So, what do you do when dear friends are getting married in the slow-drivin', blue-hair-havin', socks-with-shorts-wearin' capital of Florida's Gulf Coast, otherwise known as Naples?
You realize that just two short hours away on Longboat Key is Moore's Stone Crab, the best stone-crab-servin' spot around, and you arrive five days early just to stuff yourself full of Moore's before the wedding.
Or, at least that's what you'd do if you had a tapeworm.
We arrived at the Ft. Myers airport on a Tuesday morning with empty bellies, full wallets, and just 80 miles of Florida highway separating us from stone crab nirvana. We immediately set off for a tiny barrier island across the bay from Sarasota called Lido Key, which is connected to Moore's, er, Longboat by a short bridge.
The oldest seafood restaurant under the same ownership in Manatee County, Moore's opened in 1967 when Papa Jack Moore started walking the flats of the bays, catching stone crabs by hand. As his business grew, Papa Jack started rowing a boat up and down the coast, sleeping on the beach at night. (I know this makes Papa Jack sound like a homeless vagrant, but remember, this was the 60s.) He later bought an outboard motor to speed up the process.
Back then Papa Jack worked about 50 to 75 traps, whereas today, Moore's boats work as many as 140,000 traps, all of which are built by hand. You know it's time for a career change when you'd rather build 140,000 crab traps with your bare hands and sleep on a beach than review 140,000 legal documents and sleep in a real bed. I'm just sayin'.
For the uninitiated, stone crabs are similar in flavor (and, unfortunately, price) to very sweet Maine lobster, though the claw meat is actually more tender and less chewy than lobster. And, unlike lobster, stone crabs are an eco-friendly choice because, once removed, their claws will grow back in about a year, and each time the crab molts, the new claw grows larger.
Stone crabs can be served hot or cold, and are accompanied by a wedge of lemon and your choice of drawn butter or a pungent mustard sauce. At Moore's, however, the stone crab is so sweet that the butter is altogether unnecessary and the mustard just masks the crabs' incredible flavor, so Angel and I stick to a healthy squeeze of lemon and a lot of swooning.
After lunch we checked in at our hotel, the Lido Beach Resort. At many hotels I find myself wondering why they don't just save us both some time and give me the room I'm going to end up in anyway, after I complain about the first one. Luckily there was no such time-wasting at the Lido.
Later that afternoon we stopped by St. Armand's Circle, an open-air shopping and dining area located on its own oval-shaped island just a short walk from Lido Key. Whether you're after a beachy frock at Shore or Lilly Pulitzer, drinks at the Daiquiri Deck, or, say, an inside-out Boston cream cupcake from Sarasota Cupcake Co., St. Armand's is the place to get it.
Since we weren't sure how tired we'd be at the end of a long travel day, we decided to wing it for dinner instead of making reservations. And so later in the evening we we set off for Euphemia Haye, which sounds like a particularly nasty pollen allergy, but is in fact a gourmet restaurant with an upstairs lounge called the Haye Loft.
The Haye Loft serves a small menu of appetizers, salads, entrees, thin-crust pizzas, and tapas, all of which fit the bill perfectly given the late hour. I decided to go for the pizza topped with grilled shrimp, pesto, pine nuts, and bell peppers, mainly because the menu read, and I quote, "Speaks for itself! (mmm)."
For his part, Angel went with the spicy BBQ duck and shiitake mushroom pizza, topped with caramelized onion and garlic. Although the menu did not say "mmm," or anything else with regards to the BBQ duck pizza, I'd like to recommend a reprint in which the menu writer might add, "Holy mother of god this is the most amazing @#$%& duck. Mmm."
You know what this is, right?
Yep, it's that little bubble that pops up sometimes near a pizza's crust, allowing the cheese there to become more browned and nutty and crunchy than on the rest of the pie, and yes, I saved it for last. I'd been hoping to use it as a bargaining chip for some more duck, but by the time I'd eaten my way around to the bubble, Angel had long finished scarfing down that duck.
Turnabout is fair play, however. And so, when we were informed that the Haye Loft has its own dessert bar featuring everything from peanut butter mousse pie to chocolate chip cheesecake to triple berry pie (you didn't really think I'd picked this place at random, did you?), I ordered my absolute favorite -- the lemon tart -- which also happens to be one of Angel's favorites . . . then extracted a promise involving unlimited access to all future pizza toppings in return for a few bites of my tart.
The next day we did a bit of exploring around Lido Key and Longboat Key, by which I mean we admired the lovely waterfront homes and wondered if two people who spend as much money on food as we do might ever be able to afford one.
For lunch, we decided on the Dry Dock Waterfront Grill on Longboat.
We started off with a frozen rum runner for me, a frozen margarita for Angel, and an order of the fried grouper bites for me to hoard for us to share. The grouper came with a unique Ranch-style Thai chili sauce that was hard to eat in moderation . . . so I didn't.
For our entrees, Angel went with the jerk shrimp tacos, while I went for the chopped chef's salad with . . . Ranch dressing. Like I said: Resistance is futile.
After an afternoon spent lounging at the adults-only pool with a good book and an incipient sun rash, we arrived early for our dinner reservation at an old favorite, the Chart House, which we love thanks to its "dynamite" fish.
The Chart House's dynamite preparation entails drizzling an addictive sauce made of cream cheese, mayonnaise, sweet Thai chili sauce, Sriracha, and rice wine over the fish; topping it with a healthy serving of lump crab meat, then broiling the whole thing until the cheese mixture is hot and bubbly and your dining companion is pounding her knife and fork on the table.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Our meal started off with a couple of cocktails, the pomegranate mojito for Angel and the pineapple-mint caipirinha for me, the latter of which was the runner-up in our "Best Drink of the Week" contest.
I couldn't decide between the clam chowder and the lobster bisque for my appetizer, so I went with the Best of Soup, which consists of small ramekins of both the chowder and bisque, plus the chunky gazpacho.
Angel went with an appetizer called Calamari & Friends, which sounds like one of those insufferable political roundtables on Fox, but was actually lightly fried calamari rings and some other stuff that you might never think to fry, such as carrots, along with jalapeno peppers and tiny rings of zucchini, all served with citrus chili and chunky marinara sauces for dipping.
Finally, the main event: Two orders of the dynamite grouper topped with a drizzle of basil oil and snipped chives and scallions, accompanied by an artsy pyramid of coconut-ginger rice.
We thought it was pretty good.
The next day we decided to stay put at the resort for lunch, thanks to the presence of the blackened grouper sandwich on the menu. Although this is the first time I'm writing about The Best Fish Sammie Ever, this sandwich is actually one of the reasons why we continue to return to the silicone-sportin', Botox-injectin', skimpy-outfit-wearin' capital of Florida, otherwise known as Delray Beach, where an identical one is served at the Cascades Poolside Bar at the beachside Marriott.
Why all the fuss over a grouper sandwich from a nondescript hotel restaurant, you ask? Because this grouper sandwich is sweet and succulent and lightly blackened, then topped with carmelized Bermuda onion, chopped romaine, ripe tomato, creamy key lime aioli, and nestled onto two buttery, coconutty slices of griddled -- griddled! -- luau bread, that's why. Griddled!
Also at this lunch, we crowned the winner of our "Best Drink of the Week" contest: A key lime pina colada that was so new it wasn't even on the menu yet. The bartender whipped up a batch of samples, then sent the waitress around with free tastes for all of the unsuspecting lunch patrons. If this sounds familiar, that's because it's the exact same method crack dealers use to reel in new customers.
Between the sweet, creamy coconut, the slight tang of the lime, and the fact that the pale green color was reminiscent of my beloved Shamrock Shakes circa 1985, you can probably understand why I'd mumble, "Just one more hit, man!" every time Angel tried to cut me off.
Later that evening we reluctantly tore ourselves away from the key lime pina coladas and drove over to a neighboring key, Anna Maria Island, to catch the sunset at an oceanfront spot in Bradenton Beach known simply as The Beachhouse. Crossing the bridge from Longboat into Bradenton Beach was like leaving an ultra-posh, perfectly manicured five-star resort for a tiny beachside cottage where the weathered pastel paint is peeling a bit, a slew of brightly-colored beach towels are slung over the Adirondack chairs, and dozens of pairs of flip flops are scattered around the sandy deck.
In other words, we loved it.
Nearby is the Bradenton Beach pier, where we caught the waning daylight just in time.
Finally we made our way over to The Beachhouse, where they usher in the sunset . . . by rounding up a random kid to bang a gong. Did I mention that we loved this place?
What could top that lovely sunset? I'll give you a hint: It starts with "m" and ends with "oore's."
We started off, naturally, with more stone crab, then moved on to Cajun shrimp and tenderloin tips for Angel, and a couple of crab cakes with an insanely spicy red pepper remoulade for me.
At one point during our meal, I picked up one of the rounded crab claw "knuckles" and applied a bit of pressure to extract the meat, at which point the slippery knuckle flew right out of my hand and landed under the empty table next to us, exactly like that scene in Pretty Woman where Julia Roberts lets that snail fly. Proving that I have even less class than a movie prostitute, however, I immediately retrieved my crab knuckle, applied the Five Second Rule, and ate it anyway. Like I've said, stone crab is both expensive and delicious.
On Friday it was time to leave Moore's Lido Key and head down to Naples for the wedding of our friends Ellen and Brian at La Playa Beach & Golf Resort, where the average room rate of $700 per night was discounted for the wedding to something a little less second-mortgagey. We'd planned to make the drive and then have lunch in Naples, but two hours seemed like at least one hour too long to be on the road without eating, so we headed over to City Island, a Cape Cod-style "hook" at the end of Lido Key that is home to the Old Salty Dog.
The Old Salty Dog is a waterfront pub that I chose specifically for one particular menu item: Dog Bites. Dog Bites are beer-battered, deep-fried hot dogs that are just as salty, greasy, and delicious as you might imagine, though not quite as healthy as you might expect.
I got so excited by those Dog Bites that I wasn't thinking clearly when it came time to order entrees, so I ended up with Beer Battered & Deep Fried II, which occurs to me is the perfect name for the boat I plan to buy once I've eaten everything here in NYC and have to start over in Key West.
The drive down to Naples was an easy one, and soon we'd arrived at the lovely La Playa, where we were upgraded to a room that opened directly out to the beach and afforded a peek-a-boo view of the water.
Shortly after settling in, we wandered out to get the lay of the land.
At the rehearsal dinner that evening, our friend Frances got a bit tipsy and announced to the entire table that I had a tapeworm, which should have been obvious considering that I'd just gobbled up three cheeseburger sliders in quick succession and was trying to wheedle Angel into getting me another one. Eyeing my bony shoulders suspiciously, Ellen's aunt pooh-poohed the very thought. Oh, I eat like horse, I assured her, explaining that just earlier that day, in fact, I'd enjoyed a lunch of beer-battered, deep-fried hot dogs. At which point Ellen's white-haired uncle suddenly jolted awake from his reverie and sputtered, "Deep fried hot dogs?!? WHERE???" I knew I liked that guy.
The morning of the wedding dawned bright and sunny, so we headed over to the Turtle Club at Vanderbilt Beach for a light lunch of salads and iced tea.
We each started with a bowl of soup -- lobster bisque for me, seafood chowder for the Ange -- followed by a grilled shrimp salad with white balsamic vinaigrette for me, and the Mediterranean salad topped with grilled rosemary chicken for Angel. Both were delicious.
Our first inkling of trouble came as we were waiting for the valet to bring our car around after lunch: A few raindrops on my shoulder, followed by a full-on deluge just as the car arrived. By the time we returned to La Playa it had thankfully started to clear up, so we spent the afternoon lounging on the beach and dodging the intermittent thunderstorms before it was time to get ready for the wedding.
I'd just taken a shower and had begun drying my hair when my hair dryer suddenly died. I quickly unplugged it and tried a different outlet, then another, and still another, panic setting in as I realized that I had only a matter of minutes before my hair began to air-dry into its natural state, which looks for all the world like cotton candy.
Finally, success! One of the outlets appeared to be working and my hair dryer roared back to life. Ten seconds went by, then twenty. Having coaxed the hair on one side of my head into loose curls, I was just about to beat the cotton candy on the other side of my head into submission when I heard a strange sizzling noise like an electrical charge, and then a distinct crackle.
My hair dryer had caught on fire.
I let out a surprised yelp and flung the dryer to the floor, where it left a burn mark on the carpet and lay there like a useless severed hand. Immediately I began barking out orders to Angel, ranting about nozzles and diffusers and frizz and basically carrying on like a wild-haired John McEnroe on the receiving end of a bad call from the line ump.
It's true: I may look somewhat normal, but I have a temper like a sleep-deprived toddler in the candy aisle at a Wal-Mart. Which is why, when Angel failed to produce a brand-new working hair dryer in .02 seconds, I trashed that hotel room like a rock star who discovers one yellow M&M in the bowl of contractually-guaranteed brown ones.
What I didn't realize at the time, however, was that my problems were just the tip of the iceberg.
That's because, while I was busy wrangling a flaming hair dryer and a head full of cotton candy like some kind of deranged circus performer, the building next door, where the bride and groom, the entire wedding party, and all of their relatives were staying . . . had also caught on fire, causing the entire building to be evacuated.
Which meant that just an hour before the ceremony, our beautiful bride Ellen had to walk down 14 flights of stairs . . . in her wedding gown . . . and five-inch heels.
Which was also right around the time that this arrived.
All told, I'm happy to say that our girl kept it together pretty well. How many brides do you know who can evacuate a burning building, dodge her groom in the hotel lobby, make peace with a gigantic storm cloud, stop to pose for photos with some firemen, and still look this amazing???
For these two, though, looking completely adorable just comes naturally.
As for me, I decided that I'd earned a glass of Champagne or three after having successfully managed to not set my own head on fire.
The next day we attended the happy couple's farewell brunch, then headed off to Ft. Myers, where we arrived approximately 4 hours early for our flight home. While normally the only thing I'm ever early for is a restaurant reservation, given the events of the day before, I think Angel and I both half-expected the road to Ft. Myers to be closed by some only-in-Florida disaster, like an overturned truck full of alligators or a chain-reaction pileup of Cadillacs.
Luckily there were no such disasters, which left us free to make a pilgrimage to nearby Ft. Myers Beach, also known as Estero Island, for a much-anticipated stop at the Heavenly Biscuit.
We first discovered the Heavenly Biscuit in 2003, when we chose Ft. Myers Beach for a simple, stress-free beach vacation before I had to begin studying for the bar exam. The fact that I am still thinking about the Heavenly Biscuit nine years later should tell you everything you need to know, both about me and about those biscuits. If not, this might:
This is the Heavenly Biscuit's homemade cinnamon roll. But as good as it looks, there's a reason they didn't name this place the Heavenly Cinnamon Roll.
That's because the biscuits at Heavenly Biscuit are exactly that: heavenly. They are buttery, warm, flaky, and soft enough to stick to your teeth, and to them you may add a host of delicious fillings, including eggs, cheese, tomato, gravy, bacon, thick-cut ham, sausage (link or patty), fried chicken, chicken fried steak, salmon, or ahi tuna.
I went with the classic ham, egg, and cheese biscuit, while Angel, apparently feeling like he'd cheated death after escaping both a hotel fire and Hurricane Tracey, went straight for the fried chicken.
Back when we first visited the Biscuit in 2003, I'd quickly fallen in love with the spice mix they use to season their home fries, a peppery blend of garlic, salt, paprika, cayenne, red pepper, black pepper, mustard seed, and fennel that gives the mixture a unique taste that's hard to get enough of. And so I'd purchased a bag of it, intending to use it as soon as I got home. But every time I tried, I found myself hesitating: Once I used it all up, who knew when I'd be able to get more? And so that spice mix has sat in my kitchen cabinet for nine long years, waiting for the right moment to finally make its way into a skillet full of home fries.
That moment is likely to be this weekend. Of course, I'll use my new batch of spice mix and finally toss the old one, knowing that we'll make a return visit to southwest Florida some time soon, if only for more succulent stone crab, addictive key lime pina coladas, and heavenly biscuits.
I just hope the skillet doesn't catch on fire.
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