Tuesday, March 6, 2012

More Fun Playing with Gulf Coast Food: the balance of Week 1

Our exploration of Florida's Gulf Coast in fish and seafood continues with lunch on Friday, February 10 at  Nick's on the Beach. Nick's owners are related to the owners of a favorite, Nick's Seafood Restaurant (affectionately referred to by the locals as "Nick's in the Sticks"), in Freeport. Nick's in the Sticks has long been a reliable source for fresh, never frozen, pristine, shrimp and fish, and live crab. We'd missed the new restaurant by just a couple of days in 2011, and I was primed to see if their seafood matched that offered by their sibling.

The short answer is "no," though the fish was very good. I asked our server about the shrimp, which was touted on a parking lot menu board - $9 seemed a low price point for a plate of never frozen, locally procured shrimp - was that really what they were serving? She was, to the end, very sure that it was, but it wasn't.  

Bob's lunch was everything we expected and hoped for from Nick's:

Fried Mullet with fries, hush puppies, white lima beans and bacon

Mullet must have been running that week; this was fresh, fresh fish. All of the sides were well done - the fries were especially crisp, and the beans had a nice chew and porky flavors from the bacon. The hushpuppies, like most we sampled this trip, tasted like food service product, but they were hot if not crisp.

The small portion of shrimp on my plate (5) didn't bother me at first, because if it was the real deal, this would have been a completely fair amount of food for this price point. I'd ordered the "Seafood Plate," grilled, and the shrimp were expertly seasoned and perfectly cooked. They were so well prepared that it wasn't until after I'd already eaten one that the smell hit my nose - sodium tripolyphosphate. 

This made me sad, because Nick's has always been a refuge of freshness in a sea of preservatives. I guess we need to stick to the Sticks for shrimp, though the fried mullet on the beach was exquisite. 

Our annual event at the Holiday Inn on the Beach kicked off shortly thereafter, and we enjoyed our Friday dinner and Saturday and Sunday breakfasts in the Hospitality Suite with friends.

It worked out that we lunched at the same restaurant both Saturday and Sunday, and I'll get to that in a moment. First, Saturday dinner at Camille's Restaurant, which is part of Charles Morgan's Harbor Docks group. We hadn't been to Camille's in a number of years, but they had always been good. This visit yielded mixed results. Though they weren't that crowded for a Saturday night, service was slow.

Bread service

The rolls were warm and seemed freshly baked.

Bob's Entree
Three of the four of us had the catch of the day (grouper), with a couple of different preparations. Bob's was the "special" - "Panko Crusted Grouper over Rice with Oysters Rockefeller." We should have realized that since there was no upcharge for the oysters on his plate over the "catch of the day" ($27), they were probably old and needed to be used up. That proved to be the case, and the cheesy topping, as you can see, was singed. The crusted fish and rice were ok, but the oyster left a bad taste in the mouth.

My plate of Sun-Dried Tomato Crusted Grouper with Horseradish Cream over garlic mashed potatoes and sauteed spinach with lemon caper cream sauce looked and tasted like it had sat under a heat lamp for a while. It wasn't a bad plate of food, but I expected something a little more fresh-tasting and inspired for $27.

Tightlines, where we lunched on Saturday and Sunday, took over the touristy Lucky Snapper on Destin Harbor in November 2011, and had been recommended by correspondents on the Trip Advisor Destin Forum for their seafood. For the most part, those recommendations proved worthy, as did Tightlines.

Grouper Fingers Basket

As an aside - I can't abide the trend of turning all sorts of fish into fried "fingers." I don't know if this arose out of the "chicken fingers" craze, but all it is now is annoying. Turning filet into fingers obviously allows restaurants to sell a smaller portion of the protein for the same price, without having it look too small because all that extra batter takes up room on the plate. Tightlines was not the only place where we saw this, and their food was so good overall that I can't fault them, but I needed to get that rant out.

Tightlines's fish was fresh and nicely cooked, and the fries hot and crispy. The hush puppies were the only examples we sampled this trip that didn't come directly from a food service box (though the mix was probably commercial, it was shaped and fried to order) and they benefited from the whole corn and pepper textures in the batter.

I usually ignore the cocktail and tartar sauces, which are often right off of the Sysco truck. Not at Tightlines. Tightlines won Best of Trip for FRESH horseradish in the cocktail sauce, and a very unusual and tasty tarter, redolent with olives rather than the usual cucumber pickles (ok, I'm biased where cucumbers are concerned). But my dining companions agreed that these touches were special. Since the fish was already consumed, I discovered that the cocktail sauce paired deliciously with the fries. The server said that these are made in house, and while I doubt they are whipping up their own aioli, the flavors trumped all of the other condiments we sampled on this trip (though Stewby's Seafood Shanty also gets an Honorable Mention). We decided to bring "the gang" from our event for lunch at Tightlines after the hotel event wrapped up on Sunday.

Our group of 12 returned to Tightlines for lunch on Sunday. Confident now in the quality of their fish, Bob and I ordered an appetizer of Peel and Eat Shrimp, in addition to the ubiquitously fried strip lunch baskets (the Cobia, which hadn't been offered the day before, positively sang with freshness).

Peel N Eat Shrimp

Fried Cobia Lunch Basket
Our tablemates, some of whom also got Peel and Eat Shrimp, agreed that it tasted just a bit old, though no hint of chemicals. The server said they get their shrimp from Destin Ice, which is an excellent source. If the "old" taste had to do with it being Sunday, how was the Cobia so fresh? I haven't a clue. I do know that shrimp that are NOT treated with tripolyphoshate have an extremely limited shelf life and these were only a day or so over optimum. The fried Cobia (again as "fingers," though the menu board didn't describe it that way) and sides were again excellent, and I'd try Tightlines's shrimp again. I wish them much success!

Fresh Fried Cobia!

For Sunday dinner, two of our friends invited us (and four other friends) to join them at a restaurant I've studiously avoided over the years - Louisiana Lagniappe. My friends like the Sunday-Thursday special: "Two Can Dine With a Bottle of Wine for $44.99." While this seems like a good deal, in my experience, you get what you pay for. This restaurant is part of Southern Hospitality Restaurant Group, a local chain that owns several touristy restaurants, including The Back Porch, Fisherman’s Wharf Grill, Cafe’ Grazie and Pompano Joe’s. But friendship prevailed.

Pluses - a beautiful harbor view, and somewhat upscale dining environment. Service was attentive. I just wish I could say nicer things about the food, but it is what it is - food service pack, right down to the fish:

Hush puppies from a box - dry and almost inedible - were the bread service
Salad  comes with dinner - over-chilled, over-dressed and some slimy  lettuce
Grouper Pecan

This chunk of fish, which seemed previously frozen, probably came into the house with the crust already applied. It was sautéed and topped with nuts and "meuniere" sauce which tasted completely processed. The "loaded" potato half had the taste and texture of sawdust and almost certainly was pre-fab food. I can't say that any of this surprised me, but I would have loved to be able to give a more positive report. 

We trundled down 30A for Monday lunch, at Shorty's Surfside and Topside in Grayton Beach. Shorty's deserves more attention than it gets (given its proximity to the Red Bar, a few feet away). The Mahi in our fish tacos was delicious - the grill in this place has always kissed any fish cooked on it with exquisite smokiness, and our Mahi benefited from that marvelous appliance:

Bob's Fish Taco plate, with fries
My Mahi Tacos, with Mac N Cheese

The plates were a little too busy, but the fish shined. I do, however, have a bone to pick. The menu describes the mac and cheese side as "Baked Mac & Cheese," and implies that it is made in-house. As you can see, however, what I was served was not baked and was straight out of a food service pack and nuked. Moreover, it wasn't anywhere close to hot when initially served and it took a while to get a server to notice the need for attention, despite two servers working the nearly empty room. The belated re-heat to tepid didn't improve it at all. How hard would it be to sprinkle some breadcrumbs and butter over a dish of this product and bake it down - no one would even know it was food service product and then it would be baked (and tastier) even if it came from a box. Bob rated his side of fries "meh." On the bright side, the corn relish intrigued with citrusy brightness; we both liked it. And the grilled fish at Shorty's can't be beat for flavor. Just skip the mac n' cheese.

Monday dinner was organized by local friends. Jim, Roberta, Bob and JoAnne said to meet them at the Original Waterfront Crab Shack located on the Miracle Strip in Ft. Walton Beach, directly across from City Hall. Interestingly, Trip Advisor reviews pegged this place as a tourist trap, but locals brought us here. Indeed, as it happened, one of the owners, Emil Pagliari, was in the house, and it turned out that he knew Jim and Roberta (who didn't know he owned the place until they saw him there). You'd think that if someone at the table schmoozed with the owner, the table would get great service, wouldn't you? Well, we were the only inside table (several tables were occupied on the "smoking allowed" screened in porch), and our server first forgot to tell us about the dinner specials, then periodically seemed to forget that we were there. Though the burgers came out hot and juicy to the two people who ordered them, the rest of us ate nice food that had been allowed to cool too much. Perhaps the kitchen held the fish plates back while cooking the burgers?  

Bob's Fried Amberjack Sandwich with Slaw and Fries
This would have been a lovely plate had it not sat at the pass for 15 minutes. Fish was fresh and flaky.

JoAnne's Crab Cakes
The crab cakes were made from lump crab (and not the local Blue Crab) with very little binder. The crabmeat was nice and free of chemistry, but perhaps a day older than it wanted to be (thank you JoAnne for the taste!).

My Grouper was fresh and prepared well, though the portion was smaller and the price higher than the Amberjack. The slaw tasted like a bagged veggie mix combined with a house-made dressing, and we liked it. Unfortunately, despite our friends' relationship with the owner (who had left the building long before we got our food), most of the food had cooled considerably by the time we received it. Too bad, because those onion rings would have been spectacular, had they been served hot. They were actually pretty good even though they were cold!

The next day was Valentine's, and I'd made the reservation at Fire on Opentable a few weeks before. I was excited to read of the promotion of Chef Chris Mongogna to the Executive Chef role; he cites Cleveland's own Michael Symon among his mentors. Also recommending Fire was the stated commitment to local/sustainable products, and the new location at Gulf Place, closer to Destin.We would share the occasion with four of the friends with whom we'd dined at Louisiana Lagniappe. This would be one of our spendier meals; while I knew Fire wasn't a cheap date, I expected excellent value for the dollar based on our prior two dinners there. Unfortunately, I was underwhelmed with the experience (and I think my friends were, also).

The waitstaff at Fire seemed very energetic at first. When my friends' first wine selection proved unavailable, our server appeared with a suggested replacement at the same price point that drank deliciously. Moreover, despite the occasion, the restaurant wasn't more than 2/3 full, so things seemed off to a terrific start.

The complimentary cornbread and butter was a hit with everyone. Appetizers and entrees were ordered, wine poured, and we looked forward to tasting Chef Mongogna's creations.

It seemed like a long time since we'd ordered, but no appetizers appeared. Our server eventually offered us another plate of corn bread, which we accepted. At last, the first course was served:

My appetizer was a special - Gulf Coast oysters baked with crab and cheese, then topped with horseradish sauce. Because of the word "baked" in the description, I didn't expect the oysters to be raw (I've shied away from raw oysters since a friend got cholera from them). Surprise! Other than the surprise, this dish was very well executed. The price tag for this plate, once we got the bill, made me wince a little - $15 for three small oysters and some crab meat?

Bob ordered this soup of the day, Asian Style Shrimp Soup with Three Mushrooms. My taste was lovely, but the temperature seemed tepid. Bob told me later that it was almost too cold to be palatable, but since we were with two other couples, and a reheat in the microwave might ruin the delicate shrimp, he didn't want to start with sending it back.

Avocado, Citrus and Crab Salad
This crab salad was ordered by two table mates. Since it was meant to be cold, it didn't suffer from the delay in service, and my taste was lovely.

After the appetizer plates were cleared, we waited again. A long wait. The kind of wait that almost always ensures that the food will not be served anywhere near the correct temperature. Our attentive server had disappeared, though she did stop by a couple of times to assure us that the food would be up shortly. And the restaurant was still not terribly crowded, though it was busy.

Grilled Grouper with Andouille and  Creamy White Beans, Sauteed Broccolini

Bob's Grouper should have been delicious - but the plate was barely warm by the time he received it. You can see how the fish cracked apart on top from sitting too long after being fully cooked. And the winter tomatoes did nothing to enhance the flavors on the plate.

Pecan Crusted Red Snapper, Poblano Grits, Cane Syrup, Glazed Snow Peas & Carrots, Brown Butter

My food was warmer than Bob's, or I would have sent it back, given the $27 price point. The veggies were soggy (probably due to the plate sitting), and I didn't get any real pecan flavor out of the crust. You can see how the butter drizzled on top of the fish on the left side has soaked through the coating, from sitting too long, which made that part of the filet mushy. We loved the way the poblano flavor worked with the grits, and the snapper itself was very fresh, if a tad overcooked (probably again a result of the post-cook sit), but the dish overall lacked profundity.

Dessert was the least impressive course. This would be the only dessert we'd order the whole trip (thank you Marie's, for treating us to the flan our second night in town!), and it just fell flat (as well as too cool, having been served after yet another considerable wait):

Warm Sticky Toffee Cake with Caramel

The best I can figure is that they were slammed before our 7pm reservation and never got out of the weeds. I felt a little weird, having brought friends here for a higher quality  dinner; I'd heard Terry mention that her entree wasn't hot and I know Bob's wasn't. Thankfully, I also heard them praising the waitstaff to management and complimenting some of the dishes, so perhaps it all balanced out. Fire has so much potential for greatness, and was mostly excellent in two prior visits, so I just don't know what to make of this experience. I expect that we will try them again, and I do wish them continued success.

The sun, which had disappeared on Sunday and not returned, finally deigned to make an appearance on Wednesday, for at least the first half of the day. We seized the opportunity to grab a sandwich at the original Dewey Destin (warning - music/talk pops up with no "off" switch when you click). Lunch is always better on the pier!

Bob's Fried Grouper Sandwich

Mine - Grilled Triggerfish
I've learned to stick with the fin fish here; the counter people never really know anything about the products they're selling. Both sandwiches were delicious, though for the price in the teens, I'd have liked a little more fish on my sandwich. The fries were nicely cooked and the food service cole slaw serviceable. And wonderful service, as always, with a genuine smile.

Dinner the day after Valentine's Day presented a challenge. Would anyone have fresh fish this Wednesday, or would everything be "holiday leftovers" served to mostly empty houses? We decided to try The Smiling Fish Cafe, where we'd enjoyed a delicious Grouper dinner in 2011. And there, the worst of my fears came true. Only a deuce and a four top were occupied when we arrived, and the $24 piece of fish Bob was served looked tired and tasted old.

Grouper Special - Grilled with an Espresso rub, topped with fried noodles and served over mushroom risotto 
Not only was the plate somewhat cold (which made no sense at all, because the two servers had the three tables completely in hand and were most attentive), but the fish was overcooked and tasted stale. Bob was going to eat it anyway, until my plate, which followed, hit the table. The Fried Grouper plate, which was the only other fish option for someone who doesn't care for coffee or mushrooms, was my selection. Another lesson learned - if a type of fish is only offered fried (no option for grilled etc.), there is a good chance it may be a pre-packaged product instead of fresh fish prepared by the house.

Crispy Fried Grouper

This plate included "Slow Cooked Cajun White Beans and Steamed Rice," which were served stone cold. Not heated to 140 degrees then allowed to get tepid cold - it was never heated above the 40 degrees it was probably stored at since Tuesday's dinner service cold. The fish was neither hot nor crispy - and why was an $18.50 entree serving of fish cut into those blasted fingers? I cut one open and it was positively unappetizing. After the first bite (and a bite of the other's plate), we called our server over and told her that the food was unacceptable and why. Though Bob's plate wasn't as cold as mine, the fish's flavors and textures just weren't fresh.

The chef came to our table, apologized, and explained that his "food warmer was broken" and that was why my beans and rice were so cold (he did not even try to explain the fish issues, which was probably smart). A genuine shame because our dinner last year had been so good. Since it was clear they had no fresh product in the house, we decided to try our luck elsewhere. I won't give up on Smiling Fish, but I do hope that they get their act back together because their kitchen has turned out some lovely food.

Since it was now getting late, we decided to take a chance on Christiano's Italian Restaurant and Pizzeria, on Rt. 98 nearby. I'd read about it on Trip Advisor, and had a fondness for a restaurant formerly located in the space (Cafe Locanda). Although only a few diners remained, winding down their meals, a musical duo gently entertained the room with jazzy sounds:

Chef/Owner Chris Chirum and his staff made us feel welcome, even though it was well after 8pm. Bread service was noteworthy:

House Made Focaccia

We loved this dip! Olive oil combined with cheese and red pepper flakes for a peppy accompaniment to the warm focaccia. For entrees, Bob stuck with fish:

Triggerfish  Meuniere  

Damn the calendar - this was fresh fish, expertly prepared. Served with asparagus and a slightly out-of-focus side of pasta marinara, which I thought an odd combination (meuniere and tomato sauce). Bob loved it.

Despite the dining disaster earlier in the evening, I inexplicably trusted our server, Michael, when he said the shrimp were fresh - he seemed to really know food and his menu - so I ordered an appetizer item from the menu, after he suggested it and offered to turn it into an entree over pasta:  Bad-a-Bing Shrimp.

Bad-A-Bing Shrimp as Entree

The shrimps simmered in a Moscato-garlic-butter sauce before being tossed with sun-dried tomatoes, lemons, scallions and pasta. The pasta was cooked so well, and the flavors of the sauce jumped so high, I couldn't even tell if the pasta was fresh or dried (it was dried). But the stars of the plate were the luscious Gulf shrimp, which Chef Chris told me were sourced from Harbor Docks Seafood Market (and which, from the texture, were probably frozen on the boat, but were otherwise pristine and delicious).

We saw on this visit, and a second visit we would make the following week, that Chef Chris tries to meet all of his customers, and he really seems to value them. His hospitality is so genuine that I suppose I can forgive him for being a Steelers fan. He is committed to serving fresh food at fair prices; I highly recommend that you visit with him if you are in the neighborhood. Christiano's is open only for dinner, Monday through Saturday.

As our first week on the Emerald Coast drew to a close, we'd had some very good, some not-so-good, and some in-between dining experiences. Through it all, we kept playing with our food, and looking for the elusive never-frozen, pristine shrimp. Would we find it? Stay tuned for the next (and final) installment of Fun Playing With Food in Destin 2012!

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