Adventures in Florida Keys Dining

Key lime pie stuffed French toast:: It's what's for breakfast in KW.

I’ve often been known to eat key lime pie for breakfast in the privacy of my own home. On my latest Keys noshing binge, however, surprise! I actually found a restaurant that indulges my secret quirk.

Okay, Azur restaurant at Eden House inn disguises it as key lime pie stuffed French toast – making it at least SOUND like breakfast food, but it’s actually two slices of pie (graham cracker crust and all) wedged between four slices of egg-dipped sautéed toast and topped with berry compote. 

There ought to be a “Life Is Good” T-shirt for that.

Every winter when I travel through the Keys to update the Fodor’s guidebook, I try to hit different restaurants. Here’s how it went last week.

Day one. Touchdown.

My teeny Cape Air plane landed Sunday morning just in time for breakfast. I headed to the closest place to the Key West airport serving breakfast – Town N Tavern at the Beachside Marriott. In Key West New Town, the restaurant was originally a Norman Van Aken creation.

Norman has long left the kitchen, but there’s still much to be said about the handsome décor that has that certain masculine Hemingway quality of so many Key West spaces. And if my house-made corned beef hash and eggs were any indication, the kitchen still has at least a glimmer of star quality.

Mostly cubed potatoes, the hash was topped with poached eggs, a departure that didn’t necessarily add to the eye-appeal, but cut down on the inherent fat content of the traditional dish. The “homemade catsup” tasted exactly like Heinz, and the toast arrived late, evidently because someone was waiting for it to reach a charred state.

So…. not the best breakfast I’ve had in Key West, even before the key lime French toast.

After three hours of stomping the streets of Old Town and discovering Ambrosia and The Café to be closed on Sunday, I skipped sushi and vegetarian for Irish at Finnegan’s Wake.

A Key West fixture despite its far-off Duval location, its slogan “Come for the beer, stay for the food, leave with the staff,” tells a part of the story: This is a party pub loved by sports fans and spring-breakers.

Alas, the crowd was screaming obscenities at the Sunday game, but as the luck of the Irish would have it, the back dining room and courtyard provide relative quiet for true “stayers for the food.”

Wishing for Irish stew, I did find a number of traditional homeland dishes such as steak pie, calcannon balls, and banger and mash.. However something closer to my European roots grabbed my attention, a Germanesque sandwich of lovely ham and muenster cheese melted open face on a pretzel roll.

The side dish, however, threatened to upstage it. Given my choice, I decided to try the cauliflower mash. Topped with melted white cheese, it tasted creamy and so much more interesting than potatoes. I’m now in desperate search of that recipe.

Day two. Stuffed.

Yes, it started with the stuffed French toast at a charming restaurant made out of an old gas station. They do the darndest things with buildings in Old Town.

To offset that guilt, I finally made it to The Café, a “mostly vegetarian” place on Southard Street, just off Duval, for lunch. I ordered a beet salad and waited. And waited. Finally, my server came to explain that the roasted beets were just coming out of the oven and apologize for the lag.

She then made up for it with a free cup of the day’s homemade creamy tomato soup. Let’s just say it more than made up for it. I’d heard about the soups here, and now I know why.

The beet salad on arugula with goat cheese and pistachios was massive and too delicious not to overeat it a little. So much for assuaged consciences.

Hog snapper in citrus beurre blanc at Cafe Sole.

At dinner I celebrated FINALLY dining at Café Sole, a goal of mine since I started working on the Keys chapter five or so years ago. I imagined, while trying to peer into the closed dining room through the surrounding latticework, a snooty Italian chef and stuffy dining room getting in the way of wonderful food.

The only thing I had right was the wonderful food. Chef-owner John Correa turned out to be just as Key West as his restaurant, and just as Italian. When I raved about the conch carpaccio, telling him I’ve never seen that even in the Bahamas, he regaled us (me and two colleagues who joined me) with Bahamian cooking stories. Clearly his personality is the foundation of his success on Southard and justified motivation for all these years of my longing.

I had the signature dish – hog snapper – a true melt-in-the-mouth triumph.

Day three. Out of Key West.

Once again thwarted in my best intentions to have breakfast right outside of KW at Geiger Key Marina Smokehouse (they weren’t starting seasonal weekday breakfast for another week), I proved once again that when one kitchen door closes, another flies open.

I was going to settle for Sugarloaf Key Hotel restaurant up the road. Settle nothing! The old humdrum restaurant had just reopened as Zaza Pizzeria Napoletana, and the dining room looked unrecognizable with clean, sharp appeal and a blue-tile pizza oven.

Given the real-deal perfection of my frittata with shitakes and homemade smoked mozzarella, I’ll be back for its pizza. The accompanying crostini alone convinced me of that.

Next, a quick run up to Islamorada before I headed back down to Hawks Cay Resort to check in. A cup of the Green Turtle Inn’s famous green turtle chowder (don’t faint, it’s farmed turtle and tastes like…. wrong guess – it tastes close to beef) slaked my hunger momentarily. (I was trying to save the best of my hunger for a highly anticipated dinner.)

Back in the Marathon area, another cup of soup – this time lobster bisque with a hint of nutmeg at Fish Tales – belied, with its elegance, the simple setting of a fish market.

Tuna with mashed boniato at Alma.

At last, dinner at Alma. I cannot lie, this was not a new place for me to try. I ate there just last year, and could not wait to return to this new Latin fusion tastebud-fiesta at Hawks Cay.

A trio of ceviche – conch, tuna, and wreck fish – kicked it off with utter freshness and delight. Scallops and gnocchi followed – a bit salty for my tastes – and then an ahi tuna dinner to trump all ahi tuna dinners.

The fish was cooked rare to my specifications, served on a bed of mashed sweet boniato, and complimented-up with a dimension-boosting warm tapanade-esque relish with garbanzo beans and tomatoes. Thank you, Chef. Same time again next year?

Day four. Headed to Thanksgiving.

Let’s just consider this training for Thanksgiving, I kept telling myself through this pre-holiday research trip. At that rate, I should have been able to finish off a 15-pound turkey on my own.

I did another repeat for breakfast at the Island Grill, where more than anything I love the Keys-y (as they say – not to be confused with queasy) funky fish house setting. The huevos rancheros were secondary to gazing out at mangroves from an open-air porch next to a slightly listing wooden shack. The sauce was not the expected red, but the chunks of fresh tomatoes, bell peppers, and onions made up for it.

True Keys-y at Key Largo Conch House

Finally, my last new discovery of the trip rated right up there with the Azur, Café Sole, et al. Key Largo Conch House. How did I miss it on the Travel Channel and Food Network all those times? Not to worry, it and its conch chowder bread bowl are now on my revisit Keys-y dining menu.

Happy Thanksgiving gobbling one and all!

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2 Responses to Adventures in Florida Keys Dining

  1. Chef says he’ll see you next year, Chelle! Alma awaits….

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