Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Owen's Fish Camp - Sarasota, FL

Although we've now lived in Florida for almost two years and have perused a decent chunk of our surrounding areas, one region had remained unexplored up to this point; that is, the vaunted Gulf Coast immediately south of the Tampa metroplex, including Bradenton, Sarasota, Fort Myers, and the associated keys. Due to a quirk in the Hillsborough County school schedule whereby my wife had the day off (Presidents Day) while class was in session (and grandparents here to fetch the kids off the bus), she and I were able to take a day trip down towards said region to see what the fuss was all about. Crossing the Sunshine Skyway Bridge (a lovely excursion on its own), we took a right in Bradenton and headed west until we struck land's end near Anna Maria Island, then proceeded along the shore through the chill environs of Longboat Key, eventually reaching our planned destination, Sarasota. The greater Sarasota area was mostly known as the winter headquarters of the circus back in the day, but has since morphed into a vibrant and cosmopolitan haven for tourists/well-to-do permanent residents. It is here, we discovered, that you can wander the high-end shopping environs of St. Armands Circle and tour the former Ringling estate, home to a beautiful Venetian mansion, circus exhibits, and a surprisingly impressive art museum (I gather the Ringlings must have sold a lot of peanuts to be able to afford that Rubens). Still, if you poke around a little, you can encounter echoes of the Old Florida that existed here before the elephants showed up. Case in point - Owen's Fish Camp (named after early Sarasota pioneer, developer, and philanthropist Owen Burns) is a restaurant tucked away down a back alley in an upscale enclave of downtown Sarasota (516 Burns Lane, to be exact). Inspired by the many fish camps that once dominated this parcel of property circa 1900, I would describe OFC as consciously ramshackle, serving the kind of unpretentious (but well-executed) fresh seafood and Southern fare that once defined Florida cuisine and has been returning to prominence of late.

According to OFC lore, Thomas Edison (he had a winter residence in Florida like just about every other famous American in 1920 did) allegedly gifted a banyan tree to Owen Burns at some point, who planted it here - I think that's the tree in question on the left edge of this photo.

All humidity-weathered wood and tightly tabled (not a lot of room to spread out - arrive early if you don't want a long wait), the restaurant's owners certainly nail the ambiance, but, as always, the food is what matters above all. Both an army of Yelpers and my neighbor J.P. (who has a family weekend retreat nearby) laud the bill of fare, and they're absolutely spot on. We started with a half-dozen raw Georgia oysters (and could've used a half-dozen more), followed by the daily blackboard special of what they term "naked fish", namely whatever's right off the boat, simply prepared. I opted for a nice black grouper filet (see above), grilled with a lemon-caper butter sauce, and accompanied by two kicked-up sides (black-eyed peas with andouille sausage and spicy local collard greens) that would make Emeril proud, all washed down with a Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale (helping me take the edge off at 8% alcohol).

Although stuffed to the gills, Mrs, Hackknife and I had to split a slice of the house bourbon pecan pie with fresh whipped cream before departing. By the time we left, the wait was well over 30 minutes (on a Monday night, no less). Clearly, OFC is the goods and should be on the short list of preferred dining spots if you're ever in the Sarasota area. My only regret is that we haven't quite discovered a comparable eatery closer to home - our local Ballyhoo restaurant comes close (its menu is a little too much Red Lobster) and there's no shortage of greasy spoon beach dives serving platters full of fried shrimp (think Frenchy's), but no one's quite pulled off the fish camp formula around here to my knowledge (stay tuned - the search continues)...

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