Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Tuesday Travels: Scrumptious Neighbors

Forgive me for a moment – I'm still a little giddy from the New Orleans Saints' overtime win over the Minnesota Vikings. For those who don't like football – or the Saints in particular – I'm sure Sunday's win means very little, but for New Orleanians, it signifies the fulfillment of a decades-old wish. The Big Easy might not have won the Superbowl (yet), but even the fact that our beloved team is going to Miami in two weeks is an amazing feat for this seemingly jinxed organization. Believe me when I say that, even four years after Hurricane Katrina, the people of New Orleans needed this chance.

So, as I said, forgive me for a moment of giddiness. Okay, it's passed – on with the show!

As I mentioned last Tuesday, Dan and I have spent the month of January exploring the Florida Keys, a unique cluster of islands south of Florida's mainland, in preparation for a travel guide on which I'm currently working. One of the communities that we've had the privilege to experience is Islamorada, a village that consists of four islands (Plantation Key, Windley Key, Upper Matecumbe Key, and Lower Matecumbe Key) and whose Spanish-influenced name means “purple isles.” It's also known, in many circles, as “the sportfishing capital of the world.” After all, the area is rumored to have a larger fishing fleet per square mile than anywhere else in the world. Besides that, my father, an avid fisherman, has actually heard of the region and is, hence, terribly excited about the publication of my travel guide. Now, that, more than anything else, tells me something about this place – since my father, whom I love dearly, rarely knows a lot about locales beyond southern Louisiana, the region where he's lived his entire life.

Beyond being popular among anglers, however, Islamorada is also considered one of the poshest areas in the Florida Keys. This is where you'll find upscale resorts like the Cheeca Lodge & Spa and The Moorings Village, a former coconut plantation that today features several well-appointed cottages and houses, enveloped by shady trees and situated beside a glorious Polynesian-style beach, one of the finest I've seen in the Keys. As if that (and the pool, tennis courts, and beachside massages) aren't enough, the owner of The Moorings also operates two fine restaurants on the opposite side of the Overseas Highway: the Morada Bay Beach Café and Pierre's Restaurant.

Dan and I were lucky enough to experience both – and, against dietary considerations, in the same day! Our first stop was Morada Bay for lunch. Although it was an unseasonably cold day in Islamorada, we opted for a table on the beachfront patio, where we could keep an eye on the lovely Florida Bay as we ate. The meal began with drinks, chips, and salsa – and while this might sound dim-witted, I often judge a place by the quality of its iced tea and salsa, both of which were excellent that day. The ginger-peach tea didn't require a sweetener, and the salsa tasted fresh and homemade, the way Dan often prepares it at home – except that Morada Bay's addition of chopped red onions gave it a tiny zing.

Afterward, we each tried the island-style conch chowder – a delightful version of this Keys favorite, with a kick that even two New Orleanians could appreciate. Before the main course, we sampled one of the café's appetizers – a combo of fried calamari, shrimp, and zucchini, all of which were lightly breaded and served with marinara and chipotle aioli sauces. By the time our salads came, we were admittedly full, but we powered through nonetheless. Dan enjoyed his chicken Caesar salad, while I adored my choice – an artfully arranged pile of artichoke chunks, asparagus bites, avocado slices, and spinach leaves, topped with Pecorino Romano cheese. Oh, yes indeed-y, I would order that again!

Besides the food, though, Morada Bay is also wonderful for its ambience – set as it is beside the water, amid swaying palm trees. At night, you'll even be treated to live entertainment from a small stage on the beach.

Of course, not twenty yards away on the same beach, stands one of the finest restaurants in the Keys. Neighboring Pierre's Restaurant might be pricey, but it's well worth the splurging. On the night we went (several hours after dining at its neighbor), it was still fairly cold in Islamorada, but we nonetheless ventured onto the second-floor balcony of the gorgeous plantation-style structure. From there, we could hear the wind in the palm trees, see the tiki torches on the beach, and listen to the live music from Morada Bay. Although the interior of the restaurant has a distinctly African vibe, complete with incense in the bathroom, the candlelit upper balcony reminded me of New Orleans.

At first, we just relaxed with a drink – a mojito for me, a gin-and-tonic for Dan – then we began to order appetizers. Two that popped out at us were the French goose liver foie gras and the Maine lobster sashimi. Though small and expensive, each dish was a delight. The lobster sashimi was especially unusual – clear, gelatinous, and enhanced with fresh ginger, yuzu ponzu, and grape seed oil. Of course, the entrées were the main event: filet mignon for me and tempura lobster tail for Dan. Oftentimes, Dan chooses more wisely than I – perhaps it's because he's an excellent cook himself, with unexplainable instincts for such things. Well, however he does it, he did it again that night. While my filet mignon was delicious, his lobster was inspired – perfectly breaded, with hearts of palm hash, soy glaze, and wasabi crème fraiche. I admit to having been tempted myself, but for some reason, I had beef on the brain that night – no doubt due to all the seafood we'd been eating – but if I ever return to Pierre's (which I hope to!), I'm definitely getting the tempura lobster tail.

Though we were both full by the meal's end, we couldn't leave without sampling dessert. While Dan opted for the chocolate bomb – which is as gooey and rich as the name implies – I decided to try the banana beignets, four fried banana chunks paired with vanilla ice cream and glazed with Grand Marnier caramel sauce. This time, I believe my choice was the more interesting – it certainly was tasty!

All in all, we enjoyed both dining experiences, but while Morada Bay has a decidedly more casual feel, Pierre's is the kind of upscale place in which Dan and I (both casual at heart) feel comfortable, too. Our waiter, Scott, who's worked at Pierre's for a decade, was friendly, helpful, but not too smothering. And though I was freezing by the time we left, we both relished being the only ones on the upper balcony. Privacy and relative peace are key in any fine-dining establishment – there's little worse than paying a fortune for small, unsatisfying meals in a noisy, crowded joint. At Pierre's, the meal was divine, and the atmosphere almost better. I sure hope you have the chance to experience both restaurants someday – if you like to eat, you surely won't be disappointed.


Becky said...

Wow! That's all I have to say! Have you ever considered being a "food writer" :-)...

PS The lady in Lewiston who owns the quilt store has a son who splits his time between Alaska and Southern Florida leading fishing expeditions. I wonder if he's in that area you mentioned.

Angie Ledbetter said...

That food nearly distracted me, but I'm only focusing on two words for the next two weeks about the Black & Gold Super Bowl:

WHO DAT?!!!!!!

Laura Martone said...

Thanks, Becky, but I think I'll stick with travel writing for now (as long as food is involved, of course)!

P.S. That's interesting - I wonder if he's down here... how could I find out?! My goodness, you wouldn't believe the number of former and current Michiganders I've met down here - all escaping the snow, I guess. It's crazy!

Laura Martone said...

Oh, Angie, I know what you mean, girl! It's hard to concentrate on my "job," knowing what awaits our boys in Miami! I sure am gonna root for them, though.

Donna Hole said...

Would you consider going to Puerto Rico sometime soon? I have a novel sequence that involves that country, and I'd like to have an authentic "tourists" take on the excursion.

You write so well I almost feel I'm there - except I don't do any spicy food. Seriously, I'm so bland an Idaho spud would feel dressy.

Awesome write up. Thanks for saving me the expense.


Becky said...

Their last name is Gorton, as in the Gorton House B and B sign you pass on the way to Garland. I'd guess their son has the same last name. And yes, I'm surprised at how many people I met in MI who spent the winters down there or had family. I think half of Lewiston goes there for Spring Break (Florida). Stange huh?

Marguerite said...

Oh, you are living the life, girlfriend! Now you are making me want to go there so badly! Great review, glad you're having fun! Geaux Saints!

Steph Damore said...

I'll root for your beloved Saints! Can't wait for the big game :)

Can't wait for your travel guide either. Islamorada is on our top 5 list of future destinations (for the sport fishing of course!). It'd be great to put your guide to good use!

Laura Martone said...

Well, Donna, I've always wanted to go to Puerto Rico - lemme see what I can do! :-) P.S. Thanks for the compliments. If you haven't noticed, food is one of my passions... so it's fun to write about. (Hehe, you said "spud.")

Thanks, Becky - Lois has already gotten in touch with me, but unfortunately, I'm no longer in the Keys. I plan to call her son, though. And, yes, it is bizarre how many Michiganders end up in the Sunshine State. Guess the warmth is too powerful a force.

Thanks, Marguerite - you should definitely see the Keys at some point. In the meantime, I hope the Black and Gold kicks the Blue and White's arses!

Thanks, Steph - that means a lot to me (and the rest of New Orleans, of course). As for the travel guide, all I can say is... yahoo! Now, I have two guaranteed readers - my dad plans to use the guide to explore Islamorada, too!