Restaurant Reviews

The Great Outdoors

New Year's Resolution: Spend more time outdoors.

Parenthetical: Between November and April.

"No, scratch that," I said. "Make it 'spend more time eating outdoors. '" My spousal equivalent had a notebook on her lap, and the pages were ruffling in the breeze off the harbor. A boat festooned entirely in white lights, from bow to stern, pushed off in the darkness behind her. I forked up another grouper cheek with a little mango relish, noted contentedly the whoosh-plop of a jumping fish nearby, and thought about the turning, burning wheel of fortune.

The Greek goddess Nemesis, they say, doled out good and bad luck in strictly equal measure. She was much like our tropical climate, which Mother Nature has divided equitably into six months of paradisaical languor followed by six months of humidity, mosquitoes, and bumper-to-bumper hurricane warnings. While the weather is good, I aim to take advantage of the former. I've got a solid shortlist of excellent places to dine outside, preferably on the water, and my plan is to hit at least one of them every weekend until the mean season sets in.

At the end of the year, we always write up our list of resolutions, and we feel reborn. We can let go our grip on wadded-up tissues of misery and start off with a clean white page in a new notebook to inscribe our hopes and dreams. We release the old regrets and clichés ("All waterfront restaurants are mediocre and overpriced") and embrace a foodcentric utopia divided into optimistic categories: "beach," "riverfront," "Intracoastal." Under "beach," we have written: Trina, Shore, and 3030 Ocean. Under Intracoastal: Blue Moon Fish Co. Under "riverfront": Serafina, River House, and Joe's Riverside Grille.

These are all restaurants with long views and fresh air. They are also noticeably lacking in televisions, blasting roots-rock music, and goons upchucking Jägermeister shooters over the deck railings. Unfortunately, only one of them is in my price range for frequent visits, but the menu at Joe's Riverside is long enough to keep me occupied through the 18 weekends I figure I have left until it's time to nail up the plywood again. Joe's has, for instance, a full raw bar of oysters and clams at market price. It makes a fine fish chowder ($2.95) and big plates of deep-fried calamari ($7.95). It'll dish up a she-crab soup topped with blue crab "caviar" ($7), the coral-colored roe of the lady crustacean. A "Riverside Coquille" of shrimp and scallops comes in mushroom sherry sauce ($10); an Alaskan king crab is steamed with drawn butter ($16 for an appetizer, $34 for an entrée). There are live main lobsters in a tank. They've got those tender grouper cheeks with mango/onion salsa ($10), and clams oreganata ($9.95) just like Grandpa used to make 'em back in Brooklyn. There's oysters Rockefeller ($9.95) and a shrimp and jumbo lump crab bisque ($9.95). Plus an array of sides for $2.95 each: garlic roasted potatoes, sautéed mushrooms in sherry, black beans and rice, marinated pan-roasted red peppers. With the basket of garlic rolls and dense bread slices, frequently replenished whether or not you ask, any of these would make a fine, calorie-rich, well-balanced meal for the financially challenged. From November to late April, you can pay down your credit cards and eat like you really mean it.

Joe's has been open since 1992, somehow operating barely under the radar of most foodies. It's owned by Joe and Erica Cascio. Joe, who has lived in Florida for 38 years, comes to seafood from a fisherman's perspective. He still competes in sailfish tournaments, and he says he learned how to cook a fish simply because he wanted to eat what he caught. His sous chef, Nick Desir, has been cooking side by side with Joe from the time they both worked at the Wildflower in Boca Raton in the late '80s. Most of the servers have been at Joe's since the year it opened.

The place has the feel of a family operation — from a menu filled with chef Joe's personalized touches (wine pairing recommendations, "Mom's Homemade Key Lime Pie") to the cheerful, attentive service in the front of the house, which is Erica's purview. The mom-and-pop atmosphere is considerably offset by the chic beauty of the space: an indoor room gleaming with polished wood and trendy ruby downlighting, and a lovely dock set over the water and overlooking the Sands Harbor Resort, with oilcloth-covered tables and tilting white umbrellas. Everything is wood, stone, and big picture windows, modern in a kind of clean, Frank Lloyd Wright-ian style. Joe told me the place was completely wrecked by Hurricane Wilma — they thought they might never open again. Windows were blown out; the gorgeous wooden screens were torn to bits. But you'd never know it today. With the help of friends and family, they rebuilt and replaced everything in only a week and a half after the storm hit.

This was the only time in my history of restaurant meals in which a server has entirely reset the table between my appetizer and entrée. Talk about tabula rasa! And what's more, a new basket of bread, brimming with oil-soaked, garlicky hot rolls.

Those rolls were ideal to sop up the fishy goodness of my bouillabaisse ($23.95). Bouillabaisse is one of three house specialties, all similar in structure. It comes served in a bowl the size of a baby's bathtub, and you can't be finicky about your table manners. You're going to have to get your hands dirty. You'll find, suspended in a light saffron/tomato broth, shrimp, lobster, mussels, scallops, clams, fish fillets (probably snapper), rounds of squid, a big chunk of potato, and a piece of corn on the cob. The half Maine lobster, from claw to tail, requires some surgical skill to extract every morsel of meat, but this one was so sweet and tender that it was worth the trouble.

This dish is a great bargain for the price. I won't tell you it's the most divine I've ever eaten; in fact, it's more like a fish and shellfish stew than a classic bouillabaisse. The broth needed further reduction, and I couldn't identify the flavors of saffron, orange peel, and fennel you'll find in a Marseilles bouillabaisse (and the French would never throw a whole corn cob in there either.) Call it bouillabaisse-esque. Joe's broth is heavy on the flavor of tomato and celery, but this is a hearty, warming meal that manages to combine the lightness of seafood and shellfish into true comfort food. Two similar dishes, a "Slow Country Boil" and zuppa de pesce, at the same price of $23.95, use basically the same ingredients with variations. The Country Boil adds andouille sausage and Cajun spices. The zuppa is served over linguine with tomatoes and garlic.

We also ordered the "Plum Crazy Snapper" ($25), which is just a gently sautéed piece of fresh snapper cooked simply with tomatoes, garlic, and basil. It was very good. Entrées come with a crisp tossed salad. More complicated dishes include swordfish Oscar ($24) dressed with jumbo lump crabmeat and homemade béarnaise sauce; a snapper Pontchartrain served with shrimp, scallops, hollandaise, and toasted almonds; and a rum and peppered tuna steak ($26) marinated in rum-soy reduction with peppercorns and cloves and served with orange chardonnay sauce. Or you can order the fresh catch (dolphin, grouper, tuna, yellowtail, snapper, flounder, wahoo, swordfish) either blackened, broiled, sautéed, fried, or oreganata.

Here's something else to love. The fish served at Joe's is "eco-friendly." That means your swordfish is local and line-caught (as opposed to using gill nets or longlines, which trap turtles, sharks, marine mammals, and young swordfish as well). Your steaks, if you're feeling carnivorous (New York strip is $28, center cut sirloin $18.95), are prime, aged beef. Chicken is Bell & Evans "all natural" (order lemon chicken for $14.95 or grilled breast for $15.95).

I'm not going to nitpick a whole lot about "Mom's Homemade Key Lime Pie," because we all have our notions about a key lime pie. And the cost of a piece, at $3, comes as such a relief. Too many restaurants these days are charging double-digit prices for their desserts. I'll just say that Mom likes her key lime pie whipped very light and frozen, whereas I prefer mine made with raw eggs and condensed milk and not cooked at all (the lime juice "cooks" the eggs, if you do it right.) So Mom and I disagree on some finer pie points, but these little differences of opinion make the world a curious and surprising place to spend some time, don't you think?