September 1, 2014

Key Ingredients

Robert W. Tolf | 4/1/1996
Getting there still can be half the fun when you're riding the ribbon of water-flanked road to Key West, but only if you know where to stop for out-of-the-ordinary meals on the way.

In Islamorada's Windley Key there's Hog Heaven at Mile Marker 85.3 (305/664-9669) with such "Piggy Bites" as "Hog Wings, Hog Poppers and Hog Balls" and its very own sow, residing in a neat little pen on the outside deck by a little marina. Its name is B.L.Dinner and he's there for lunch and dinner, served daily with entrees from $2.81 to $9.58.

Islamorada Fish Company at Mile Marker 81.5 (305/664-9271) next door to the old Sid and Roxie's Cannery serves terrific whole fried yellowtail and grilled fish of the day sandwiches plus what is arguably the best cracked conch in the Keys, thanks to a special tenderizing device. Open daily for lunch and dinner, with entrees $4.95 to $12.95.

Mike's Hideaway at Mile Marker 58 in the Rainbow Bend Resort on Grassy Key (305/289-1554) is an aptly named gem. Chef-owner Mike Wells stuns guests with glorious seafood Delmonico, grouper or crown beef Wellington, rack of lamb and a whole duckling a l'orange like no other. Select your own wines off the racks and prepare for fantastic finishers. Dinner served nightly with entree prices from $17 to $25.

Montes at Mile Marker 25 (305/745-3731) in Summerland Key is my headquarters for superior stone crab claws, fresh shrimp steamed in Old Bay Spice, grilled-to-perfection grouper and dolphin, preceded by great conch fritters, served daily noon and night with entrees $4.95 to $13.95.

You'll have the rest of the fun once you've arrived at our Southernmost City and check into one of my current Key West favorites.


Bagatelle
115 Duval St.
305/296-6609

Frenchified tropical interpretations in an 1884 captain's two-story with inviting verandas ideal for feasting on snails and mushrooms baked in pernod and brandy-spiked cream under a puff-pastry crown. Also recommended is the Jamaican chicken sauteed in a curry sauce held at bay with banana and papaya in a coconut-rum sauce, and sauteed grouper encrusted with crushed macadamia nuts and saluted with mango-passion fruit sauce. Lunch and dinner, with entrees $15 to $24, daily.

Cafe Marquesa
600 Fleming St.
305/292-1244

This most sophisticated cafe in the Keys, an integral part of the most sophisticated hotel in the Keys, serves superb food, starting with house-cured salmon, herb-buttermilk biscuits and fried-caper aioli, as well as grilled portobello with manchego cheese grits, leading to bourbon honey-cured pork tenderloin with apple-mango chutney, bitter greens and cream potatoes, or perhaps the pecan-crusted grouper with peach tartar sauce and sweet potato salad. Dinner entrees range from $17 to $27 served nightly.

Finnegan's Wake
320 Grinnell St.
305/293-0222

This quintessential piece of the auld sod is a recently opened spinoff of Fran Andrewlevich's Irish Times Pub in Palm Beach Gardens and features live Irish music along with County Cork corned beef and cabbage, Irish stew and brown bread. There are ten beers on tap, but the law does not permit serving Palm Beach Finn MacCool Red Ale, which won first place in last year's Great American Beer Festival. Lunch and dinner, with entrees $7 to $13, daily.

Half Shell Raw Bar
Land's End Village
305/294-7496

This place is a landmark champion of casual in the heart of the shrimp docks, with water and history all around and a menu featuring seafood in all its many forms. I like the oyster Po'Boy, beer-steamed shrimp, smoked fish, BBQ tuna and broiled scallops. The sushi bar is long gone. Lunch and dinner, with entrees $6 to $14, daily.

La-Te-Da
1125 Duval St.
305/296-6706

Recently restored, this one-time home of Cuban patriot Jose Marti, with its palm tree-wrapped pool courtyard cafe, is better than ever with beautiful brunches and delightful dinners. I like to start with their signature black olive soup or five cheese ravioli, followed by pan-sauteed yellowtail piccata in a cognac-spiked lemon sauce, or the herb-encrusted roast chicken breast, or the fresh Florida lobster overflowing with jumbo shrimp, sea scallops and Chesapeake lump crabmeat crowned with Japanese breadcrumbs. Brunch and dinner, with entrees $16 to $28, daily.

La Trattoria Venezia
524 Duval St.
305/296-1075

The kitchen here adds French accents to its classic northern Italian creations. The fish is fresh and handled with respect, and I like the veal variations as well, but usually wind up with one of their pastabilities, the vodka-splashed penne or anything with an aioli sauce. Dinner, with entrees $10 to $22, served daily.

Louie's Backyard
700 Waddell Ave.
305/294-1061

This indoor-outdoor delight sparkles with its face lift of last fall and has a kitchen crew that meets fully the challenge of the setting. I like to start with crisp-fried cracked conch flattered with pickled ginger slaw and red pepper jelly followed by pan-cooked free-range chicken breast with oyster-tasso gumbo and spoonbread, or grilled veal loin chop with caramelized shallots and ancho glaze, cipollini onions and griddled sweet potato galettes. Lunch and dinner, with entrees $24.50 to $32.50, daily.

Marriott's Casa Marina Resort
1500 Reynolds St.
305/296-3535

The lushly landscaped, spacious courtyard and 1,100 feet of private beach always beckon me, but so too do the fresh-air breakfasts and Sunday brunches, the sunset ceremony and grill-icious buffets at the Sun-Sun pavilion and meals at the formal Flagler's, which features appealing "healthy alternatives," listing the cholesterol, fat and sodium count of such winners as yellowtail snapper with banana-rum sauce and plantain chips, swordfish grilled with saffron sauce and a caper-olive-sundried tomato tapenade, and marinated, grilled chicken breast with mango, avocado and pineapple salsa, rice and veggie. Breakfast, lunch and dinner, with entrees $17 to $30, daily.

Palm Grill
1208 Simonton St.
305/296-1744

Gracing the premises where The Buttery pleased patrons for years, this place specializes in cutting-edge excitement. I like to start with a tamarind-marinated loin of grilled winter rabbit served on a bed of arugula and bibb lettuce moistened with hazelnut-sherry vinaigrette, then move on to rosemary-scented game hen with balsamic saffron glaze on couscous and fried spun sweet potatoes, or a beef tenderloin with ancho-key lime butter and "a mass of fried onions." Dinner entrees range from $17.75 to $28.50 and are served Tuesday through Sunday. Management requests no children under 12.

Square One
Duval Square
1075 Duval St.
305/296-4300

You can start your meal here with the soup du jour or "Yesterday's Soup," or take a pasta route with lemon penne tangled with grilled veggies and portobellos in roasted garlic dressing. Then get serious with honey-lacquered Moscovy duck, the night's treatment of Florida lobster, or some nut-crusted Chilean salmon pan-seared with an emulsion of ginger and tamarind served with braised Chinese cabbage. Dinner, with entrees $14.95 to $26.95, nightly.

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