Thursday, March 17, 2011
Saw (Part of) the USA on the A1A
I freely admit that most of what I know about the eastern coast of Florida comes strictly from reading a whole lotta John D. McDonald novels--the Travis McGee series and others--along with a healthy dose of Carl Hiaasen, so, I totally expect it to be chock full of confidence men, hard-looking dames, scary one-eyed hermits, and other miscreants, with a healthy scattering of kitschy alligator wrestling establishments and water-skiing nymphos of both sexes.
I flew into Jacksonville with the grand idea of driving down to Flagler Beach (my final destination) via the A1A, but there was a pesky wildfire that seemed to be making travel hard. So, on my way back to Jacksonville for the return trip, I planned to stop in St. Augustine for a quick tour and get there via A1A. Alas, I was sidetracked by a wonderful New York-style deli, so I had to drive interstate to St. Augustine to make my meet-up with a co-worker. However, I'm getting ahead of myself, so we'll slow down, put on the cruise control, and start with the beginning of the week.
My final destination out of JAX was Palm Coast, Florida, a planned community. Palm Coast is in Flagler County, named after Henry Flagler, who was responsible for bringing development to the east coast of Florida. He built a railroad to shuttle his rich friends down to the warmer climes from the frozen North. Wikipedia calls him the "father of Miami," because before he built a railroad down to Miami, it was pretty much nothing. But enough with the history...let's talk about food!
One of the best meals I had was at the Flagler Fish Company. This place looks a lot like one of those little hole-in-the wall meccas that you read about on Roadfood.com...and amazingly enough, is not on their list of places in the Flagler Beach area.
Flager Fish Co. is a converted dive shop run by folks who ran away from the crazy city life rat race...they might actually be some of the lucky ones who actually make it, if the quality of the dinner I had is any indication. Everybody has a great idea for a "little ol' beach shack" restaurant, and there seem to be way more bad ideas than good.
As you sit down, a friendly wait person takes your drink order and brings you a generous basket of homemade potato chips and a little cup of homemade clam dip.
Aaaah, clam dip--how I love you so. And, it seems like a 100 years since I've had clam dip. When I was a small child, back in the dark ages known as "the 70s," I always thought clam dip was such an "elegant" treat--way more sophisticated that the French onion dip, even with French in the name. Kraft Clam Dip and Ruffles ('cause they have ridges, and ridges = fancy!) was the very height of sophistication in my little pea brain. I know, I've come a loooooooong way, baby...at least I hope so.
I still have a special place in my heart for clam dip, and a special place in my stomach as well. I would have cheerfully made a meal off of the chips and dip and not even ordered more food. In fact, when my friendly waitperson asked if I wanted more clam dip, the hopeful look on my face made her laugh. It's the little thing, people, the little things.
For dinner, I opted for one of the fresh catches of the day, the golden tile fish. Having actually paid attention during my wanderings at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in December, I knew that it was on the list of sustainable fish, and the Flagler Fish Company seems to adhere to the sustainability rules.
Golden tile fish is a firm white fish that the wait person described as being "between grouper and snapper." Sounds good to me! I had it seared on the flattop grill, with a couple of dipping sauces--a Thai coconut and a brown butter lemon caper. I know, the flavors are pretty disparate, but I couldn't decide if I was in a sweet or buttery mood. Buttery won out over all, but both sauces were tasty.
The side options were pretty amazing, too. A cold Portabella, Tomato, Asparagus Salad in balsamic vinaigrette was my healthy, virtuous choice. The Asiago Potatoes were the blissful indulgence, ranking right up there with the clam dip! You can actually get the recipe from Epicurious, and I'm trying to figure out if I want to make them for people, or eat them all myself.
So, two was plenty and rounded out the meal nicely. The fish was perfectly cooked--not dry, moist, and a little flaky. I was extremely pleased with my dining experience.
On my last day in Florida, I drove back through St. Augustine and met up with a co-worker who lives in the area. We decided to take the trolley tour of Old St. Augustine and have lunch in the area. Our first trolley driver was absolutely hilarious--the amount of syllables he could string along when saying 'Juan Ponce de Leon," was amazing. (My Southern drawl is pretty directly related to the amount of liquor I have consumed--the more I have, the more syllables you get. Tequila can give you bonus syllables if you listen closely.)
We took the recommendation of our trolley ticket sales person and had lunch at the St. Augustine outpost of the Columbia restaurant. The Columbia bills itself as the "oldest Spanish restaurant" in Florida, and it was damned good. I opted for the El Combo de Cuba , which is described as "A Cuban feast of Roast Pork, Boliche, platanos, Empanada de Picadillo, black beans and yellow rice." They had me at "feast."
I do have a great fondness for combo plates...it's especially helpful when eating food from cultures not your own. Although, I always am on the horns of a dilemma at new barbecue places, because I always want to try the pork and either the beef or chicken or some other tasty smoked goodness. I think it's because this is usually my one and only shot at the place, and it's quite likely that I'll never pass that way again.
It was almost more excitement than the taste buds could stand.
So, that's what I've been up to lately. And, since the long nuclear winter seems to be over here in the South, it's time to rip the cover off the grill and see what yummy stuff can be conjured up there...before everything acquires that fine yellow pollen coating, and you are afraid to go outside and stand still for very long, because you too could acquire a fine yellow pollen glaze. But, hey--no lake effect snow!