Few things satisfy my soul like a crispy, deep-fried Florida rock shrimp.
The Florida rock shrimp story is one of those happy dramas that typifies good old American ingenuity. Here was a delicious little deep-sea animal that for hundreds of years had almost completely confounded our desire to eat it. The rock shrimp is smaller than a Gulf shrimp, and instead of a peel 'n' eat shell, it's got a rock-hard carapace (hence the name) that protects its yummy morsel of sweet, dense, lobster-like meat. It was such a pain in the ass to deal with that nobody but the most intrepid seafood lover much wanted to bother with it. With few natural enemies beyond the occasional manatee, its survival on this planet seemed assured.
Then along came a boat builder in Port Canaveral named Rodney Thompson who in 1969 invented a machine to de-shell the rock shrimp. As soon as word got around, processing plants sprang up across northern Florida and into Mississippi. We have Thompson to thank that these days you can find safely de-fanged rock shrimp just about everywhere, sautéed in creamy tomato sauce, tossed in a seafood salad, or battered and deep-fried in boîtes and bars across the state. Once you release these babies from their iron maiden of a shell, they're blissful, protein-packed junk food; each one yields about a mouthful. And they're an appetizer that has been single-handedly responsible for turning me into a regular customer at several local restaurants.
I was a devoted regular at Suite 225 in Lantana for a couple of years after it opened in 2003. The restaurant's spicy rock shrimp and its signature plate of salt-and-pepper calamari with scallions were two of the main reasons for my loyalty. There were other attractions on the Pan-Asian menu to keep me coming back; plus, there was a covered, L-shaped patio built alongside a couple of banyan trees; a bar serving vaguely Far Eastern-themed cocktails; the sort of trendy but comfortable rattan-and-wrought iron tropical décor that makes you feel relaxed and breezy on warm evenings; and cute bartenders. "Downtown" Lantana, the single strip of road on which Suite 225 is located, is made up of a half-dozen restaurants, an ice cream parlor, a tropical fruit shipper, a jewelry store, some new condos, and a real estate agent or two — other than that, there's the marina and a tiny park and the bridge arching over the Intracoastal to the beach, if you're feeling adventurous. Limited as it is, it's a cool place for an after-dinner stroll, the sort of post-card setting made for tours with out-of-town guests yearning to believe in some quaintly mythic old Florida (and yes, the sunsets over the marina are spectacular). I always brought my out-of-towners here, at any rate.
And then, it didn't happen suddenly, but the food and service at Suite 225 started to feel not so sweet. Not that everything went bad at once — it was like the slow creep in a disintegrating relationship, the occasional annoyance that finally becomes insupportable: a rude waitress here, a mediocre spider roll there. But I didn't give up easily — after all, this was my longstanding haunt, a place at which I'd spent countless hours and God knows how much money. Regular customers can be a stubborn lot, unwilling to accept the evidence set squarely before our own taste buds. It's a lot of trouble to find a new favorite restaurant, and I kept going back.
Finally, I couldn't take it anymore. I had to admit that the brown-bag sea bass, the five-spice crispy duck breast, the "Chase the Dragon" roll, and even my beloved crispy rock shrimp had become relentlessly sub-par. I went in search of another favorite.
Once jilted, it's hard to go back, and I stayed away from Suite 225 for many years. But lately, I got to wondering what had become of my old flame. Every time I drove by, the place was crowded. I heard through the grapevine that they'd been through a couple of chefs. I got hold of a menu, and as I read down the page, memories of a spicy lobster roll were suffused with an inexplicable glow. I parsed the words "sweet and spicy calamari wok crisped with scallions, Chinese chili, ginger, and garlic," and my mouth watered.
With nothing much to do one night, on a whim, I found myself waiting at the hostess stand with no reservations and a fair amount of anxiety.
As if it had all been meant to be, the rest of the evening went almost perfectly. We sat outside as always, under the banyan tree in warm uplighting, eavesdropping on silly conversations. We had a kind, unfussy waitress who paid us plenty of attention and didn't mind taking our order in pieces — first the sushi Tokyo yellowtail sashimi ($10); the wahoo, cobia, and escolar sushi ($6 each); and those fried rock shrimp with spicy yuzu citrus sauce ($10). And after we'd judged these highly satisfactory, some fried rice ($10 for a small order) and a roll ($12 for the Negi Hama).
If I wasn't much impressed by a cloying Asian-style mojito (made with 7-Up, maybe? Note to self: wine next time), the aftertaste didn't linger long. I had to wonder: Was it just nostalgia that made our yellowtail sashimi seem so melting? Or the wahoo, cobia, and escolar sushi taste so particularly tender and sweet? Our sushi behaved exactly as it was supposed to, voluptuously surrendering to the tooth and coating our mouths with the faintest lingering aftertaste of the fat that develops when fish cruise in cool waters. The rock shrimp was even better than I remembered, the impenetrable shell replaced with an airy coating of crisply fried batter, drizzled with a bit of tongue-twisting citrus sauce laced with chilis. We looked at the lineup of other appetizers — sesame lollipop wings, tiger shrimp egg roll with mango chili dipping sauce, jumbo lump crabcake with avocado cilantro coulis — with new eyes.
Our biggest surprise, though, as good as all this, was the fried rice. Sounds so ordinary, doesn't it? 225 Rice comes loaded with more rock shrimp, thinly sliced beef, little slabs of chicken, and an array of soft and crunchy vegetables. I think it might be the most perfectly seasoned fried rice, in its balance of salt and heat, that I've ever tasted. Here was real comfort food, illusively simple but perfectly executed. This plate of rice was impossible to stop eating until every grain had been painstakingly trapped between chopsticks. And a yellowtail roll inside out was almost as delicious. Maybe the excellent sushi bar down the street had put Suite 225 back on its game.
There's a lesson here somewhere for somebody, but I don't think it's necessarily for you or me. Pushing back from the table, I thought about how easy it is for a restaurant to lose faith with its customers and how hard to win back the love once it's gone. I wondered how many other loyal clients had drifted away from 225 after disappointments and never set foot in the place again. I've seen it happen so many times: the shiny new restaurant that opens strong and starry-eyed only to slowly slide into a permanent state of humdrum. They hardly ever get their old black magic back. I'm glad this one did.