Sunday, February 26, 2012

2012 Fun Playing With Fish in Destin FL, P.1: RIP Mr. Ferrell Shipp

Our winter trip to Destin, Florida enables us to consume a disproportionate amount of fish and seafood. We are just returned from the tenth edition of this trip, and we were fortunate to have fun playing with several species of water creatures at a variety of venues. This report will be broken into several blog posts, and won’t be entirely chronological this year, but stick with it and you won't regret it!

Tasty Crab Cake Sliders from Obrycki’s at the BWI Airport
Kindly note the usual disclaimer – though we return annually, we generally eat at each establishment only once per year. Great restaurants can have bad days, and mediocre spots can have stellar days; this blog simply seeks to share our experiences as we perceive them, and to bring some positive attention to those that we enjoyed the most. 

We arrived in Destin a little later than we’d planned on Wednesday February 8, due to a GPS [operator] error when leaving Panama City Beach's airport. The original plan had been to hit a restaurant on Route 30A on the Alys Beach/Rosemary Beach side of the world on our way west to Destin, but Bob wanted to check in at the condo first. So here it was after 8pm, and we needed dinner. With my inner ear still clogged from flying, and with me still adjusting to maneuvering and parking the massive Lincoln Town Car we'd rented (don't ask), I committed the most quintessential sin a traveling food lover can make in this smart-phone enabled age – picking a dining destination on sight alone. 

As we’d headed west on Route 98, around the Cross Bay Bridge, we passed a place that for years had been a ubiquitous chain dinner house; the sign atop the restaurant at 34906 Emerald Coast Parkway now read “Miller’s Destin Ale House.” “How could an independent restaurant survive the rents in this strip,” my brain wondered, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to make a new locally-owned find so close to our lodgings. My first instinct proved unfortunately correct. It became quickly apparent once we stepped inside that despite “Destin” in the neon name, this was indeed part of a chain, called "Miller's Ale House" and which apparently inserts the city name into most units, whichever city it might be. Founded in Jupiter, Florida in 1988, the brand is primarily located throughout Florida, but also has outlets in seven other states. I asked the fellow who seated us whether any of the fish was from that part of the world, and he said yes and described the local supplier they source from, so we decided to stay. 

Indeed, some of the fish served here is locally procured, though they were out of Grouper this evening. We accepted the remaining choice of Mahi, and each ordered the grilled fish plate.

Grilled Catch of the Day (Mahi) with french fries and cole slaw, plus choice of sauce (I got roasted red pepper, Bob tried Red Thai Curry) on the vegetables. Wait - where's the cole slaw?  

Oh, there it is - we had to ask for it.

Had the fish not been cooked to within an inch of its life, it would actually have been quite good. At $13.49 for the above platter, no harm or foul occurred (except to the fish, which was dry from being overcooked), though the roasted fresh vegetables served in a canned-tasting sauce were inedible. Fries and slaw, as at most places we visited, were food service pack but enjoyable. We returned to Sundestin and prepared to meet the morning.

Morning turned to mourning almost immediately. Our “go to” breakfast for ten years has been the Silver Sands Breakfast at Harbor Docks. Something looked wrong before we even got into the parking lot – no sign of the sign (pictured below, from an earlier visit), and no cars. The Silver Sands’s proprietor, Mr. Ferrell Shipp, was in his 80s when this article was written about him in 2010. He always made the Silver Sands’s biscuits, which were like no others we’ve ever tasted, even as he seemed older and more arthritic every year. The locked front door at Harbor Docks all but confirmed my suspicions. A quick Google search told me what my heart now already knew – Mr. Shipp had passed away July 5, 2011 at the age of 86, and his family decided to shut the breakfast business down in October 2011. We will miss you and your wonderful biscuits – Mr. Shipp, you cannot be replaced.

Mr. Shipp makes his Exit.
This discovery left us sad, but also wondering where we’d eat breakfast at this early hour. We meant to head to The Donut Hole, but in another feat of operator error, turned left instead of right onto 98, out of Harbor Docks. After driving west across Okaloosa Island and into Fort Walton Beach, and finding nothing that looked appealing for breakfast, we turned around and headed back towards The Donut Hole. Then, just across the Destin Bridge, a sign caught my eye: The Florida House of Destin. 

Located where Another Broken Egg had been for years, at 104 Harbor Boulevard, the independent-looking restaurant promised breakfast, lunch and dinner (the menu refers to a website at, but it doesn't appear to be working). This menu item caught my eye: “Crabcake Benny – two poached eggs served on top of two pan seared crabcakes and topped with a creamy hollandaise sauce and served with homefries or grits.” I asked our server about the fish and seafood on the menu, and he said it was all fresh and local. 

While we waited for our breakfast to be served, we chatted briefly with the owner, Charlie. A native of Connecticut, Charlie had owned a restaurant in Vermont for 13 years, then lost everything to a hurricane that flooded his property (you don’t buy flood insurance in the mountains of Vermont). He and his Alabama-born wife re-located to Destin about three years ago, and the Florida House was in its second full year of operation. Everything, he said, was made from scratch, and the menu emphasizes comfort foods like burgers, sandwiches, pot roast, meatloaf, roast turkey and steak. He and his wife also own the pizzeria located in the former Miss Chen’s across 98 (Crust), and he promised that the thin crust pizza there would satisfy this New York ex-pat.

Breakfast is served:

Bob's pancakes, served with sausage

Bob’s pancakes were nicely done, though to my palate, there was a “mix” flavor and texture to them. The sausage tasted typical. But what about the crab cakes? They were pretty darn tasty, though I honestly couldn’t tell you if they were freshly made from local product or not (and our later lunch experience would suggest not). The hollandaise, probably from a food service pack, was flavorful and the eggs perfectly poached (sorry, no yolky porn shots). The only problem was that the grits on my plate were ice cold. Charlie’s wife (who’s name I didn’t note; I apologize), was in the vicinity, and got me a fresh, extremely hot bowlful (which, like the cold ones on my plate, also lacked salt). The flavors and textures of crab cake, runny egg, hollandaise, melty cheese and grits, now combined together in the bowl, made for a completely satisfying breakfast, far better than a similar breakfast had been at The Donut Hole a few years back at about the same price point. 

The Florida House is offering 2-for-the-price-of-1 dinner specials throughout dinner service for the remainder of the winter, though we did not partake, and they also boast a full bar. We did return for lunch during our second week, and I’m very sorry to say that we just weren't impressed with the “Fish and Chips” plate, which we'd been told used the same "Golden Fried Grouper" as the Fish Sandwich. During our first visit, and again on our second, I asked each server about the fish – both insisted it was fresh, local Grouper. Judge for yourself:


Mine - featuring the noteworthy potato salad


The potato salad was deliciously fresh and obviously made in house – if only the other items on the plate were also house-made! You can see from the size and shape of the fish that it isn’t a Grouper filet (I’d guess tilapia); I didn’t photograph it after I cut into it, but to my eye and tongue, it was a previously frozen product (and previously breaded, as well). At that point in the trip, having already wrassled with a couple of places over quality issues, we just let it be. The potato salad did dazzle.

Our overall experience at Florida House was very pleasant, as was the crab cake in my breakfast – but I can’t recommend the fish, period. As with La Famiglia Ristorante a few doors down, land and vegetable based comfort food seems to be delivered well for a fair price, but avoid the fish and seafood if that is what you crave. The pizza at Crust will be addressed in a later post, but it is worth your trouble if you enjoy New York-style pizza (and the meatballs and tomato sauce on it were fabulous).

So - did we find any worthy fish dishes in Florida? Of course we did - and it didn't take very long. Cue Harbor Docks, which now serves lunch until 4pm daily! After a few uneven years, Harbor Docks seems to have stabilized itself, though the "restaurant group" now extends to seven restaurants in multiple states. The dinner price points remain a little high for what is offered, but we've enjoyed several recent lunches there. After taking our seats, we were delighted to learn that Harbor Docks's owner Charles Morgan had decided to bring breakfast service back at Harbor Docks, and that some of the Silver Sands Breakfast's staff would also return. Service would commence on Valentine's Day.

Armed with this happy information, we asked about the lunch menu; particularly, the mullet. I'd never had mullet, but was game to try it. Our server started to describe it, then said - "wait a moment, I'll be right back." The next thing we knew, this appeared for our consideration:

Two strips of fried mullet in "regular" batter, with tarter sauce
Hot and crispy, and exploding with intense, yet fresh fish flavor - these bites immediately convinced us to try the Panko Crusted Mullet lunch special. While we waited, the internet informed me that mullet is primarily used as fish bait, but is on the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch list as a "best choice" for human eaters also.

Pretty succulent fish bait! Mullet tastes a bit more of the ocean than the "milder" white fishes, and it's size does not lend it to grilling, but neither of these considerations mattered. The freshness shined through every flaky bite. The cole slaw and hush puppies as usual were of the food service variety, but serviceable, as were the grits.

Our next visit to Harbor Docks would be for breakfast on Friday, February 17. It definitely felt strange. Morgan was smart to change some things up, while trying to keep other things the same.

New Harbor Docks Breakfast Menu

Harbor Docks kept the Fisherman's Platter (a Shipp invention, and now named for him), biscuits, sausage gravy and grits. Fried chicken, which used to be a take-out item only, is now on the eat-in menu, together with waffles, which are new. Gone is the ham steak, which Bob enjoyed though it was an acquired, salty taste, and the plain gravy I was so fond of. Alcoholic beverages are now available. And some new omelet combinations and breakfast sandwiches have been added, together with sauteed apples and fresh fruit.

Breakfast began with this complimentary basket of food service muffins and butter.

Biscuits and Sausage Gravy

A mixture of old and new - the biscuits were split oven and smothered in the gravy instead of being served whole with a bowl of gravy. Less waste must surely result - I could never finish the contents of a gravy bowl with two biscuits. But the gravy lacked the peppery freshness I remembered, and the biscuits lacked profundity. I also enjoyed a side of cheese grits.

Bob's Breakfast - Mr. Shipp's Fisherman's Special with sausage, and


For as long as he'd been working, Mr. Shipp had never allowed anyone else to make the biscuits. We wondered if he'd left any of his recipe or technique for another to follow. These biscuits probably wanted to be baked a bit more. Even with more browning, though, their made-from-mix character and lack of great biscuit texture (flakiness) would have been apparent. Hopefully, with practice, whoever is making these will improve - Mr. Shipp had decades of practice before we ever tasted a one of his (and we'd noticed the last couple of years that they weren't quite the same). Mr. Shipp's biscuits inspired us, on more than one occasion, to carry home a 5# bag of White Lily flour in our luggage, the better to try to duplicate his biscuity goodness - while Bob is a good biscuit-maker, they are never quite as light and flaky as Mr. Shipp's. (BTW - White Lily Flower can now be acquired in or near most cities.) 

I hoped to get back for another breakfast, to try the Chicken and Waffles, but it just never happened this trip. We will definitely try them again next year, since they'd only been operating for three days when we ate there; it was too early to really judge it fairly.

Our last visit to Harbor Docks came on Presidents' Day (Monday, February 20) and was largely a repeat of  our first lunch, though with a different start:

Freshly baked corn muffins

I would suspect that we weren't served any muffins at our first lunch due to the late hour; they may have run out of them. At the time, I didn't even remember this usual start to lunch at Harbor Docks. These specimens were hot and toothsome. 

Country Fried Mullet, Cole Slaw, Grits, Hushpuppies

Both mullet lunches were a veritable steal at $8 dollars a plate. The comparable plates of snapper, grouper and tuna were $13-15 (all offered with a choice of sides, including cucumber salad and ginger rice). Of course, taste is everything. The impeccably fresh, well seasoned, crispy mullet satisfied on both occasions.  

Yes, fun playing with Florida Panhandle food was off to a great start indeed. More to come in the next post.


  1. Grits are a funny lot. Some people I've talked insist that plain grits are exactly that ... grits cooked in water. Others seem to think that only when you add another flavor (like cheese), should they be seasoned. I'm of the notion that if it goes out to a customer, it should be seasoned, plain or not.

    I'm looking forward to part 2.

  2. Hi Nancy,
    My name is Jane and I'm with Dwellable.
    I was looking for blog posts about Silver Sands to share on our site and I came across your post...If you're open to it, shoot me an email at jane(at)dwellable(dot)com.
    Hope to hear from you :)