Monday, March 12, 2012

Concluding Fun Playing with Gulf Coast Food: Week 2

This final account of Fun Playing with Food in Florida picks up on Thursday, February 16. One of our Mensa friends invited us to join his church group for lunch at the nearly one year old A La Carte in Fort Walton Beach. Set into the far end of Uptown Station, the just off Hughes Street, this one-room wonder is offering some nicely sourced and prepared food. Chef-Owner Shawn Wade sent plates of complimentary calamari to our tables to start us. One look at it, and I knew this was going to be a good lunch:

These were freshly breaded from either previously frozen or never frozen squid, and they quivered in the perfection of the preparation. Beneath the savory crunch, the meat melted in the mouth. How lucky were Bob and I that none of our nearby tablemates like squid?

The deliciousness continued with my order, the appetizer crab cake:

This plate won Best Crab of trip. Consisting mostly of intensely fresh crab meat, with little filler to get in the way, an appetizer serving was more than ample for lunch. The tarter-like glaze and cocktail sauce drizzle enhanced the crab without getting in the way of it's pristine crabbiness. Our fabulous server told me, after I expressed my delight, that while they normally use jumbo lump crab meat for the crab cake, the Chef had gotten some great local product (the smaller Blue Crab) and used that exclusively this day.

Bob ordered the Lunch Special of the day - Crab & Shrimp Bisque with Grilled Bread:

This dish had been explained as a full lunch item. And it was so fresh and delicious that Bob asked for additional bread, which he used to wipe every drop out of the plate (and my taste confirmed that it was "plate licking" good). The only complaint from Bob was that the soup should have contained a little bit more of the seafood if it was meant as a stand alone lunch item. Don't let that minor quibble stop you from going to A La Carte for a meal at your earliest convenience - the food, ambiance and service are marvelous.

Our dinner at Marie's Bistro was covered in another post, as was our Friday breakfast at Harbor Docks, so our tour picks up with dinner on Friday. Three local friends joined us for dinner at one of our favorite spots - Louis Louis. I was determined this year to finally try two items the locals rave about, which weren't available either of the last two years when we visited:

Smoked Tuna Dip

Crab Cakes with Garlic Mashed Potatoes and Salad

Both dishes delivered fresh products that were well prepared. The tuna balanced smoke and creamy aioli and the portion was more than ample to all to share. The crab cakes seemed like the jumbo lump variety, and were every bit as good as advertised. However, as much as I enjoyed them - I have to still give "Best Crab Cake" of trip to A La Carte - by a Crab Finger. 

Sauteed Grouper over Grit Cake with Salad

Bob's plate also satisfied. The fish was just a tad overcooked (hence the split you see at the top), but freshness and skillful preparation diminished the error to minimal. And no matter how many grits I eat when visiting Florida, there is always room for the crispy, bacony goodness that is the Louis Louis/Red Bar Grit Cake. 

I regret not using the Brightest Flashlight when taking this photo of John's gumbo, but things sometimes happen very fast when playing with food:

If you can mentally filter out the red - or even if you can't - this was a very tasty plate of gumbo.

Grilled Pork Chop
Mary Ann insisted that I photograph her dinner - when I told her that I only photograph dishes I taste - she insisted that I take a chunk. It was so very good. Unfortunately, the end result of all of this goodness was that Bob and I were too full to enjoy one of Louis Louis's fabulous desserts - though somehow, there's always room for a bite of creme brulee (sorry, no photo, we really thought we were done). 

Saturday lunch at Florida House of Destin was covered earlier, which brings us to Saturday dinner. Despite miserable, wet weather, I was motivated by a laudatory string of posts from people I respect on and this article from a local paper to drive 40 minutes east, almost to Panama City Beach, in order to try the brand new Bentley's & Maddog’s 30A. Everything I read, up to the menu (which I didn't get to see before our visit, since the restaurant website hadn't gone live yet), indicated that Chef-Owner John Malocsay was expert in the selection, preparation, and service of seafood and fish. The restaurant, touted as "fine dining," had been open for a week and a half. describes it as "$$$$ $25 on up per entree."

In short - the experience fell way below expectations. I don't see any constructive purpose in going into all of the gory details, so a summary will suffice: (i) our server was either completely inexperienced or incompetent; (ii) we were served shrimp treated with so much sodium tripolyphosphate that it left an actual soapy aftertaste in the mouth; (iii) we were served softshell crab represented as "fresh" when it isn't even in season yet, which had no flavor and a soggy texture; and (iv) we endured a total dining time exceeding 2 hours for 2 courses, with food served cold and inedible, and no management in sight. 

Every dinner is served with a choice of a cup of conch chowder, Caesar or house salad. This conch chowder, served to both of us a few degrees above tepid, was the culinary highlight of our evening:

The empty soup plates sat on the table for a very long time. After they were picked up, we waited again for our dinner plates to arrive; it was the type of delay that all but ensures that the food will be cold and nasty:

Snapper "Stuffed Supreme"

Both plates were cold to the touch, and not a whisp of steam emanated from the contents. This poor hunk of sauteed Snapper stuffed with crab meat looked like it had been cooked to the end of it's life, then allowed to sit until the herbage turned color and actually soaked up some of the congealed buttery sauce.

Despite the better part of an hour that had passed between placing our orders and receiving our dinner plates, it was only as she dropped them that our server informed us that our side of choice, baked potato, had been 86'd, so the "twice-baked" potato was substituted. My specimen, above, looked like a sibling to the food service monstrosity we'd been served at Louisana Lagniappe. 

Special: Blue Corn Chip Crusted Softshell Crab and Shrimp over Mango Salsa 
The herbage on Bob's plate likewise told the story, though it hadn't taken on sauce yet. The food was cold and nasty looking. We looked at each other - we really, really didn't want to send these plates back and get something else. Our patience with the server at an end (it was after 9:30pm, and we'd arrived shortly before 8), and no other front of house staff in sight - we decided to just give up and leave without eating.

When the server finally stopped by, as we were getting up, we asked for the manager. Chef Malocsay came to the table. He asked if he could re-heat the plates, and said he would eat the check. Re-heat fish and seafood? We said ok - we knew the restaurant was new and we appreciated that he seemed to want to rectify the situation. But it still felt like Mr. Malocsay wasn't listening to or hearing us. He said that not only would he not charge us tonight, but he wanted us to return for another meal on him, but he never even asked our names, nor did he give us his card. 

To his credit, the proteins on the second next set of plates were not the same ones originally presented (though the potatoes were). There was again a wait for these plates - and though they weren't as cold as the first plates, they obviously weren't hustled from the line to our table.

The crab stuffing, now that I tasted it, was of good quality and flavor. The snapper was likewise nice. But the whole experience had been so wretched that any luster the re-made dish might have had was gone. Then, I got a mouthful of soap: 

Until that moment, I had attributed our poor experience to opening month jitters, an exhausted kitchen, and an inept server. One bite of Bob's shrimp and I gagged (he didn't find it appetizing either). I reached for my melon slice to clear my palate - it was hard as a rock. We said, "Uncle." No, we did not return for another meal. 'Nuff said.

When we awoke early on Sunday, the sun was struggling to break through the clouds - it had been mostly absent for a week! I wanted to try The Candy Maker for breakfast. Located across Old 98 from The Back Porch, this delightful store offers house-made chocolates, caramels and taffy. We'd already enjoyed come of the caramels:

Lovely. The only negative is that they use hydrogenated vegetable oil. But they were worth the indulgence!

I'd snapped the breakfast menu, which isn't on their website yet, at this earlier visit. The caramels were so good - how would the biscuits be? The proprietors I chatted with that first visit said that all breakfast items were  made from scratch.

Alas and alack - when we showed up for breakfast, they fessed up that the biscuits were baked in-house from canned dough. At least the orange juice was freshly squeezed from Florida oranges!

They do have a marvelous location and a patio looking out to the Gulf. But though the sun was shining when we placed our orders, it disappeared, and would play "peek-a-boo" for the rest of the day.

View looking across the street from The Candy Maker

Biscuit and Sausage (or "Dirt Track") Gravy
Our Dirt Track Gravy covered biscuits were ok, but nothing special. BTW - "Racetrack" gravy is ham instead of sausage. While I don't think we'd breakfast at Candy Maker again, I can recommend their candy. We picked up an assortment of taffy before we left, and enjoyed it very much.

By Sunday afternoon, we felt like we'd hit a rut. A week of lousy weather. Three meals in a row that rated a "meh" at best. We needed for something good to happen. And it did.

Some of our dining companions at A La Carte had highly recommended Stewby's Seafood Shanty, described as a shack on Racetrack Road in Fort Walton Beach. It is worth the drive! I was expecting, well, a shack - but this place is shiny and new, and very comfy for what it is:

There's the order window (there is also a drive through on the side of the building). The staff are very nice.

The facilities were sparkling clean. The windows around the building open out for the nice weather. The only reason it looks so empty is because this was well after the lunch hour, when they are very busy. So - how was the food?

We each enjoyed a Seafood Platter for lunch that first visit:

Stewby's Platter - Shrimp, Oysters & Fish
Note the specks of fresh horseradish in the cocktail sauce
This heap of pristine, tender, marine goodness set us back $12 each. Two large pieces of fried Amberjack (the house fish), and if I recall the numbers correctly, 4 shrimps and 4 oysters were served with crispy seasoned fries, fresh cole slaw, pleasant jalapeno corn muffins (to the far left) and nice condiments - the tarter, like that at our "Best of Trip" winner Tightlines, contained olives. Words cannot describe the perfection of the oysters, both in quality and preparation. These baskets left us so sated that we wound up skipping dinner on Sunday altogether. 

We returned to Stewby's for our last lunch, on Wednesday February 22. This time, we ordered and shared the grilled Amberjack tacos and the fried oyster SAMwich.

If I had any quibble with Stewby's, it would be with the small quantity of fish in these tacos - though I only ate one, so if there was a larger portion in the other that balanced it out, I can't say. I liked the sour cream and lime sauce and the slaw on the sandwich. The oysters again were perfection.

During this second visit, I learned their secret (which isn't really a secret, but it's nice to see truth in action). A staffer opened the kitchen door to bus some trays, and I took a peek inside - there in the kitchen were trays of whole fish, trays of freshly filleted fish, and trays holding glistening fish skeletons that immediately made me regret that I hadn't tried the Seafood Gumbo, which is said to contain "fresh fish, shrimp and whatever else we can throw in," and which would logically have stock made from those remains. Next year. And 32 ounces of fresh brewed tea for $2? That's a steal! Stewby's offers fresh, fresh food at very reasonable prices, with a smile, and is highly recommended.

Monday was Presidents' Day, which presented a similar dilemma as the day after Valentine's, so we applied the same solution and went directly to Christiano's, where I hoped to splurge on the whole stuffed fish. Sadly, as Chef Chris explained, the bad weekend weather had affected the local fish supply, so he had no whole fish and only a couple of pieces of grouper. I wondered to myself if they might be from Saturday, but he was steadfast in their freshness so I put myself in his hands.

We started with an appetizer of the Bad-A-Bing Shrimp and it was as luscious as my entree had been the previous week:

I suggested to Bob that he have the grouper and I the triggerfish, but he decided to landlubber:

Sicilian Sausage Pomodoro
Hot Italian sausage simmered in marinara sauce with peppers & onions,
served over penne pasta
Bob enjoyed this dish which was prepared well, but nothing special. I think he forgets sometimes how spoiled we are by our Breychak Farm pork.

Grouper Elizabeth
Grouper pan sautéed & topped with jumbo lump
crab & almonds laced in white butter
sauce with asparagus
I don't know how old that grouper was (or wasn't), but darn if it didn't taste perfectly fresh as promised. The crab meat was another story - it was a day or two older than it wanted to be. But there was so much wonderfully prepared fish on my plate that it didn't matter. Another fine meal at Christiano's, which just barely edged out Stewby's for "Best New Find of Trip." Next year, that whole stuffed fish will be mine!

Our last full day in Destin yielded some new (for us) ways to play with our food. We finally got to Crestview (a 45 minute drive) to sample the sushi at Bamboo Sushi Bar & Hibachi Express. We first met Sushi Chefs Danny Ledford and Mike Hartwell at Camille's in February 2007. They had learned about sushi under Chef Yoshie Eddings, then left to open their own place in Crestview sometime in the intervening year. Every year since 2008 we have promised ourselves to trundle up to Crestview and not done it; this year, we were determined! Our tenacity was rewarded.

Danny and Mike do that voodoo that they do so well . . . 
Bamboo Sushi is an unpretentious little place in the corner of a strip mall, with about 12 tables and a sushi bar. For table service, you order at the register, take a table, then wait for your food. Beer and wine are available; I don't recall if they serve liquor. We sat at the sushi bar and chatted with Danny and Mike, who eventually remembered us from so long ago. Since we'd last seen them, they had both traveled to Japan and learned even more about their craft. 

We put ourselves in Mike's able hands (we asked for an omakase based in the local, fresh marine life), and enjoyed a feast.

Our meal began with two bowls of miso soup.

Ahi Tuna and Shrimp Sashimi with Cucumber
I deliberately did NOT tell Mike about any of my food taboos - and that was a good thing, or I might not have gotten this bowl of goodness. As you can see, there are lots of cucumbers, and no, I didn't eat any of them. But what made this bowl special, in addition to the pristine local tuna and cooked shrimp, was the dipping sauce in the bottom. A tantalizing combination of soy, mirin, ginger and yes, cucumber water, and notwithstanding the tastable presence of the last item - I thoroughly enjoyed the fish dipped in it. And I love when that happens.

Lemon Pepper Panko Fried Tuna
The only qualifier I'd given Mike was our desire to stick as much as possible with local products. Hence, a lot of tuna, which we didn't mind a bit. These deep-fried bites took the tuna to an opposite flavor and texture point from the sashimi, and were served with a tangy dipping sauce. 

Tuna Tartare Stuffed Avocado, Baked in Bamboo Sauce

This may have been our favorite dish of the whole trip. A fresh, brilliantly green avocado was stuffed with more fabulous tuna, topped with a creamy-savory sauce and baked. Yum.

Escolar Baked with Seafood Sauce
This tender fish was lightly baked with a spicy sauce. The jalapeno slices added just the right extra kick.

We were so close to full after this plate, but Mike realized he hadn't made us a roll yet, and he told us he loves making rolls - ok, we'd have room for one more.

Tuna Handroll
This presentation enabled me to pluck the offending cucumbers easily, and enjoy nicely vinegared rice with more fabulous Gulf tuna, wrapped in a fresh nori sheet. It was good to the last drop, and we hated to say "uncle," but we were happily sated. Our check for this mini food tour came to just under $42, including two soft drinks and tax - a tremendous value given the high quality of the ingredients and the skilled preparations. We thanked Danny and Mike and promised that we'd return next year. If you enjoy sushi, it is well worth the drive to Crestview to experience the fun food offered at Bamboo. They also have a selection of yakisoba, tempuraed meats and shrimp, and hibachi, among other things.

So full were we that we didn't know if we'd be up to a last dinner that night. We'd considered returning to Louis Louis, but eating a lighter bite in the condo was becoming a more and more palatable idea. And we'd still not found that elusive, exquisite shrimp. My friends at overwhelmingly recommended Sexton's Market for retail shrimp, so we decided to check it out.

We spent a while at the counter, trying to decide whether and how much to buy. Sexton's is cash-only, and the gentlemen you see were generally helpful, though they wouldn't or couldn't tell us specifically which varieties the various shrimp were, other than the Royal Reds in the cooler on the back counter. 

The fish selection also tempted. But we were on a shrimp mission, so shrimp it was.

We bought a little sampler: 2 each, starting at 12 o'clock and going clockwise, of the larger grey headless shrimp, larger red headless shrimp, head-on, slightly larger grey shrimp and head-on Royal Reds. I'd saved some butter packets from meals during the trip, with this very purpose in mind. We stopped at the Wendy's across the street from our condo for salt and pepper packets, then put our catch on ice. Bob de-headed and de-veined the shrimps, and plated them for the above photo.

The final element of our dinner would come from Crust Pizzeria (warning - music plays when page opens), owned by Charley and his wife Brenda from the Florida House of Destin, across the street. They have taken the former Miss Chen's Chinese Restaurant and transformed it into a cozy spot for eating in. Charley, a native of Connecticut, had assured me that my New York bred pizza palate would approve of his product; Crust opened in June 2011. 

Half Meatball, Half Plain Pizza
Opening the box, we saw the answer to how to give our shrimp some oomph - small containers of chopped fresh basil, crushed red pepper, and grated cheese (we wound up using only the pepper).

I seasoned the shrimp with salt, pepper and some red pepper flakes, the got seasoned water to a simmer. After gently poaching the shrimp for about 3 minutes, I drained the water.

Channeling my inner Julia Child (we'd both read "My Life in France" during the trip), I added a bunch of the butter pats and the last few grains of dried chile to the pan.

Shrimp and pizza - the perfect last dinner!

The crust was nicely charred - perhaps a little overcooked because the slices cracked. The slice folded nicely and had the right amount of chew (it would have folded better had the pie been cut in six slices instead of eight). The sauce tasted freshly made and neither too salty nor too sweet. But the star of this pizza was the house-made meatball, which was pretty darn fabulous. 

I would eat this pizza again (and did, as leftovers, after we returned to Cleveland). 

The first two shrimp we tried were the head off, grey shrimp. These were good, but had the texture of "previously frozen." The "regular" red shrimp were next, and they were not only previously frozen, but definitely smelled and tasted of, yup, sodium tripolyphosphate - pass the pizza, please! After a quick palate cleanse, we got to the two types that had started with their heads on. The Royal Reds were delicious - though again the texture said "previously frozen." This brought us to the very last shrimps - the larger grey ones that came with head on, which are featured in the closer-up shot of the Sexton's shrimp counter, above. And here, at our very last shrimp of the trip, we found the Nirvana we'd been searching for - a pristine, never frozen, not too old, not treated with chemicals shrimp. It is a sad commentary on the state of the current Gulf shrimp industry that it came down to this, but it was a joyous thing to eat. 

Overall, we enjoyed a marvelous two weeks playing with Gulf Coast fish and seafood. Here is a summary of our Most Fun to Play With:

Harbor Docks, Destin - breakfast & lunch
Maries Bistro, Blue Mountain Beach, lunch, dinner and sushi-to-go for the trip home
Tightlines, Destin, lunch
Shorty's, Grayton Beach, lunch
Dewey Destin, Destin (Calhoun Street location only), lunch
Christiano's Italian Restaurant and Pizzeria, Santa Rosa Beach, dinner only
A La Carte, Fort Walton Beach, lunch
Louis Louis, Santa Rosa Beach, dinner only
Stewby's Seafood Shanty, Fort Walton Beach (lunch and dinner same menu)
Bamboo Sushi Bar & Hibachi Express, Crestview (lunch and dinner same menu)

Honorable Mentions (not fish or seafood): 
The Candy Maker, Destin (freshly made candy only)

Thank you, Florida, for showing us a fun time and giving us some great fish and seafood to play with!


  1. Hi Nancy! I enjoyed reading your posts about our local area! I too have a food blog, called 30A EATS ( I live in Pensacola, Miramar Beach and on 30A, eating my way across the Florida Panhandle and sharing food news! I am primarily on 30A. Feel free to visit my facebook site I write for, and am glad you found good information there! I also write food stories for several regional magazines! My son is a Mensa member as well, so I feel we already have so much in common! Please give me a shout the next time you are here for a visit! I did want to point out that Soft-Shell Crab are in season, but I am sorry you had a bad experience at Bentley's and Mad Dogs. That is never fun! Best, Susan

  2. After reading again, I see you were here in February though posting in March! You are correct regarding Soft-Shells being in season in February. They are not! Also, try Sarah K's Gourmet when on the hunt for a Great Crab Cake! She won Best of the Coast several years running, all crab with no filler! Located in Destin! Bon Appetit!

  3. Thank you for reading, Susan. I've been following your blog for a while. Please do check out the three previous posts to see all of the food we played with this year.