Hook, Line, and Sinker

By staff December 1, 2008

Florida cuisine has changed dramatically over the decades, but one thing has remained constant: our love of fresh fish. We can’t get enough of it. We eat it cooked, raw or lightly seared. We order it broiled on a cedar plank with herbs, grilled and sauced in lemon, white wine and capers or marinated in citrus juices and spiked with cilantro and garlic. We’ll take it on a bun, in a basket or plated with all the artistry an ambitious kitchen possesses. Just be sure it’s absolutely fresh, the very best the market has to offer.

With similarly inclined readers in mind, we recently undertook a round of lunches and dinners at local fish houses. Our mission was not to list all the restaurants where you can get a nice grouper sandwich or Apalachicola Bay oysters along this fortunate shore of the Gulf of Mexico, but to point the way to six that skillfully represent the broad spectrum of choices, all of them feeding hungry seafood lovers seven days a week (an important point if you’re on vacation). We start with three places where you’ll feel right at home in sandy flip-flops and move on to three where you’ll want to wear your best freshly pressed island shirt.

Let’s begin with a local favorite that’s little more than an oyster shell’s toss from novelist Stephen King’s wintering ground on Casey Key.

Casey Key Fish House

Casey Key Fish House is that little bit of Old Florida you were hoping to find. No air conditioning on its covered deck built right out over the water, just a heavenly bay breeze assisted by paddle fans. The plates and wine glasses may be plastic, but the fresh fish and Willie Tia’s cooking are the real thing.

Sure, you can get fish and chips or a tasty grouper sandwich, maybe a basket of assorted fried finny things, but you also can (and should) try a daily lunch special like buttery snapper sautéed with mangos and capers in a white wine sauce. And if you’re anything like me, you won’t want to resist a starter basket of excellent, just-chewy-enough conch fritters hot from the fryer. Go easy on the sides and you’ll still have plenty of room left for Key lime pie, which is a fixture on many a fish house’s dessert list. One word of caution, though: If you order a wedge and it comes to table green, send it back. Real Key lime pie is a pale, creamy yellow.

At dinner, Tia gets to show off. You never know what the day’s catch will be, of course, but in stone crab season (Oct. 15 to May 15) the prized claws likely will be offered, and bouillabaisse is a staple. Other specials that show up with some regularity are wahoo, grouper, tuna, monkfish and lobster, the preparations varying with the chef’s mood. There are a bar and a decent selection of wines by the glass and bottle. They used to conduct a tiki bar a little further along the shore, but that’s been shuttered since 2004. Alas.

Oh, and come by boat, if you like. Just steer for Marker 32.

Walt’s Fish Market & Restaurant

The first Walt’s Fish Market opened on

Washington Boulevard

downtown during World War II and became a longstanding habit with Sarasotans and visitors alike. The current stand, on the South Trail more or less midway between the north and south approaches to Siesta Key, is both as good and as unpretentious as the original, and it’s still a bargain.

The theme here is

Florida Cracker, right down to the ‘gator and fresh-gigged Florida frog legs on the menu and the stuffed fish on the walls. Seating is at bare tables set with the usual condiments and a bowl of cellophane-wrapped saltines. The day’s fresh fish selections—and I do mean fresh—are posted on a chalkboard. In back there’s a retail counter with some gorgeous fish flesh on ice. Men’s room? Out the door and around the side.

A generous ramekin of Walt’s celebrated smoked mullet spread, which comes to table with the menus and ice water, makes sense of those saltines. I’d lay that spread on thick, if I were you.

The printed menu is extensive, offering something for nearly every taste, with a pronounced specialty in various crabs from local and distant waters and a nice medley of shellfish. The kitchen offers a variety of preps, but the emphasis is on fresh fish fried, broiled, blackened or steamed in the shell. One of my favorite extras is a basket of absolutely perfect, light, crisp hush puppies for a mere two bucks.

For a recent lunch I chose broiled yellowtail snapper from the chalkboard and loved it with nothing more than a squeeze of lemon. I selected cole slaw and fries for my sides, but should have skipped the latter and gone for the fried okra instead. I washed that and the hush puppies down with a bottle of imported beer and walked out the door happy for a measly $19.05, including the tip. Now that’s a good deal. 

Rotten Ralph’s

Pull up a plastic chair on the shaded dock, watch the mullet leap in BiminiBay and do your best to ignore the seagulls scolding you for failing to share your French fries. Welcome to Rotten Ralph’s.

The place is hidden away in a marina at the south end of Bay Boulevard on Anna Maria and comes wrapped in a down-home aura that once came naturally and now, we suspect, is cultivated. Who cares? It’s still a great place to kick back and relax with friends, despite the steady rise in prices over the years. It’s not the bargain it used to be, but you get good fish for your money.

The two Big Wallys on the menu are the all-fried Fisherman’s Platter and the sautéed Seafood Sampler. Both are tasty.

Before our most recent dinner at Ralph’s, it had been a long time since I’d eaten a fried scallop, and I had some reservations about it. As it turns out, the sweet and juicy morsels are stars of the platter. Light breading and a quick dip in the fryer seal in their savor. The platter also comes with shrimp and grouper fingers, both very good, and your choice of a crab cake or fried oysters. I went for the cake and wished I’d opted for oysters. Oh, well.

The sautéed sampler includes the same lineup, minus the cake or oysters option, and in this prep the grouper takes top honors. The shrimp we ate were fresh and moist and the scallops were good—just not quite as good as the fried version.

The beer usually is as cold as it should be; and the rest of the menu offers the options you’d expect, from good old grouper sandwiches and cheeseburgers to baskets featuring clam strips or popcorn shrimp, as well as one newish item that surprised me: seared tuna with wasabi and ginger. Ralph has gone uptown, it seems, but not too far. 

Barnacle Bill’s

Barnacle Bill’s on Main Street is a fish house in the same way a steakhouse is a steakhouse: They know their specialty inside out and concentrate there, but if your Uncle Fred, who hasn’t eaten anything but steak and potatoes for 30 years, is a member of the dinner party, they can accommodate him, too.

For starters, there’s always an extensive daily fresh catch list from waters east and west, cold and warm. Even more choices await under the headings of In The Shell, Great Seafood and Chef’s Suggestions, with more finny fare featured under Appetizers. Under the Old Steaks rubric you’ll find the aged beef for Uncle Fred. Lots of sides, sauces and prep options, too. The wine list is admirable and there’s a full bar, which is lucky. You probably will have finished your martini before you finish reading the menu. It’s best, I find, to order your oysters when you order your cocktail. Go for the Malpeques if they have them.

A wonderful starter here, when they’re in season, is a simple plate of big, beautiful, sliced heirloom tomatoes. These luscious treasures need not a thing but a sprinkle of coarse sea salt and a grind of black pepper to get your tastebuds up and ready for the fish to follow.

My wife and I went for specials on a recent dinner visit, which is always a good bet. She had the pompano, a Florida favorite we don’t see as much of as we once did, served Mediterranean style: broiled and sauced in a white wine reduction bursting with olives, tomatoes and capers. I chose the wild-caught Alaskan king salmon and ordered it cedar-planked on a bed of fresh herbs. Both were just right.

Lunch is an excellent option here as well. I like to sit at the bar and devour Bill’s crab cake Benedict, which stars a really crab-rich cake on an English muffin, topped with poached eggs and Hollandaise. Indulgent, but you’re worth it. 

Crab & Fin

This decidedly upmarket fish house, which offers some of the best sidewalk tables on St. Armands Circle

as well as two distinctly different dining rooms and a bar, began as Charley’s Crab in 1978 and later morphed into Crab & Fin, a worthy successor to an old favorite.

Happily, one of the most notable items from the original menu, a dark and fragrant Mediterranean fish soup still called Charley’s Chowder, survives under the new regime. I consumed it by the gallon in my impoverished, girl-crazy youth. Charley’s was a swanky place, but it was also a cheap date if you talked her into the chowder and (free) bread beforehand.

Crab & Fin’s menu is both extensive and sophisticated. One of its specialties is subtly flavored coldwater oysters, available by the piece or in tasting combos. We chose to start a recent dinner with four Northumberlands and four Raspberry Points, both from Prince Edward Island. Eight little gems on the half shell set us back $23, but that’s not bad these days.

Another specialty is various fresh catches offered under the Nantucket “Day Boat” label. I’ve never sampled one of these that wasn’t superb, and the Day Boat scallops I tried the other evening were no exception. This prep pan sears large sea scallops ‘til tender, almost caramelly, and then plates them on a creamy sweet corn sauce spiked with bits of Applewood smoked bacon. The result is a pitch-perfect dish.

Equally good, and more elaborate, was a production starring super fresh and expertly seared Hawaiian wahoo, served with a crisp and mildly spicy “Southwestern” shrimp roll and a trio of co-stars: perky pico de gallo, rich guacamole and a roasted corn relish. The fish was too good to be upstaged by any of the minor players, but they definitely added punch to the performance.

Even Uncle Fred would be happy here. The 16-ounce, chargrilled “Cowboy Cut” rib eye has his name all over it. 

Selva Grill

It would be hard to find better ceviche, or a more tempting array of brilliant variations on the theme of fresh fish “cooked” in a citrus marinade, than at chef Darwin Santa Maria’s chic Selva Grill downtown. Fish figures in other dishes here, too, but it is the Peruvian-inflected menu’s heavenly ceviche that floors us every time.

We like to sit at the bar, opposite a window giving us a good view of the jazzy dining room, order up a mojito, and work our way serially through as many of the ceviches as time and the exchequer will allow. Ten are offered, if you count the raw sirloin marinated in lime and orange juices and served with red onion and avocado. All of them, even the beef, are as pretty on the plate as they are startling on the tongue.

Declaring a favorite among Santa Maria’s ceviches is a challenge. Does the palm go to the signature Selva Ceviche, showcasing mild corvina, marinated in lime juice and tossed with onions, cilantro, big fat Cusco corn kernels and roasted camote (a South American sweet potato)? Or does the prize belong to the Trilogia, which arrays three generous tasting spoons loaded (from left to right) with tuna in ginger sauce, corvina spiked with the yellow Peruvian aji pepper, and salmon in lemongrass and ginger? Both knock my socks off.

Also highly recommended are the shrimp marinated in lime and orange juices before being tossed with avocado, tomato, onion and Cusco corn, and the wonderful Hawaiian ono (wahoo) in a lime juice and aji pepper marinade, tossed with mango and cucumber and served with tart and salty ponzu sauce for dipping.

And do save room for the banana flan with homemade banana ice cream. It may not be Key lime pie, but it is everything a creamy yellow tropical dessert should be.

Casey Key Fish House

801 Blackburn Point Road

, Osprey

Dress: Flip-flops

Note: Come by boat or car

Price range: $$

Serves: Lunch and dinner seven days

More: (941) 966-1901 

Walt’s Fish Market & Restaurant

4144 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota

Dress: Flip-flops

Note: Smoked mullet spread is a treat

Price range: $

Serves: Lunch and dinner seven days

More: (941) 921-4605 

Rotten Ralph’s

902 S. Bay Blvd.

, Anna Maria

Dress: Flip-flops

Note: Best tables are on the dock

Price range: $$

Serves: Lunch and dinner seven days

More: (941) 778-3953 

Barnacle Bill’s on Main

1526 Main St., Sarasota

Dress: Best island shirt or dress up

Note: Wine Spectator award winner

Price range: $$

Serves: Lunch and dinner seven days

More: (941) 365-6800

Crab & Fin

420 St. Armands Circle, Sarasota

Dress: Best island shirt or dress up

Note: The sidewalk tables are choice

Price range: $$$

Serves: Lunch and dinner seven days

More: (941) 388-3964 

Selva Grill

1345 Main St., Sarasota

Dress: To impress

Note: Ceviche, ceviche, ceviche

Price range: $$$

Serves: Cocktails and dinner seven days

More: (941) 362-4427

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