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Thursday, December 22nd, 2011
Dining Reviews

Dining with Bruce Collier - Eating 2011: The Year in Review

For me, 2011 will always be the Year of the Tiny Diner. My 10-month-old daughter Grace has been accompanying me and her mother on dining reviews since she was only a few weeks old. Her debut as the TD was at AJ’s, one of many pleasurable dining experiences of the year. Not the least of the pleasure came from watching her behavior, which has been—thankfully—good. In a world of entitled louts and boorish customers, I want my child to know her restaurant manners.

This year’s lineup of restaurants included (in no order) AJ’s, the FishBar, John Wehner’s Village Door, the Boathouse Oyster Bar, Sue’s Desserts and More, Poppy’s Seafood Factory, Poppy’s Time Out Sports Bar, Captain Dave’s on the Gulf, Marie’s Bistro, Mellow Mushroom, the Pancakery, Aegean, Angler’s, Fleming’s Steakhouse, Helga’s Restaurant & Biergarten, Nick’s on the Beach, the Florida House, the Donut Hole (in Destin), and Fuji Sushi and Seafood Buffet.

There were a couple of re-visited places among them (Capt. Dave’s, Mellow Mushroom), and in both cases I was glad to see they were still going strong. The following are some highlights from the year.

Favorite Appetizer/Starter. It’s hard to beat oysters on the half-shell, and this year I had them at AJ’s, the Boathouse, and Fuji Sushi. All were terrific. In the case of Fuji, they were not a starter, they were part of an all-you-can-eat deal. Still, for the price of Fuji’s buffet, getting as many raw oysters as I could eat justified the $14.95 tab, even if I had eaten nothing else.

Having said all that, my most memorable non-oyster starter would be the keftedes at Aegean. These little meatballs—three to an order—are crisp and crusty outside, with a hot, fluffy interior. Served with warm pita and tzatziki (yogurt and cucumber), they make you want more, and that’s an appetizer’s mission, right? I also enjoyed the battered and deep-fried artichokes at the Florida House, and the warm sweet potato rolls and butter at Poppy’s Seafood Factory.

Favorite Main Course. There are two contenders here, and I have a hard time deciding which I liked more, so I won’t.

First up is the seafood pan roast at Fish- Bar. The menu made a point of highlighting roasted seafood, and it was something different; I am really glad I took a chance. The pan of grouper, mussels, scallops and shrimp in a mushroom and leek court bouillon was one of the most flavorful things I’ve ever had in a restaurant. The seafood was perfectly cooked, and the bouillon was almost a meal on its own. Thank God for bread.

The other top choice—also seafood—was the lobster jambalaya at Poppy’s Seafood Factory. It was not my first jambalaya, but it was my first with lobster. There was plenty of lobster meat, plus chorizo, smoked sausage, peppers and onions, and a rich, sweet and tangy tomato sauce on fragrant basmati rice. There are few foods I love more than lobster, and this dish did nothing to shake my faith.

Favorite Dessert. Several places offered desserts that we were just too full to try, but we did our best. FishBar’s giant vanilla ice cream ball covered in pecans and caramel was an indulgent treat, as were Poppy’s Seafood Factory bread pudding, made from sweet potato rolls (see Favorite Apps, above), and Helga’s apple crumb pie. And my favorite would be... Poppy’s bread pudding, by a slight margin. I think it was partly the novelty of the sweet potato rolls and partly because the TD tried to crawl across the table to get some of it. That’s almost a vote-and-a-half.

Favorite Restaurant of 2011. Based on the above, it’s a tie, between FishBar and Poppy’s Seafood Factory, both of which had a favorite main course and dessert. Atmospherically, they also run neck and neck, each offering a view of the water and quiet, smooth service.

MISCELLANEOUS MENTIONS - NEW FOR THIS YEAR!

Best Baby Care goes to Marie’s Bistro, whose warmhearted owners insisted on looking after the TD while her parents ate, even giving her a brief tour of the premises.

Best Offbeat Item came from the Mellow Mushroom, which served up a delicious Thai Dye (Pizza) Pie, with curried chicken and sweet spicy chili sauce.

Restaurant That Most Impressed the TD was Fleming’s Steak House, whose dim, romantic interior and army of dedicated staffers kept her observant and peaceful throughout the meal. Daddy’s giant martini awed her a little, too.

Best Place I Did Not Review was Lazy Gecko Deck Bar in the Village of Baytowne Wharf, whose Chef Jeff Beaudoin I profiled for a Chefs Up Close. I sampled his tilapia court bouillon and 20-spice Caribbean fried rice, and would gladly sample both again.

The other restaurants on my list for 2011 all had their points, and just because I did not mention them specifically does not mean I did not like them. I look forward to 2012 and what it has to offer in dining for me, you, and the TD.