After all the sandcastles are built, the body surfing is over for the day, you've put your fishing rod to bed and washed the sunscreen and sand away, another adventure awaits: dinner.
Once was, a trip to Florida meant a bodacious seafood platter with fried everything and a basket of hushpuppies on the side. But somewhere along the line, chefs re-embraced their love affair with the sea, tossing aside heavily battered fish for a different touch featuring spices and other seasonings that marry with the mother lode of the sea's bounty.
You can still find fried fish on most every menu in the Sunshine State, but a recent trip across northern Florida — from St. Augustine to Tallahassee and on to Panama City Beach — showed how times have changed when it comes to seafood in Florida.
"St. Augustine has a burgeoning food scene that reflects the culinary diversity that is part of our local culinary heritage, with fresh local seafood from the ocean in our front yard and fresh local produce from the rural farming areas in our back yard," says Barbara Golden, communications manager at Visit St. Augustine.
The Conch House restaurant is an example, offering the popular hook-and-cook service in which you go out and fish for your dinner and bring it to the Conch House, where chef Kyle Robinson will prepare it any way you want it: blackened, jerk; you name it. Farm to table — or in this case, sea to table — doesn't get much fresher than that.
"We get fewer and fewer people wanting their fish fried," Robinson says. Instead, many opt for fish using a recipe from some of the Jamaican cooks in the kitchen, such as this one.
A good basic Jamaican marinade for fish courtesy of Conch House Marina Resort and Restaurant in St. Augustine.
What you need:
1 cup oil
2 bunches scallions, finely minced
4 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
2 Datil peppers (see note), seeded and chopped
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons allspice
2 1/4 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup finely chopped fresh thyme
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup fresh lime juice
1 1/4 cup water
What you do:
In a large bowl, mix oil with vegetables, sugar and spices. This will prevent separation. Add soy sauce, lime juice and water, stirring to combine. Use as a marinade for black drum, grouper, flounder and other firm white fish.
* Note: Datil peppers, which rank about midway on the heat scale, come from St. Augustine. Habanero or Scotch bonnet peppers are good substitutes. If you can't take the heat, go with a milder pepper, such as jalapeno.
Tallahassee is the state capital of Florida and, oh yeah, home to the Seminoles of Florida State University. So naturally, you would expect the food scene to be a strong one, feeding politicians and hungry college students. And the city does it with aplomb, offering a wide range of flavors — and plenty of it.
"Tallahassee has blossomed over the past decade, delivering a vibrant mix of restaurants incorporating regional ingredients and seasonal offerings, and is consistently serving up fresh seafood with a Southern spin, like Gulf grouper, seared scallops, blackened redfish, crab cakes and gumbo — all crafted with farm-to-table sides that come from our area," says Renee Jones, marketing specialist at Visit Tallahassee.
Terry White, executive chef and owner of Il Lusso, an Italian restaurant, steakhouse and "the" place for great seafood in Tallahassee, says consumers' tastes have certainly changed through the years, and his patrons don't expect fried seafood when they pay a visit to Il Lusso. "We mostly sear or sauté the seafood options on our menu," he says.
Il Lusso's Grouper Picatta
What you need:
6 (6-ounce) fillets of Florida black grouper
1 1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/2 cup fresh-grated Parmesan
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
For the sauce:
1/2 cup lemon juice
1 cup white wine
1 large minced shallot
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1-tablespoon pieces
1/4 cup brined capers, rinsed
1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley
What you do:
1. Prepare the sauce: Combine lemon juice, white wine and shallot in a small saucepan and simmer until nearly dry. Add cream and reduce by two-thirds. Slowly add butter pieces one at a time, adding another as the first is melted. (Make sure not to boil once the butter is added or the sauce will separate.) After all butter is added, add capers and parsley, season with salt and pepper, and keep warm while preparing fish.
2. Combine panko, parsley and Parmesan in a food processor and pulse until thoroughly combined, about 10 pulses. Place in a shallow rimmed baking dish.
3. Season grouper with salt and pepper and place, presentation side down, into panko mixture.
4. Heat a large oven-safe sauté pan over medium heat and add olive oil and butter until foamy. Gently place grouper, panko side down, into pan and cook 3-4 minutes. Flip fillets and place into preheated oven to finish cooking for 4-5 additional minutes.
5. Remove from oven and place grouper on serving platter. Top with some of the lemon-caper butter and serve remaining sauce on the side.
Panama City Beach
The Grand Marlin is a favorite among the many waterfront restaurants in Panama City Beach. Overlooking the marina in the Grand Lagoon, it looks more like a fish house than a fine-dining establishment, but it's deceiving. The menu says it all, changing daily depending on what fish are in the market each day, and most all comes fresh from nearby waters — snapper, swordfish, mahi mahi, flounder, depending on the season — served with a choice of sauces, such as salsa verde or crispy caper brown butter.
Chris Revait, executive chef and a graduate of the culinary program at Pensacola State, says diners' attitudes have changed when it comes to their seafood preferences.
"The South is always about five to 10 years behind when it comes to dining trends," he says. But Hurricane Michael helped speed things along when it blew through Panama City and nearby towns in 2018. There was an influx of people who moved into town to help rebuild, Revait explains. They stayed and, in doing so, brought their culinary traditions with them.
"Now people are definitely ordering less fried fish," he says.
Revait's Parmesan Grouper with Crispy Capers and Brown Butter-Lemon Sauce
This is a top-seller at The Grand Marlin. Frying the capers makes it somewhat different from other recipes.
What you need:
6 grouper fillets (or other firm white fish)
2-3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
Kosher salt and white pepper, to taste
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
For the sauce:
1 stick unsalted butter
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
For the fried capers:
Oil, as needed
2-3 tablespoons capers, drained
What you do:
1. Prepare the sauce: Place butter in a light-colored saucepan or small skillet over medium heat. Melt butter, then leave on the stove, whisking/stirring every now and then. When butter turns golden brown and smells nutty — about 3 minutes — remove from stove immediately and pour into small bowl. Add lemon juice and a pinch of salt and pepper. Stir, then taste and adjust lemon/salt to taste. Set aside.
2. Place fish fillets on a large plate or cookie sheet. Drizzle and spread 1-2 tablespoons of oil over both sides of each fillet. Season each fillet with a little salt and pepper.
3. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Put grated Parmesan and panko on a plate wide enough for fish to lay flat. Press fillets into Parmesan-panko mixture, making sure both sides are coated.
4. Carefully place fish into prepared skillet. Cook for 3-5 minutes, until golden brown. Flip and continue to cook for another few minutes, until fish is white and translucent, cooked through and easily flakes with a fork.
5. Prepare the fried capers: Heat oil in skillet and add capers, stirring constantly until capers are browned and crispy. Keep a careful eye on the capers, as they cook very quickly.
6. Place fillets on serving plates and drizzle with brown butter-lemon sauce. Sprinkle with fried capers and, if desired, serve over whipped potatoes and creamed spinach as they do at The Grand Marlin.