As the holidays approach, our thoughts turn toward reuniting with family and friends. It’s a time of year we treasure, and good food – comfort food – is often the centerpiece of these gatherings. As much as we enjoy the “gourmet” aspect of dining, it can seem a bit out of place during the holiday season. In Old Florida, menus gravitate toward the familiar, flavors mellow and food lovers can experience an entirely different dining experience.
The concept of “comfort food” seems simple enough. Designating specific dishes as comfort food is quite a challenge, however. Everyone has their own definition. For some, it’s as simple as classic ingredients prepared using traditional methods. For others, comfort food recalls fond memories and evokes nostalgia. More esoteric descriptions can be nearly as confusing as they are instructive, and that may, to some extent, explain the broad spectrum of dishes highlighted in this feature. To this writer, though, one definition in particular really stands out. Comfort food is love on a plate.
SOUTHERN STUFFED CHICKEN AT GORMLEY’S AT THE GIBSON
Chef Bret Gormley has structured his menu around Florida-sourced traditional ingredients. Comfort foods are a house specialty, and his modern take on classic southern dishes is unique without being intimidating. Southern Stuffed Chicken begins with an organic chicken breast wrapped in seared bacon and stuffed with collard greens and asiago cheese. Served over ricotta and herb-filled sweet potato ravioli, a chardonnay cream sauce, fresh collard greens and carrots round out the dish. “I like to shine new light on local staples,” claims Bret. “I grew up eating this stuff.” At his Apalachicola restaurant, located inside the historic Gibson Inn, Southern Stuffed Chicken is a signature dish. Bret’s creativity and effort lend a progressive elegance to fresh, wholesome ingredients rooted deeply in the region – a theme prevalent accross the entire menu at Gormley’s at the Gibson. (Apalachicola)
LOBSTER RAVIOLI AT SUNSET COASTAL GRILL
Patti Blaylock, the owner of Port St. Joe’s Sunset Coastal Grill, didn’t have to think long about her establishment’s top comfort food.
“We have to do the Lobster Ravioli,” she said. “It makes people happy!” And so it should! Saffron ravioli is filled with Maine lobster meat, tossed with Sunset Coastal Grill’s house made herbed sherry cream sauce, and topped with lobster claw meat and shredded parmesan. Served with a house salad, split-top french rolls and real butter, Lobster Ravioli has been on Sunset’s menu since 2002, the year of the eatery’s inception. (Port St. Joe)
PASTA LIMONE AT UP THE STAIRS
Keri Elliot, of Up the Stairs in Apalachicola, discovered a variant of this dish while visiting Nova Scotia. Upon her return, she resolved to recreate the recipe with a few southern-style modifications. Her version of Pasta Limone begins with linguini coated in Mascarpone cheese, flavored with Myer lemon, sun-dried tomatoes and basil, and mellowed with garlic bread crumbs and sliced almonds. The version experienced in Nova Scotia was, in Keri’s words, “a little dry, a little harsh, but with so much potential.” The Up the Stairs version of Pasta Limon, served over a bed of fresh spinach, is a little sweeter, a little saucier, and a lot more southern! (Apalachicola)
PAELLA AT PROVISIONS
Tied closely to it’s Spanish roots, Paella at Provisions celebrates a tradition dating back hundreds of years. The list of ingredients alone explains why paella has played such a prominent role in Spanish cuisine. Fresh shrimp, bay scallops, mussels, grilled chicken and kielbasa! Cilantro, salt, pepper, white onion, green bell pepper and peas! Saffron rice! Who could possibly resist? Antonio Perez, owner of Provisions, makes consistency and excellence top priorities. Paella at Provisions provides powerful evidence that his strategy is working. (Port St. Joe)
FRIED GROUPER BASKET AT DOCKSIDE SEAFOOD & RAW BAR
At Dockside Seafood & Raw Bar, located at the Port St. Joe Marina, one dish – the Fried Grouper Basket – is king. It outsells every other menu item, and I believe I know the reason why. Not because it’s tasty, though it is crispy and delicious. Not because it’s cheap, fresh grouper never is. No, the reason is comfort! Throughout the South, fresh-caught grouper is a staple on seafood menus. Along the Forgotten Coast, the Fried Grouper Basket – served with french fries, hush puppies and cole slaw – is as familiar and comfortable as an old shoe. Sure, you can get one almost anywhere, but the Fried Grouper Basket at Dockside is one of the region’s best. They begin with a half pound filet of black grouper deep-fried to a crispy golden brown and serve it with clear cut Idaho fries, sweet southern-style cole slaw and corn bread & sweet onion hush puppies. Thousands of happy Dockside customers can’t be wrong! (Port St. Joe)
SHRIMP & GRITS AT SHIPWRECK RAW BAR
Open for just over a year, Shipwreck Raw Bar in St. Joe Beach is rapidly building a reputation for good food and attentive service. The rule here is “nothing fried” – a departure from one of Old Florida’s seafood traditions. Don’t worry though, Tony Whitfield and his crew know what they’re doing. They can grill, bake, steam or sauté at your request, and the results are outstanding. The Shrimp & Grits is a perfect example. Six jumbo Gulf of Mexico shrimp are cleaned and sautéed in butter and Old Bay seasoning. They’re served with smoked andouille sausage over a bed of cheddar & sour cream cheese grits, then splashed with house made roux and topped with a yellow corn, green pepper, red onion and jalapeno relish. To my recollection, Shrimp & Grits was the first dish I thought of when this story was conceived. To me, creamy cheese grits seem the very definition of comfort food, and shrimp are a familiar favorite. Shipwreck Raw Bar’s combination of the two makes for a memorable meal. (St. Joe Beach)
DUCK FRIES AT THE OWL CAFE TAP ROOM
This decadent dish, from the ingenious culinary minds in the Owl Cafe’s kitchen, earns special consideration. Rather than describe it, I will simply recommend it. Stop by the Tap Room, belly up to the bar, and order up some southern comfort Owl Cafe-style. Duck Fries with a frosty glass of Oyster City Brewing Co. Hooter Brown Tupelo Honey Ale – now that is love on a plate…and on tap! (Apalachicola)
TABASCO FRIED FLOUNDER WITH CHORIZO MAC & CHEESE AT TAMARA’S CAFE
What can I say? Chef Danny Itzkovitz has done it again. Fried fish. Macaroni and cheese. Green vegetable. Sound familiar? Yes…almost like something from a school lunch program. School lunches were never quite like this, though! A fresh Gulf of Mexico flounder filet is panko-encrusted and deep fried, then served over penne pasta with seared chorizo sausage and a cheddar & jack cheese heavy cream reduction. Topped with wilted spinach, sautéed onion and pepper, and drizzled with sweetened Tabasco, this standout dish frequents Tamara’s daily special board. Occasional variations feature grouper cheeks, collard greens, or green beans. In any iteration, this is southern comfort with a kick, and you’ll find it in downtown Apalachicola at the corner of Avenue D and Market Street. (Apalachicola)
I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. Old Florida is one of the best dining destinations, per capita, in the world. Top culinary talent seems to gravitate here, drawn by access to top tier seafood and the incredible quality of life. Each has their own definition of comfort food, however, and no two are exactly alike. Your ideas may differ, too. Don’t let that stop you from ordering up some southern comfort!
-by Daniel Anderson
Daniel Anderson is the Editor of Must See Magazine, a full-color, full-size, publication filled with page after page of things to see and do on Florida’s Forgotten Coast. Striking photography and compelling, carefully-researched content spotlight the unique businesses, fascinating history and exciting recreational opportunities of St. George Island, Cape San Blas, Mexico Beach, Apalachicola, Port St. Joe and Carrabelle. For more information about Must See, visit www.MustSeeMagazine.com.