Monday, March 7, 2011

The Best Grouper Sandwich

The Seafood Shack's famous Grilled Grouper Sandwich

One of the targets on my culinary radar whenever I'm in Longboat Key, is a Grilled Grouper Sandwich. Jimmy Buffett may sing the praises of a cheeseburger in paradise, but for my money, you just can't beat a fresh grouper sandwich overlooking the water from a dockside perch, basking in the bright Florida sunshine. This tender but hearty white fish is a must on menus along Florida’s beach coast, and the number of ways it's served is constantly growing. The most common are grilled, blackened or fried, but every local spot puts their own twist on the dish.

The Seafood Shack

A true symbol of Florida, Grouper is found along both coasts of Florida and throughout the Florida Keys. The firm moist flesh of the grouper makes it a perfect fish for the grill. It's also low in fat and calories. The Gulf Coast Grouper Sandwiches are legendary, and for good reasons. The fish comes fresh from local waters each day, and the simplicity of it all — just a quick flip of the lightly seasoned grouper on and off the grill, and a delicate whoosh onto the soft fresh bun, some leaf lettuce, a slice of tomato and a dollop of unbeatable homemade tartar sauce, and you have an unbeatable sandwich.

An ice cold beer at The Seafood Shack

The Seafood Shack claims to be The Home of the Gulf's Best Grouper Sandwich. A humble restaurant overlooking the intra-coastal waters of Sarasota Bay, their Grouper sandwich was excellent — a generous portion of grilled grouper on a light fluffy bun and the core condiments: leaf lettuce, a slice of tomato, a ring of red onion and their own homemade tartar sauce. Add to that their own floating 'Chapel on the Bay' for impromptu marine weddings, a bustling marina full of fabulous sailboats and fishing charters, plus a family of resident pelicans, and you've got all the makings for a great waterside grouper experience. And as they say, "If you ain't been to the Seafood Shack, you ain't been nowhere". That really says it all, doesn't it?

The Starfish Company in Cortez Village

Another celebrated location for the Ultimate Grouper Sandwich is the fabulous Starfish Company in Cortez Village, my hands-down favourite place to buy fresh fish and seafood while I'm on Longboat Key. Star Fish is located on the northern edge of Sarasota Bay, and is one of the few remaining working waterfronts left in Florida. The view from Star's dock is incredible. It includes mangrove islands, Jewfish Key, Longboat Key and Bradenton Beach. Add to that the local commercial fishing fleet and you've got one of the most scenic places found on Florida's Gulf coast. 

One of Starfish's local residents

In addition to offering the public fresh seafood in the retail market, it made sense to start offering cooked seafood also. A small kitchen was upgraded and eight picnic tables were placed on the back dock. A restaurant was born!

The Starfish Company Dockside Restaurant

Famous for their Grouper Sandwich, as well as the long line-ups that start forming at 11:30am when the Starfish Dockside Restaurant opens, seafood can come either fried, grilled, blackened or sauteed. Sides are kept simple, too, with options such as cole slaw, cheese grits, french fries or of course — hush puppies! 

The Starfish Company succulent Grilled Grouper Sandwich

The Grilled Grouper Sandwich was worth the wait — a thick filet of perfectly cooked grouper on a soft bun with a wedge of lemon, lettuce, tomato, red onion  and a tub of tartar sauce — the fish was wonderfully succulent and flavourful. I also had to experience Starfish's equally renowned hush puppies and cheese grits. 

Starfish Hush Puppies!

Hush Puppies are little balls of cornmeal batter that are deep fried and served as a side dish. I found them a bit bland and felt they could have been improved by the addition of a spicy chipotle dip, or a spicier batter to liven up their flavour. 

And yes, Starfish's Cheese Grits

Surprisingly, the Cheese Grits were very tasty. A grainy corn porridge, made of coarsely ground dried corn kernels, they are very similar to Italian polenta, of which I'm a great fan. The atmosphere at the dockside restaurant is lively and animated, situated right on the water with colourful hand-painted picnic tables and resident cranes and pelicans — it's no wonder that Starfish is busy from mid morning until 8:00pm each day of the week. 

Florida Crab Claws at The Starfish Company Fish Market

First and foremost, Starfish Company is primarily a wholesale and retail market, selling the best fresh seafood in the area, from swordfish, grouper, snapper, salmon, calamari and mullet to stone crab and many different sizes of shrimp, all caught in local waters from area fishermen. It's one of the first stops I make whenever I'm on Longboat Key, to buy a pound of fresh pink swordfish to grill on the barbecue under a blanket of stars, and the sound of tree frogs and the gentle lapping of the waves in the background. Heaven.

Classic Tartar Sauce
Makes 2 1/2 cups

2 cups mayonnaise
2 tbsp minced shallot or onion
2 tbsp minced dill pickle
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
2 tbsp drained capers
1/8 tsp hot sauce such as Tabasco

In medium bowl, whisk all ingredients to blend. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. The sauce is best made up to 2 days in advance, then covered and refrigerated, until ready to use. If it gives off some liquid, carefully drain before serving. Serve with Grilled Grouper or any fresh fish.

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