By David Minsky
By Nicole Danna
By Sara Ventiera
By Candace West
By Emily Dabau
By Doug Fairall
By Candace West
By Laine Doss
Cast your mind back to the dim recesses of, oh, I don´t know, the mid-1970s in South Florida. What did you do when you were hungry?
You opened your mouth and screamed until somebody shoved a nipple in your face, right? OK, let me rephrase. After your mum and dad had finally reduced your howling to whimpers, bribed a sitter, and fled the homestead leaking the righteous tears of overwhelmed young parents everywhere, to where, dear child, did they run? Like thousands of their ilk in those days, they hightailed it down to the nearest neighborhood seafood shack, flip-flops smacking on burning pavement, for a Coors and a bucket ´o shrimp. Or a Saint Paulie Girl and a platter of grilled snapper with fries: a single piece of fish, sweating butter and flecked with salt; a couple of lemon wedges; and maybe, for decorative purposes only, a stalk or two of curly-leaf parsley.
That grilled snapper (or mess of fried oysters stuffed into a toasted bun) may have saved your life, because Mommy was feeling a lot less infanticidal by the time she´d swiped her spoon through a last curdy glop of key lime pie. Your parents may have been on speaking terms again by that late hour. And there, in a crab shell, is how you came to be who you are, with all your practically preconscious cravings for peel ´n´ eats and conch fritters.
2476 N. Federal Highway
Lighthouse Point, FL 33064
Region: Pompano Beach
Fast-forward 30 years. It´s in your genes, this nostalgia for fresh seafood; only problem is, fish is a freaking mess in the 21st Century. There´s the mercury scare. The Japanese tuna shortage. PCBs in farm-raised salmon and God knows what-all in catfish imported from China. Whole populations of wild American river fish are dying out, and you can hardly get your mitts on anything local anymore. It´s easier to find cured whale meat from the Faroe Islands than a chunk of grouper snagged off your own coastline. News stories from all over the country tell us that distributors and restaurants are substituting second-rate fish for the good stuff what´s advertised as walleye, snapper, grouper, or ¨wild¨ salmon is, some reports estimate, just as likely to be zander, black drum, tilapia, or farm-raised something or other.
Meanwhile, health experts keep yammering about how we need to get more omega-3s into our diets. Failing to eat sufficient quantities of seafood is likely to turn you into a violent criminal: One study found ¨an inverse relationship between seafood consumption, a surrogate of omega-3 intake, and rates of death by homicide.¨
It´s 2007, and we´re all turning into murderous, paranoid maniacs convinced we´re being cheated or poisoned. But don´t despair. There´s a powerful antidote to piscaphobia (defined by GSM-IV as ¨the persistent and entirely rational fear of expensive, death-dealing, faux sea creatures¨), and it´s just down the road in Lighthouse Point, at Fin & Claw II.
Fin & Claw II may sound like a low-budget sea monster sequel, but it´s really a moderately priced 50-seat restaurant owned by Willie and Donna Schlager. The Schlagers ran the original Fin & Claw for 24 years, until their landlord died and they had to vacate last year. They opened the sequel a block down the street in February. And hallelujah for that.
Because hardly anybody beyond the Schlagers seems to want to run a cozy little seafood café any more, the kind of place where you order blackened dolphin or broiled yellowtail; where oysters are sautéed to order for a cream-rich stew and waitresses stagger under the weight of bristling platters of Alaskan king crab legs; where your only fish-related fear is that you probably don´t have the intestinal fortitude to put away a whole bucket of steamed clams and the Baltimore crab cake and the flounder Ponchartrain. Fin & Claw II is such a place, the outpost of a dwindling tribe that once flourished in Broward and Palm Beach, now a band on the run.
But there´s nothing of desperation between F&C´s pastel pink walls. The pace here is unhurried; the servers act like they were born and raised with a cast-iron skillet of cob-shaped corn bread in their arms. This corn bread, and its terrine of sweet whipped butter, comes out a few minutes after you´ve polished off your iced bowl of crudités black and green olives, carrot and celery sticks, radishes a snack and a palate cleanser so refreshing and simple and cold and, yes, healthful, that you can´t grasp why most restaurants abandoned this venerable practice 40 years ago.
The Schlagers, it appears, are not the sort of people to go chasing after every glittery new trend that comes down the pike; you get the feeling they don´t lightly give up on a workable idea. Donna, who is as trim, muscular, and sun-burnt as any woman of late middle-age who´s spent a lifetime on boats, blond bob swinging, appears to have cultivated a good-natured patience with the picky oldsters who pack the house for early-bird specials ($17.95) and catch-of-the-day dinners ($14.95). She knows you, your mother, your sister, your first-born child, and the names of your pets, and she doesn´t forget that you like your Delta Pride catfish deep-fried and your coffee tepid. Her Austrian chef husband, Willie, has probably turned out 40,000 surf and turfs in his lifetime and slightly more New England clambakes. Weird menu offerings like Wiener schnitzel, jaeger schnitzel, sauerbraten, and an Austrian cheese crepe for dessert owe everything to Mr. Schlager´s European roots.