean dip?" I asked. "I'll check" was her brilliant response. She came back by the table and mumbled something about how it "only comes with certain appetizers" - come again? Only with the spoiled appetizers??? Or, do you lose your bean dip if you complain about stinky shrimp? Jennifer dropped of a basket to our table a few moments later.

It was rock hard from the fridge, and therefore hard to evaluate. But we appreciated that someone seemed to care.

Surf and Turf

Bob's plate was lovely, from the melt-in-your-mouth shortrib to the fresh and tasty catfish, to the bright and crunchy green beans. This is the kind of great food we expect from Stinky's.

 Pasta a la Crawfish Boil Leftovers

This "special" was mostly pretty bad. The plate was absolutely brown - not appetizing. The crawfish, we learned later in the meal, was "left over" from the Fat Tuesday crawfish boil about 4 days prior, and it smelled and tasted awful. The only redeeming feature was the Wahoo - fresh fish, cooked perfectly. I ate all of the fish, and picked a little at the pasta. This dinner was priced in the mid-$20s, and didn't include salad or bread service, and except for the fish was indedible. I'd had enough. So, I asked the server to send Diane back over (she'd never stopped by to see how the rest of the meal was going, after the appetizer fiasco). I offered her a sniff of the crawfish, which she wisely declined. We told her in detail about the crummy service, though I didn't get around to telling her about the liquor switch the bartender had pulled. The only word I could summon to describe our horrible experience this evening was "flabbergasted."  We were loyal Stinky's fans - what the heck was this? Diane took my entree off of the check, and asked us to "give them another chance." And that was it. I remain flabbergasted.

Which brings us to Sunday brunch time. My first choice was to re-visit the Thai Charity Food Court at the Buddhist Temple in South Walton Beach - but the weather was too inclement and cold for that to make sense. My second choice was Restaurant Fire. The Fire Sunday Brunch has gotten rave reviews from the locals. But we had agreed to meet John and Mary Ann at their home in Fort Walton Beach for dinner and cards that afternoon, and it was already getting a little late to drive down to 30A. And - we were getting a little weary from the shitty service that were were encountering almost anywhere we went. And so - we returned to Harry T's.

Seth was not working this Sunday, but Mikey also gave us stellar service. By the time we got comfy on the deck, the skies had retreated to mere overcast, and the plastic was rolled up.

A birthday boy at a  nearby table was having a blast:

And we sipped coffee and tea with the HarryT's Pastry Basket, which comes with brunch:

We enjoyed the warm cinnamon roll, and shared a chocolate muffin.

Smoked Salmon Benedict


Though of course the salmon wasn't local - it was a very fresh product that was well prepared. We pronounced Bob's plate a winner, despite the so-so potatoes.

Seafood Omelet

This omelet promised "freshly sauteed crab and shrimp" - well, the crab wasn't plentiful, but it tasted good, and the shrimp was very plentiful, and while certainly frozen, it was premium quality and had no chemically tastes or smells. The cheese was appropriately gooey. The only weak link here was the potatoes - overcooked and not sure what they wanted to be (and probably from a food service package). But relatively unimportant, because the rest of each dish was so enjoyable.


House made salsa

Mikey recommended that I try this with my food - it was fresh and lovely. Again, Harry T's food isn't winning luxury points - but the service was for the second time fantastic, and the food tasted very good. We left happy!

For dinner, our friends Mary Ann and John plied us with salad and made-from-scratch lasagna. And we played cards until late. We were all so stuffed from the lasagna, we didn't even break into the chocolate dessert! Oh well.  I love a happy ending!

Part three of the trip report will go up shortly. I assure you - things did get better.  We had lots of fun playing with some wonderful food and friendly folks!

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