With Cub Scout activities in full swing and our new ownership of a property in St. Petersburg (of which I will be taking on the role of slumlord), I have come dangerously close to experiencing my first missed month of posting since this blog's inception. I am just able to sneak in under the wire here, however, a few short days before the arrival of Halloween and the 1st of November. Mrs. Hackknife and I have recently discovered a gem of a restaurant tucked away on a quiet street in downtown Safety Harbor, until now best known as the place where we go to church, but quickly becoming a local hub for great dining experiences. While wandering down 2nd Street N. one evening looking for pizza (that would be Pizzeria Gregario, another noteworthy joint that will appear in these pages sometime in the near future), we happened across Marker 39 (which happens to be Sunshine Key on the Overseas Highway in case anyone's curious) and its quaint-looking shack done up in vibrant tropical colors. After a once-over of the menu, we opted to stop in here instead and were immediately gratified by our decision.
Chef Justin Murphy is a skilled practitioner of Florida's famous Fusion (or as he calls it, "Floribbean") cuisine, a melding of Latin, Caribbean, and Floridian influences with a touch of Asian and African thrown in for good measure. He learned his craft at the hands of several Fusion masters, including Norm Van Aken (one of our favorite chefs) and Michael Schwartz, putting in some time with Jose Andres (another of our favorites) as well, building up an impressive resume in some of the most well-respected kitchens on Florida's Atlantic Coast. According to the natives, Marker 39 is packed on weekends, but seems to be lightly visited during the week - on our first sojourn (a Thursday night), there were only 2 tables occupied besides ours, while we were the sole diners on a recent Wednesday evening. This, of course, was not an issue as we were grateful to have the extra attention from the waitstaff.
What you see below is the only dish that the missus and I ordered both times - a traditional Florida smoked fish dip served with BBQ potato chips (paired here with a Toasted Coconut Porter from Orlando's Orange Blossom Brewery). Having now tried about five different versions of this dip since we relocated to Tampa, I'd say this one is probably the best we've encountered, meaty and rich.
We went crazy with the small plate offerings on the menu, each one as impressive as the last. Not pictured is the house "pappas rellenos", mashed potato balls stuffed with chorizo and fried to a crisp exterior, served with sriracha mayo and charred tomato salsa. These put to shame the similar (but mega-sized) fried potato ball I'd had at Brocato's not long ago. We also enjoyed the roasted plantain-stuffed crab cakes (with greens, mango mustard, and plantain chips), a nice tropical twist on a Northeast favorite. One dish I did manage to photograph was the Bahamanian conch wonton you see below, served on a bed of tasty greens and sauces.
Another home run was the cornmeal-crusted Gulf oysters, pictured here with a kicked-up pasilla pepper and corn relish, roasted poblano pepper remoulade, and more greens, making us feel good about how healthy we were eating all this time.
Our only foray into entrees was equally impressive. Chef Justin's Cuban Pork Crisis features mojo-marinated and slow-roasted pork with pickled onion, black beans, maduro plantains, queso blanco, and jasmati rice, a party of flavors and textures that Mrs. H and I fought over until the last morsel was gone. Even the desserts didn't disappoint, including a bacon-topped doughnut that was consumed faster than the camera shutter could capture it and a Key lime ice cream sundae with a guava sauce, toasted almonds, and a fritter thrown in for good measure (see below).
After 2 trips, I'm of the mindset that there is no bad dish on the Marker 39 menu, leaving me quite anxious to return for some further exploration. Maybe someday we'll make it over to the nearby pizzeria, but only if we approach it from a different direction...