Friday, March 2, 2012

2012 Fun Playing With Fish in Destin FL, P.2: Marie's Bistro

We return now to Florida, specifically the town of Blue Mountain Beach. Last year, we'd discovered the newly minted Marie's Bistro (warning - music will start as soon as the webpage opens) located in a very small restaurant space on 30A. Our memories of that lunch (Best Shrimp of Trip 2011), to-go sushi, and the genuine hospitality of the place were so strong, dinner there would end our first full day. In December 2011, the restaurant grew from 1,208 square feet to 3,000 square feet, adding a full bar and entertainment space along with a more contemporary room, and we couldn't wait to visit. 

However, a word first about the term "fresh" as applied to shrimp in this blog. I believe that about 98% of shrimp available in the United States is frozen, most on the boats where the shrimp is harvested. The only place where any of that 2% or so of never-frozen shrimp has ever been consistently available at retail is on the Gulf Coast. I've enjoyed it in New Orleans (where I had my "shrimp epiphany" at Brigsten's in 2005) and occasionally the Emerald Coast. The reality is that shrimp is so perishable, and the supply so effected by financial and environmental issues, that almost none of the shrimp we tasted this year was "fresh" in the sense of "never frozen." Therefore, please read the term "fresh" to refer to shrimp that may have been previously frozen, but is otherwise pristine - good quality to start with, handled properly, and neither treated with the nasty chemical sodium tripolyphosphate, nor ammoniated (old and smelling of ammonia). The element that distinguishes never-frozen from frozen shrimp is the texture - never-frozen shrimp melts in the mouth, frozen shrimp requires a little more chew. We found only one never-frozen shrimp on this two week search, at the very end. We'll get to that!

Meanwhile, we enjoyed Hanie and Marie Nasri's hospitality on four occasions this year, which is why Marie's is getting its own blog post. That first meal, like all dinner entrees at Marie's, began with a choice of soup or salad. Bob and I both selected the soup, the name of which didn't make it into my notes, but which you see below.

Pristine pieces of shrimp predominated the tomatoey goodness, together with some crab meat and other goodies. By the time we'd gotten a few bites into our soup, Hanie remembered us from our sushi pick-up on the way to the airport last year, and it was as if we were old friends. Watching Hanie in action this year, it became quickly apparent that he and his staff treat all of their customers like family.

Ah, the joy of shrimp that doesn't smell or taste like soap. We'd see as soon as the next day, and throughout our trip, that the Gulf shrimp industry is hurting badly and lots of lousy-tasting shrimp is being sold. But not at Marie's, where they take great care when selecting their fish and seafood purveyors.

Bob selected sauteed Triggerfish topped with lump crab meat and finished with Ginger Orange Hollandaise. The rice in the photo must have come from my plate; Bob's garlicky mashed potatoes are under his fish. We had the same veg, which obviously was NOT from a food service bag of pre-cut vegetables, and therefore didn't have any of that "triple wash" bleachy flavor or wooden texture. But the fish and crab played the starring role on the plate. The sauce combined eggy richness with tangy citrus, with the ginger bringing the two happily together. The fish and crab were so fresh and well prepared that they didn't even need a sauce, though this one was most worthy. 

My seared gulf tuna barely kissed the grill, and wore a tangy-savory Apricot Apple Chutney. The rice accompaniment was delicately spiced, and crunched from bits of pistachio, which contrasted with tart currants. I loved the combination of flavors and textures in the rice, but again, the fish was the star:

Everything served at Marie's, except the bread, is made in-house, with love that you can palpably experience when you eat. As my plate became disproportionately empty (the zucchini in the veg was the last item standing; it's just not my favorite), Hanie asked if I disliked zucchini and would like another veg, and began rattling off options. Heavens no, as the tuna, rice and other veggies had done their job wonderfully. Nevertheless, after clearing the plates, Hanie insisted that we must try a dessert, and brought this plate to the table:

Marie's flan melted in the mouth with the succulence of fresh eggs whipped and cooked just so. Most caramel we taste is so full of heavy corn syrups and artificial flavors; Marie's "from-scratch" caramel delicately complemented the other ingredients without overwhelming them. Topped with freshly whipped cream, Marie's caramel and custard was like a vacation on a plate, and our taste buds floated away to a happy, happy place. 

We returned to Marie's for lunch on Valentine's Day and both enjoyed the Shrimp and Grits. The dish contained a perfect balance of creamy, buttery grits, sausage, sweated onions, and fresh tasting shrimps. I wish I could have this for lunch once a week for the rest of my life.

Meal number four came during our second week on the Gulf. The soup that evening again featured tasty shrimp, and also contained corn and bacon, which always pair well with shrimp.

By this juncture, Bob was ready to landlubber a bit, and so he sampled a Special - Pork Tenderloin (which had a nice ring of fat around it) with mushroom stuffing and gravy over rice, with sauteed veg.

My entree was grilled Cobia, with butter, garlic and lime, then topped with sauteed spinach and also served over rice, with another side of veg.   

Again, my fish was expertly cooked and a delight to eat. Only one of the four dinner entrees we enjoyed was over $20, and most price points were between $15 and $20 for dinner. Given the sizes of the portion,  we felt that Marie's offers a very good value.

But Hanie wasn't finished yet - he asked if we liked baba ganoush. When I responded in the affirmative, he said we had to taste some grilled eggplant spread Marie had just made for a wedding. Though we were stuffed, we agreed to a little taste. We were barely able to dent the plate he brought us, but it was so delicious:

The baba is front and center, and freshly made hummus is on the other side of the bread. For over 25 years before opening the restaurant, Marie and Hanie operated At Your Service Catering and Marie still does catering for all types of events.

The tradition we started in 2011 of taking sushi from Marie's to eat on the plane ride home continued in fine style in 2012. Our last tastes of Florida were among the best, from Marie's partner-in-kitchen, Chef Mike Tran:  

Spicier Tuna Roll (sans cucumber): Spicy tuna topped with Sriracha and Wasabi Aoli               

Da Bomb: Spicy Tuna, Crab Salad & Sriracha

Red Dragon: soft shell crab, avocado, green onions, tuna, spicy mayo

Christmas Roll: shrimp tempura, topped with avocado and tuna)

Of course, the soft shell crab was previously frozen, and the crab salad was at least partly surimi - though I could have sworn that it also was part real crab meat. The various sauces and toppings enhanced the flavors without overwhelming them. The sushi survived the afternoon nicely, and we started digging into them around 6:30pm, when it was announced that our flight would be delayed an hour. Even the tempura held up surprisingly well. We ate 2 rolls during the boarding delay, and finished our dinner during the first flight segment, savoring every fish-flavored bite.

As we had prepared to pack up the sushi rolls with frozen fruit to keep them cold during the journey, Marie handed me this loaf of frozen cranberry nut loaf that she had baked - the better to keep things cold,  she explained, and to enjoy for breakfast at home tomorrow in Cleveland. Thank you Marie!

Though the bread wanted to crumble once it defrosted, good ingredients in skillful hands always lead to yumminess, and it paired nicely with simple scrambled eggs and butter for Thursday breakfast. We still have some of this bread in the fridge; once crumbled, it made a wonderful addition to pancake batter on Sunday.

Sorry, you really can't see Marie's bread in there until it's cut open, and I'd already put the camera away - but you get the idea! Marie and Hanie (and their kids who sometimes work in the business with them) are all about having fun with food, which makes them my kinda people!

You will not find anywhere on the Emerald Coast a more honest plate of freshly prepared food containing freshly sourced and delicious ingredients at fair prices, and delivered with genuine joy, as you will find at Marie's Bistro, 2260 West Hwy 30a, Santa Rosa Beach, FL 32526, 850.278.6856.

The next post will begin with lunch at the barely one-year old Nick's on the Beach, also on 30A. Would their seafood live up to the never-frozen shrimp and crabs we've savored at their sibling restaurant Nick's Seafood Restaurant in Freeport? Stay tuned.

Marie's Bistro & Barside on Urbanspoon

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