Marriage is Like Mushrooms
If you're like Amy Winehouse, Rod Stewart, and Tony Bennett, you got married for the first or third time in May or June. That means your anniversary will soon be upon you like an anvil dropped from a cliff. And I'll bet you haven't done a damn thing to save your sorry ass. Like those shining stars, whose collective marriages have had their highs and lows (their bloodbaths, their coke-fueled orgies, their jail terms), you may need a bit of guidance in the romance department. I aim to spread the joyful news: Not counting Paris, France, there probably isn't a place on earth that's done as much to free Rover from the doghouse as Little Palm Island.
A mere three hours south, at mile marker 28.5 on Little Torch Key, reachable only by yacht, rowboat, or helicopter, Little Palm Island is your ticket to forgiveness for any and all blunders, indiscretions, stupidities, acts of selfishness, and slips of the tongue. But it's going to cost you: The resort made Forbes' 2006 list of the top 10 most expensive hotels in the country. A "bungalow" will set you back around $1,400 per night this time of year, but nobody is suggesting you have to shell out for a suite overlooking the ocean with its own private outdoor shower and a bottle of Cristal waiting on ice. Indeed, a lavish dinner for two on the beach, with a sunset worth its weight in Tiffany bangles and an after-dinner cocktail by a roaring fire pit, can be had for about a third of that, including wine and gratuity. If that's too much to spend to pay homage to your princess, I suggest you turn yourself back into the frog you were before she married you and hippity-hop the hell out of here.
In the interest of objective research, a couple of weekends ago we drove south to the dock at mile marker 28.5 and boarded Little Palm Island's spiffy, highly glossed little boat, Woodson, at 6:30 in the evening. The 40-foot cruiser, which glitters with brass, teak, and mahogany, is named for Ben Woodson, who built the resort in the late '80s. Our suntanned captain in natty uniform helped us settle in; we leaned back on plush cushions a richer blue than those turquoise Lower Keys waters. It's a three-mile ride; time passes with the wind in your hair and a glass of champagne in your elegantly cocked fingers. Some people prefer to arrive in their own yachts and dock them at the end of the pier near the dining room, or to fly in on their Cessnas and seaplanes.
Yacht or not, you've got to leave the kids and dogs at home and set your iPhone on vibrate in deference to the mating rituals of the überwealthy and the dainty little key deer scampering around the five-mile island. The famous and the infamous come here for weddings, honeymoons, babymoons; for post-adultery canoodling and silver anniversaries; for vacations that feel like trysts. They come to renew their vows and occasionally to break them. File under TMI: Celebs who've done the nasty under the resort's mosquito netting reportedly include George Bush the elder, Bill Gates, and Barry Manilow. Kathy Lee and Regis had make-up sex here. Mainlanders come for dinner and Sunday brunch.
Kathy and Regis, Bill and Melinda — it's almost enough to put you off your Jolly Mama Margarita (tequila, Grand Marnier, Cointreau, lime juice, $16), but not quite. If you took the 6:30 boat you'll be seated at 7 with a full half-hour to watch the slowly crimsoning sun settle under the horizon, the sailboats turning blue in the twilight, key deer snuffling around in the brush, and flying fish leaping and landing, agile and picturesque. The outdoor tables, spaced for privacy and sotto voce endearments, are set in white and silver on a sand floor just feet from the water, so you're surrounded by uninterrupted sea as far as the horizon on three sides. Flitting waiters light the torcheres in the thickening darkness. A pianist on the veranda plays standards that blend into the fire-lit air with the scent of flowers and the sea-slap; it's as though the tunes are coming from some deeply buried part of you that you'd thought was lost.
We went with friends who hadn't been out of the house after dark since their first kid was born two months ago. We all looked good in the gold and blue light. We drank a garnet-colored Warsaw martini made with Chopin vodka, dry vermouth, blackberry brandy, and fresh lemon juice ($16) and a tart and snappy island mojito fashioned from Havana Club rum, fresh mint, watermelon juice, and a slice of jalapeño over fresh squeezed lime ($15). We ordered a bottle of LaDoucette Pouilly Fumé ($95) from the 10-page wine list and drank it with our appetizers, and jalapeño cornbread, glossy rosemary-flecked rolls, and a cheese cracker the size of a Frisbee.
The wine list, like the cooking of chef Luis Pous, has won awards over the years. The mark-up on wines ranges from double to triple — the inspired Etude Pinot Noir from Oregon, a smooth mouthful of berries, licorice, and violets that we drank with our entrées, was, at $108, about double what you'd pay retail. Many drinkable bottles under $50 are available here, but why pinch pennies when it comes to love? Your willingness to spend lavishly is predicated on the certainty that you're going to get some later, either in your motel on the mainland or upstairs in your suite, and there isn't a busboy or a bartender at Little Palm Island who isn't aware of that.
The dining room menu is completely revised nightly, but it always draws on chef Pous' Cuban-Caribbean heritage and what's available from the surrounding waters. It's astonishing that Pous has the smarts and the organizational skills to source bok choy and pea shoots, Honshimeji mushrooms, fennel, chorizo, truffles, broccolini, polenta, Serrano ham, mangoes, caviar, smoked wild boar belly, microgreens, and artisanal cheeses, all of which need to be brought in by boat or plane, and then to cook those ingredients in hundreds of different dishes in the course of a month. Fortunately, in the Keys you can slip into the local sea and return with bounty: blackfin tuna, stone crabs, pink shrimp, grouper, snapper, pompano, wahoo, conch, lobster, snook, and even the occasional (now illegal) jewfish, contraband I've been known to smuggle home in a cooler. In a given week Pous might showcase tuna, cobia, scallops, oysters, black grouper, sea bass, or Florida lobster. A trio of fried oysters ($23) come nestled back into their shells on a bed of sweet plantain purée with pancetta and jalapeño mojo; a tuna tasting ($29) offers the fish soy-cured and skewered with cubes of pickled daikon radish, minced into a glossy tartar with a spiky armor of black-sesame studded tortilla ribbons and a wasabi foam, and sesame-crusted with pineapple relish. Our meat eaters appreciated a churrasco steak salad ($22), with the sliced, grilled meat set over julienned hearts of palm, flecked with cilantro, and sauced with orange-scented aioli and a green drizzle of chimichurri.
Understand that when I detail my roasted garlic-basted cobia (a firm, sweet fillet, $49) and its entourage of seafood potato dumplings, peanuts, lump crab meat, and a delicate little nest of pea shoot salad with aji Amarillo sauce, the odds against your finding this precise combination on the menu when you take your own moneymoon are well nigh astronomical. I can only describe the range of Pous' expertise — the golden, crisp-skinned roasted organic chicken ($46) dense with the smoke of fire-grilled tomatoes and pungent shallots, practically drooling juice, and given a shot of double chicken consommé to further pump up the volume. Or a gorgeous grilled sirloin ($62) set over celery root purée and wilted spinach, with one salsa made from oranges and another sauce spiced with coriander. Our rosy sliced pork tenderloin was well paired with an earthy, rich garbanzo bean purée and piquillo pepper ragout. But I might as well tell you that two nights later the cobia and the pork had ceded to black grouper and Florida lobster stuffed with crabmeat, the sirloin to filet mignon with blue polenta, the chicken to Moulard duck with passionfruit glacé. And the polenta logs doused in parmesan cream ($11) — imagine cheese grits decked out in Prada — had morphed into creamy corn with aged cheddar.
Pous' cashew crusted key lime pie ($15) will likely remain on the menu — with its tart custard center and whipped cream and orange zest topping, it's too good to rotate out. The glitterati would mutiny. As for what happens after you've moved to sit by the fire pit, and drained your last drop of ice apple wine (and presumably your wallet), your boat has been well launched. Now all you have to do is steer.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.