By David Minsky
By Nicole Danna
By Sara Ventiera
By Candace West
By Emily Dabau
By Doug Fairall
By Candace West
By Laine Doss
Reason to Get Lost Number 2: My friend Cara was once a razor-sharp 28-year-old prosecutor in New Jersey. Then she went to Key West for a week's vacation. At the end of the week, she called her boss and said, "I'm not coming back."
There were two things that kept her from packing up her suntan lotion -- a handsome dude named Mike and a restaurant called Hot Tin Roof (Zero Duval St. at the Ocean Key Resort, 305-296-7701). Cara and Mike wanted to relive the magic, so we all went over and settled in at a table on the balcony overlooking Sunset Key, just far enough above the party animals packed on the docks below. We could hear our old friend Raven Cooper -- a blues singer from Arkansas who's another fatality of Lower Keys paralysis -- below us too, belting out versions of "Stormy Weather" and "Wild Women Don't Get the Blues" in her impossibly sweet and sexy twang.
The menu at Hot Tin Roof has been rewritten more often than the third act of a Tennessee Williams drama -- these days, Executive Chef Brian Kay specializes in over-the-top presentation. Lobster and roasted corn quesadillas ($12) come furled up like ice cream cones and secured in a rack; a "Southernmost Bento" ($25) hangs tiny bowls of ceviche at different levels from a wrought-iron bar. A spiny lobster bisque ($12), swirled with crème fraiche and finished with a single big chunk of lobster, looks and tastes like a Florida sunset in a bowl.
30813 N. Watson Blvd.
Big Pine Key, FL 33043
Region: Florida Keys
That lineup of apps should have constituted dinner, but we'd worked up an appetite kayaking out to Picnic Island -- a tiny dot on the horizon -- to go snorkeling. So we just sort of melted into our seats and looked on dazedly as a waiter kept putting plates down in front of us: a Gulf Coast shrimp Creole ($25), a Caribbean bouillabaisse ($34), a Roquefort-crusted filet mignon ($42), and a special lobster tail filled with crab meat ($45). The stuff on our table amounted to roughly 100 times more seafood than we'd seen while snorkeling. We ate some fat shrimp with a glistening risotto, heavy and rich and smoky. And we dug big spoonfuls of minced crab out of a lobster shell and sort of mushed it up with squares of lobster meat and crunchy-tender wild rice. We cut into a velveteen beef fillet, smeared it with a little Roquefort, and dragged it through delicious, buttery squiggles of red wine reduction. We ate through layers of shellfish until we found the substratum of mashed potatoes under our bouillabaisse, and we mopped that up with heart-shaped pieces of grilled bread.
It seemed like a long time until we finally scooped the last berry from our mixed berry cobbler ($7). We could still hear Raven on the docks; she was singing La Vie en Rose. We hauled ourselves up and drifted downstairs in a rose-colored haze. And the singer took one look at us and kissed us all over our faces.
Reason to Get Lost Number 3: My paramour had a hole in her heart that was shaped like a grouper sandwich the next day, so we made for the Square Grouper on Cudjoe Key (Mile Marker 22.5, 305-745-8880) because the owners, Lynn and Doug Bell, were just about to close the place for a six-week vacation.
I'll fight anybody who says there's a better grouper sandwich in the Keys than the one at Square Grouper. Elizabeth Bishop was probably thinking of a Florida grouper when she wrote her famous poem The Fish from her Key West cottage. "He was speckled with barnacles," she wrote, "fine rosettes of lime,/and infested/with tiny white sea lice...") In their natural setting, groupers are ugly suckers, and any cook will tell you they're full of worms, but there's hardly anything as pretty as a snow-white, sautéed fillet between two slices of focaccia. And if you throw a bunch of crispy homemade shoestring onions on top, as Lynn does, and then slather it with a homemade key lime tartar sauce, you can pretty much believe that your only regret, if you keeled over dead at that exact moment, would be how you missed taking one last bite.
There aren't many places like the Keys, where entire staffs of small restaurants -- hostesses, cooks, and waitrons -- take six-week vacations. Lynn and Doug named the place after the big bales of dope, wrapped in burlap, that used to swim in local waters when smugglers dumped them to avoid the Coast Guard. She came down to the Keys with her parents as a teenager, and she never could quite cut herself free of the line that kept reeling her back. "Remember the '70s, all the fishermen in the Keys had Rolexes?" she jokes. The back of the menu describes the square grouper as greenish brown and weighing 50 pounds, known by the Latin names Weedus, Potus, and Ganjus. The square grouper "is not very wary and [is] often caught by hand and just hauled into the boat."
This place is an unapologetic ichthyoarchy. You will eat fried oysters, bittersweet and juicy, dunked in key lime sauce, and bowls of conch chowder full of thick tomato and potato chunks. The marinated olive kebab -- "jumbo queen olives stuffed with pimento, garlic, and jalapeño in a vodka marinade"-- is a barely legal way to have your sauce and eat it too.