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Our February Trip to Destin [Long]

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Restaurants & Bars

Our February Trip to Destin [Long]

NancyH | Mar 2, 2006 03:10 PM

We are back in snowy Cleveland after our recent visit to Destin. We arrived on Friday for a weekend event with friends, then extended our stay through the following Saturday, for 8 nights of eating fun! One unexpected treat was that the hotel (or, more accurately, Holiday Inn Priority Club) bought us a full breakfast each day in the hotel restaurant, and it wasn’t bad! Usually, when we stay at the discounted convention rate, we don’t get breakfast. So, we had only one breakfast out.

Friday
En route from Pensacola to Holiday Inn Destin – we tried Sonic for the first time. I’ve always wanted to try them, because they advertise heavily in Cleveland even though they have no outlets here. But the novelty wore off very quickly when it took over 20 minutes to be served. Burgers might have been decent if hot, but neither cold burgers nor cold fries were appealing.

Saturday
Chan’s wine & cheese in the Destin Publix Shopping Plaza - delightful store; cheese samples were generous and tasty; wish we would be here long enough to get some. Right next to Nim’s International, which looked positively enticing, featuring Indian, Vietnamese, Thai and Japanese dishes; we saw the chef/proprietor going from table to table chatting with smiling customers, and we planned to try it. However, when we drove up to it on Tuesday for lunch, it was closed, with a hand-lettered sign in the window saying “sorry – closed for helth reason.” We decided to pass on it this trip.

Dinner - Harbor Docks. As always - delicious! My Tuna Special with Gulf Shrimp was lightly rubbed with blackening spice that’s usually too salty, but was just right tonight. Lightly seared on each side; the raw inside melted in my mouth. Bob's entree was almost as good as mine - "country fried" amberjack that was perfect (we learned later that the “country fried” referred to cornmeal in the breading). Yeah, their sides (baked potato, fries or rice) get boring – but the fish is so good, that you don’t care.

Sunday
Harbor Docks again for lunch with friends. While not as exquisite as the previous night’s dinner, the fried amberjack lunch, which was accompanied by the least greasy hush puppies I have ever had, fresh coleslaw, and cheese grits, was delicious. don’t know why they only have these wonderful sides, and the Thai menu, at lunch; I’d love them at dinner, too.

Dinner: McGuire's. We like this place despite the kitsch. The micro brews did not disappoint, and Bob enjoyed his prime rib. I wasn't that hungry, and had only a crock of soup, but what a wonderful crock it was: Rueben Sandwich Soup - a tasty broth containing large chunks of fresh corned beef and potato, sauerkraut and the housemade pumpernickel, smothered in melted swiss. It really succeeded in evoking its namesake.

Monday
We decided to cruise down to Rt. 30A and check out the whole scene. (We’d never made it there before in the prior three trips to Destin.). We saw that the Lake Place, which had been highly recommended, had burned to a crisp, so we crossed it off our list. I started feeling a little under the weather with a sore throat, but we plugged on.

When we hungered for lunch, we stopped at Seagrove Village Marketcafe. Contrary to rumors, this place isn’t closing, and plans to be around for a long time, and a good thing too – the grouper sandwiches were to die for and so reasonably priced! And the freshly brewed iced tea and crisp fries also hit the spot. The building was supposed to be torn down in March (“re-development”), but that won’t happen until summer at the earliest, and the person I spoke to said they plan to temporarily re-locate nearby until their new space is constructed. People on various boards had described this place as “real” and “old fashioned” – I thought the market out front was a bit touristy, actually. But the food in the back was worth the trip and the wait (they were packed at lunchtime) and we’ll be back! I started sucking zinc lozenges shortly after lunch – no virus was going to ruin my vacation!!

Dinner - Staff's in Fort Walton. We had never tried this place before - they have been around since the 1930s and have all sorts of cool artifacts in the restaurant. The menu is a little newspaper, which includes some lore about the place. All meals come with fresh baked bread, salad (including a scoop of housemade potato salad), and dessert. We thought that everything was very fresh. We started the meal with crab-stuffed hot peppers prepared similarly to poppers, but with more emphasis on crab and less on cheese. Yum. Bob had a fried shrimp special and I had broiled Scamp, which I had never had before. Don’t know if I believe their story about what kind of fish it is (an immature grouper?), but it was wonderful. We hardly touched the out-of-season corn on the cob (but at least it was fresh and not frozen) and over-buttered red potatoes that came on each plate, but we were thoroughly satisfied. Dessert was not extravagant or special, but was good for a freebie – chocolate cake and caramel cheese cake. We’ll go back, I expect!

Tuesday – Valentine’s Day

Breakfast – Harbor Dock’s Silver Sand Breakfast. Bad idea to do this on Valentine’s Day – they were packed!

Bob had biscuits, sausage and eggs, I had egg, cheese grits, and biscuits and gravy (w/o the sausage – I didn’t intend it that way, I didn’t even know it came that way, but there was a miscommunication – and it was plate-licking good). Those are the best biscuits on the planet. The guy who makes them is in his 70s or 80s, and won’t share the recipe!

Lunch – Vin Tij. A few people recommended this place. At first, the service put me off – the server kept asking what we wanted to drink – this is a wine bar! I don’t want to order drink until I know what I’m going to eat. Then, to make it less user-friendly – there were no prices on the blackboard specials, so we had to ask. But we warmed up to this place shortly after placing our orders. I’ve never before liked oysters, though I’ve tasted them several times – then I had the Fried Oyster BLT at Vin Tij – yum! Bob had a three-cheese and garlic “pizzette”. We each ordered a different wine flight – 4 pours for $12-14. Bob’s had Vieux Mas Des Papas Chateauneuf Du Pape 03, Tait “The Ballbuster” 04, Fire Block Old Vine Grenache 02, and Nicodemi Mont Epucimo D’Abruzzo 01. Mine included Cosentino “the Poet” Napa 01, Louis M. Martini Cab-Sauv Napa 02, Peju Merlot Nappa 02 and Andrew Will Cab-Sauv “Lucia” 02. We both thoroughly enjoyed this repast.

Dinner – Café 30A. Truthfully, we found this place a lot pretentious and a little disappointing. Yes, this was an “event” day (Valentine’s), but why would you charge $4 for valet parking when your lot is way too small to accommodate even a small percentage of the cars you will get during a busy dinner service? We were especially not impressed after the meal, when Bob gave the valet a $10 (intending to tip $2-3 from the change), and the guy whisked it away and said “thank you” – making my husband ask for change (he shouldn’t have even tipped the dollar he did after that routine).

Inside the restaurant – a lovely environment, though our table was so-so – small and opposite the windows along a wall, when empty four top tables right under the windows were also being filled in as deuces with customers arriving after us. The server claimed to be very knowledgeable and tried to impress, but he seemed phony and a bit pretentious. My throat still raspy, I sought a premium Schnapps to soothe it (any one would do) but they didn’t have any and the server couldn’t think of a good alternate. The Bellini Tini I ultimately selected was a nice drink, if colder than I really wanted.

We shared a delicious appetizer – Poached Beet Salad, consisting of several varieties of beets, plated with radicchio, haricots verts, Gorgonzola, Blood Orange Vinaigrette and topped with Honey Pecans that set off wonderfully against the Gorgonzola – except that they were so stingy with the Pecans (there were only 4-6 pieces on the whole plate), even though that element “made” the dish. So while it was good – it would have been much better with a more generous sprinkle of the nuts.

I quizzed our server on the entrees. Bob had his eye on the Cumin Dusted Grouper, served with Black Bean Cake, Spicy Shrimp Relish and Sweet Corn Puree. I also considered this, but we try to order different things so we can taste more dishes. So I asked the server about the Truffle and Masa Crusted Gulf Snapper, with Curried Wild Rice Cake, Wilted Spinach, tomato, artichoke and Poblano Beurre Blanc. I asked about something I’d seen about snapper being out of season in February; he assured me that the snapper was very fresh, then inexplicably said that they get it “flown in” when they can’t get it locally – “which is it”, I asked him? He said it was local.

Against my better judgment, I took the snapper. It was elegantly presented, but just didn’t sing – nothing wrong with it, just nothing special for $30. My taste of Bob’s Grouper and accompaniments convinced me that he had made the better choice (it was special and delicious). Feeling disappointed with my own entrée, toward the end of the meal, I asked him for another bite of his grouper, and was shocked that the chunk of fish he gave me had an awful fishy taste and smell – which he reported the last few of his bites after that also had. For this price and environment, I wouldn’t expect that.

Wednesday –
Lunch – Smiling Fish Café. What a delightful place, which made up for any disappointment felt the night before! Smiles abounded as we enjoyed our lunch – Fried Grouper Taco for me (rolled with a southwestern slaw, tomato and chipotle sour cream) and plated with black beans and yellow rice, and Bob’s Beach Burger, with fresh hot fries.

Dinner – We met some friends at the new Pandoras. Bob went for the Prime Rib Special, which for $12.95 included a generous slab of roast beast, salad, potato, and house made bread. He liked it better than the prime rib he’d had at McGuire's. I opted for Trigger Fish, which was fresh and tasty, but more buttery than necessary. We all shared a side of garlicky green beans - highly recommended. All in all, a very nice meal. My throat was no longer compelling me to quaff goopy liquor, and all seemed well with the world.

Thursday –

Lunch – Café 331 - what a delightful place – all sorts of bizarre light fixtures suspended above (and I’ll bet they all work, too – they looked to all be plugged in) and a gorgeous view out the window. No credit cards, but lots of smiles and a small chalkboard brought to the table for a menu. I opted for the Fish Salad – a lovely selection of greens topped with chunks of freshly grilled mahi, fresh local tomato (absolutely yummy to a produce-deprived Midwesterner), and cheese. Bob, inexplicably continued his landlubber ways and ordered a burger – it was delicious as were the fries accompanying it. Housemade iced tea topped off this tasty meal.

Dinner – Café Tango in Santa Rosa Beach (14 Vicki Street right off 30A) – a place that reminds of Brigsten’s in New Orleans – set in a small house, with only eight tables, you can tell the attention given to freshness and creativity by Walter and Paja Dejur Sanchez. This meal was exquisite. First, the appetizer – I don’t know how to describe it other than “tuna salumi” – house cured and delicately spiced – delicious! Bob had the Baked Fish of the Day, which was Grouper, topped with herbs and Jumbo Shrimp. I had the Grouper Special – unfortunately, due to the events that followed, I didn’t write down the details and I lost them – but I remember it had a special crust and accompaniments, including some delicious Shrimp, and that I really enjoyed it. We were again too full for dessert (we actually didn’t order any desserts this whole trip). Café Tango has no liquor license, but serves beer and wine; we enjoyed a bottle of Chataneuf Du Pape (why mess with a good thing?) with our meal. It was clockwork the way they gently turned the tables so that incoming guests didn’t have to wait more than a couple of minutes, but no diner was rushed. We left happy and satisfied - then I lost my voice. Seriously. Within a few hours of finishing the meal, the virus I had beat back earlier in the week with zinc lozenges and vitamins dropped off a secondary tracheal infection, which literally took my breath and voice away.

Friday – I woke up with no voice, coughing up green goo. My Ohio doctor called a prescription into Walgreen’s for me. I know I drank a lot of orange juice at a breakfast I otherwise don’t remember. I forced myself to take us out to lunch, but I was seriously considering just ordering a pizza for delivery by dinner time, because I felt so rotten. And darn, we had planned to try the Red Bar that night. Next year.

By 8pm, I felt well enough to drive the short trip to our old faithful, Harbor Docks, and we ended our Destin eating there.

Lunch – Beachwalk Café. We had heard so much about this place (and almost walked into Chef Tim Creehan at Chan’s wine & cheese store earlier in the week). It is a lovely place, and as yucky as I felt, the 12 year old rum served in a brandy snifter (Zaya) and the sunshine of the outdoor patio helped me to feel better. This is literally dinning on the beach. This is an upscale place, but it sure seems to walk the walk and not just make talk. I noticed the host shining a wine glass before letting the bartender take it to a customer with a micro carafe of white – I appreciate that kind of attention to detail. The hunks of bread we were initially served with very good EVOO and grated cheese were an appetizer all by themselves – outstanding!

We both opted for the softshell crab sandwich – and it was very, very good. I’d definitely like to try this place for dinner.

Dinner – Harbor Docks. I started with a cup of seafood gumbo, which did seem to help me feel better (the Goldschlager also helped). We both had fresh catch – Bob had Amberjack, and I’m pretty sure mine was Tilefish - simply grilled and delicious. I tried the “ginger rice” with it – just to remind myself why I never order it! It lacked profundity, as usual, but the fish was so good that it didn’t matter.

Saturday - Breakfast in the hotel.

We tried to lunch at the Old Oyster Barn in Pensacola on our way to the airport, but we weren’t able to find it easily – once we found it, it was so packed that we knew we didn’t have enough time for it, so we settled for some allegedly Cuban food at a concession stand in the airport; it was pretty good, actually; excellent fried plantains, black beans, and ground beef with intriguing spices.

Other notes from the trip: We drove by Santa Rosa Beach Club/Bud and Allie’s, but couldn’t fit it in. I had really wanted to try the Acme Oyster House, since I had missed that in New Orleans last summer. But the exclusive, gated “community” where the Village at SanDestin is located really put us off – too plastic and commercial. We actually drove in, walked around and got Acme’s menu – but just never got back there. We kind of felt the same way about Fish Out of Water, which we also inspected.

We peeked into Basmati’s (it was not yet open for the evening) and want to try that next year (there was a comment on the menu board indicating that one of the chefs is a “refugee” from Fish Out of Water – got to get that story!). Goatfeathers is open, but didn’t look well attended so we skipped it. Donut Hole is still remodeling, though their outlet in Sandestin is open, we’re going to wait for the original!

So there it is – and we are already looking forward to next year! And PS – despite a rough landing and a week of ear congestion, my health cleared up just fine.

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