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.
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.
Try not to scarf down too much corn bread before your appetizers; this delicious yellow cake tastes great with the Schlagers´ oyster stew ($9.95), a half-dozen fat oysters sautéed golden and plunked into peppery cream broth. It´ll also save you from my own brush with disaster: I stupidly dumped a package of oysterette crackers into the mix they were so stale and tasteless that they nearly ruined my soup. Skip ´em.
Two sizzling disks of pure deliciousness make up a Baltimore crab cake appetizer ($10.95, $19.95 as an entrée), a brittle, lacy crust just barely strong enough to hold together luscious white meat, a trace of the sea with a whisper of cream, minced celery, and parsley.
We ate every bite, picked the last crumbs of corn bread out of the skillet, groaned, pushed back our chairs, folded our napkins... and realized we still had a three-course meal coming.
I don´t know what we thought we were gonna do at this point with the broiled fisherman´s platter ($29.95) or a dish of flounder Ponchartrain ($28.95), along with all the free stuff that came with it. I suppose we could have created a funky art installation or lobbed scallops at each other or made a generous donation to a food bank. But we sure as hell weren´t going to eat it were we?
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Well, yes, in fact, we were. And we were going to eat the rather lackluster iceberg and veg salad, ladled with a choice of blue cheese, caesar, or Thousand Island dressings straight from one of those metal three-way dressing caddies. We were going to slurp through the cup of Manhattan clam chowder, a soup that finally failed to inspire: The clams were chopped so fine that they´d overcooked. We were going to eat the seasoned rice and the mashed potatoes and the creamed spinach all of which were pretty yummy. And by the time we´d put down all that broiled seafood medium scallops, lobster tail, flounder fillet, oysters Rockefeller, and shrimp mounded with seasoned crab meat and made a decent pass through a flounder Ponchartrain topped with shrimp and smothered in a cheesy, mustardy cream sauce, we were almost too done in to think about apple strudel ($3.95 and when was the last time you saw a dessert listed at that price?).
You have to hand it to the Schlagers: They don´t skimp on the food. This restaurant is like a pink-and-turquoise testament to the idea that there is always enough of everything for anybody. And while we enjoyed our fancy dishes, I think I´d go back to Fin & Claw for the simple classics fried oysters or potato pancakes, sautéed fresh fillet of red snapper, a crabmeat cocktail, a bucket of steamed mussels. My impression is that the broiled offerings can overcook quickly, and timing can be an issue. Although a whispered word to your server when you order (¨Please tell Mr. Schlager I like my salmon just barely poached¨) might resolve this.
Something went wrong with our strudel (yes, we ordered that too); the pastry layers, meant to be gently browned, transparent and crisp, were seriously undercooked, in fact, raw. And somebody had been mighty heavy-handed with the cinnamon. Which is to say that Fin & Claw can occasionally be uneven.
Still, the place will call you back for the warmth of the hosts and servers, the freshness of the seafood, and the satisfaction of your own infantile nostalgias.