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An integral part of any vacation for me is sampling the best in local cuisine. While many of my dinner choices are centered around fine-dining restaurants which can be more pricey than what fits some budgets, a good alternative which would preclude your not visiting them is to go but order an appetizer or two for your meal in lieu of a more expensive entree selection.
It is hard to believe now that I waited this long to try Hot Tin Roof, but it seemed I had read too many reviews along the lines of " you are paying for the view not the food " cliche. I should never have let them influence me, and they must not have tried the delectable dishes I did. However, I will say that formerly I hadn't really seen a dish on Hot Tin Roof's menu that had called out my name until my friend, better known as the lovely Belladonna or Prissy in Paradise, posted a photo of their caramelized grouper in her review of the restaurant. I agree with Donna a good 90% of the time, and I love grouper, so I now had found a dish that was calling out to me.
I knew the night was charmed when we were offered a coupon right outside the restaurant for a free Mojito and a free Hottini with the purchase of two entrees. That mojito turned out to be the best I have ever tasted and visually it was as stunning as a work of art, with a towering mint sticking out of the glass as a decoration as opposed to that tons of soggy mint in the bottom that ruins so many mojitos for me. And did I mention it was free?
We began the meal with the delicate soup of the day, which was corn and poblano. It was a big hit with me. Next we shared the often reviewed pork empanadas, which were good. Then I ordered a bottle of Sancerre from their outstanding wine list to accompany my caramelized grouper. Grouper is my favorite fish, and this version may have been my favorite of all time. It most assuredly was my favorite of that night, and provided me with one of those culinary WOW moments I search for each trip.
Although so full that I was relatively sure I would not be ordering dessert, I always agree to look at dessert menus just in case there is that one offering I can't resist. There was. I love raspberries, I love chocolate mousse and I love napleons, so there was no choice but to end the evening with a raspberry, chocolate mousse napoleon.
So that tells you about the food, all of which I loved. Then, yes, there is that incredible view,. whose sunset was captured repeatedly on my wife's new IPad Mini. Then theire was our excellent waiter, the good atmosphere of a packed high-end restaurant, where everyone feels a little bit special and blessed to be there enjoying an evening. And on top of all that, they have menus that light up automatically for your dining pleasure, in this dimly lit, romantic restaurant, an item I had never experienced before and found awesome. I love everything about this restaurant. So even after all these years and my many meals I can still find there are new places to excite.( Okay, I mean new to me.) Hot Tin Roof has been around many years and certainly should be for many more, hopefully serving me. I can dream, can't I?
I first dined at Pisces back in 1998 during my first trip to Key West. Back then the restaurant was known as Cafe Des Artistes. I think I could credit that meal as the one that transformed me into a "foodie." It is still one of the most memorable meals I have had in my life. It was the first time I ate Beluga caviar and the first time I tried Creme Brulee, which has been my favorite dessert ever since.
When I originally made my list of must-do Key West dining and began my annual Key West Culinary Tours, I already knew that Pisces would top my list if it had not lowered its standards over the past twelve years. I can now state resoundingly that it has not.
Recently someone asked what would be your choice if you could only have one meal in Key West. My answer is easy now: Pisces Aphrodite as my appetizer, Lobster Tango Mango as my entree, and Creme Brulee as my dessert. Beautiful food, beautifully presented! (The Lobster Tango Mango is presented in the shape of a lobster, for example.)
This is a very upscale restaurant and everything about it is first class from the Andy Warhol art to its top notch service and culinary delights. It has that old-school class, offering lime and sorbet to cleanse the palate between each course and presenting chocolate truffle dessert gratis at the end of your meal. It has no waterfront view, but this is a very romantic restaurant perfect for celebrating that special event.
I purposely saved my return to Pisces for the end, after completing my must-do lists, because I wanted to save the best for last. Pisces is still simply the best.
Okay, as of September 2013, it is second best on my favorites' list. That doesn't in anyway mean they are a second-best restaurant.
This restaurant is so romantic that it should be a prime choice if you are celebrating a special occasion. The romance begins with the ride on the ferry to get to Sunset Key, then continues with a walk on the beach there to watch the sunset, then to dining at the beach cafe where you will be waited on by a wonderful staff and partake of a wonderful meal.
Sunset Key Shrimp
Jumbo Shrimp Stuffed with Crabmeat Wrapped in Maple
Barbecue Glazed Bacon, Key Lime Mustard, Caribbean Passion
Fruit Slaw 16
"Tasting of Prime Beef"
Seared Filet of Beef and Ginger Braised Short Ribs, Sweet Shallot
Puree, Fennel Scented Potato Fondant, Veal Jus 38-
Surf & Turf (which is an off-menu "special." Since I know it is awkward to ask a price and one isn't offered, I will let you know it is $75, but both the lobster and the filet were cooked to perfection, so we were happy with the selection, nonetheless.
Trio of Creme Brulee (not sure of the cost; the waiter presented it with lit candles without charge in honor of my daughter's 30th birthday celebration)
Is that OUTSTANDING service or what?
Food critic Bruce Hunt named Cafe Marquesa as definitely his favorite restaurant in Key West, and one of his top two in all of Florida, and it is certainly one of my favorites and the one restaurant at which I have dined during all my visits to Key West. Cafe Marquesa is outstanding in every respect, from its pristine, white tablecloths and glistening crystal, to its attentive service, beautifully plated dishes, and the complexity of tastes on each plate.
Cafe Marquesa is a must-stop for us every time we are in Key West. I always enter planning to order the wonderful Roast Rack of lamb, but often find myself ordering the tempting tasting menu offerings instead. Last trip we actually ate there twice so that I could do both.
Cafe Marquesa offers a totally satisfying experience: great food presented with flair in a romantic and elegant setting, everything you could ask for in a restaurant.
The tasting menu has always included a seared tuna entree that is a favorite of mine. The seafood pot stickers with seaweed make a good appetizer to accompany it.
From the main menu, order:
Duo of Soups: Onion Soup with Cheese Croute & Shrimp Bisque with Grilled Shrimp 10
Pan Roasted Duck Breast with Red Curry Coconut Sauce, Roasted Chayote Squash
& Peruvian Mashed Potatoes 28.00.
Roast Rack of Austraiian Lamb with Goat Cheese Crust, Mushroom Sauce, Duck Fat Roasted Potatoes and Haricot Vert 39
And for dessert:
Key Lime Napoleon (always part of the menu) or sometimes menu item: Ricotta Cheesecake 8.50
Yes, I recommended several entrees, because I have eaten here every trip and was very pleased with my selections on each occasion. Few excel head chef Susan Ferry in building a cohesive and delicious plate of food,where each component is chosen with care.
The buzz had started on this restaurant that had opened since my 2007 trip, so I was eager to try it when I returned in 2008. It lived up to the raves. In fact I had been eager to return ever since with the intention of ordering the exact meal again and did so this trip. This time we were welcomed as former customers and given the best table next to the beautiful fountain outside, a very beautiful and romantic setting. The food itself was just as good the second time around. Like several restaurants in Key West, I treat this one as a tapas restaurant even though it doesn't call itself such, because I find the small plates here so tempting.
Crisp fried potato, fennel and onion cake topped with house cured salmon, creme fraiche, chives, capers and tobiko caviar 13
Warm goat cheese boucherondin over arugula, with walnuts, shallots and rosemary infused honey 12
Finish with the espresso panna cotta with rum caramel sauce and candied lemons 8
The potato, fennel, and onion cake with salmon appetizer is artfully presented and reminds me of NineOneFive's Tuna Dome. The warm goat cheese salad joins Alice's passion fruit salad as salads that actually achieve the status of being good enough to draw me back to a restaurant in and of themselves. The espresso panna cotta became my new favorite dessert, surpassing Santiago Bodega's bread pudding
Azur is a restaurant that compares to Cafe Marquesa in its flair for beautiful presentation of food.. Azur has definitely joined the ranks as one of Key West's best dining experiences.
I had meant to make it to the Upper Deck last year but didn't manage it. I wasn't about to miss out this year and chose to dine here my second night, after having tried the new Fin the night previous. What perfect timing for a study in contrasts.
We chose the Iberco Ham and Manchego Bruschetta, delicious; the Moorish Steak Kabobs, grilled to perfection; the Grilled Lamb Ribs, the best I have ever eaten; and the pizza I had heard so much about and looked forward to, duck being my second favorite meat behind lamb. It was the only disappointment unfortunately. The crust was black and tasted as burnt as it looked to me, but was immediately comped. I don't want to linger on that anyhow and didn't then. Rather I told my waiter how much I had enjoyed the food and of my desire to leave with the flavor of those lamb ribs lingering on my palate so to please bring me another order. My wife and I then proceeded to embarass ourselves with how quickly we devoured them.
I love lamb. I order it everywhere. In Key West, I have had lamb at Cafe Marquesa, Square One,and Santiago's Bodega, and on this trip alone: Martin's, the Boat House Grill in addition to the Upper Deck. This is the best lamb I have ever eaten anywhere, not just Key West, but anywhere.
The manager and our waiter were extremely attentive. The food was outstanding. We had the most private table looking out on a beautiful view. The cost was moderate. What more can you ask? Don't miss this restaurant! I never will again.
My wife and I celebrated our 40th anniversary here with a romantic dinner outside overlooking a wonderful view of the Bight.
Maine Lobster Escargot. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16.50
Medallions of lobster sauteed with helix escargots & wild mushrooms
In an herbed lemon garlic butter and served in a puffy pastry
Sunset Surf and Turf. .48.50 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . six ounce filet and 6 ounce lobster tail. .
Berlin's Surf and Turf. . . .68.50
10 ounce filet and 10 ounce lobster tail
(Our choice was actually the Surf & Turf for Two Special, but I don't know if it is always available.)
The Lobster Escargot was one of the best dishes I have ever eaten. The Surf & Turf was cooked to perfection. My wife didn't care for the sides offered with the entree and the waiter immediately suggested some substitutions which she enjoyed. She also loved the butter molds in the shape of A&B. We shared a bottle of very reasonably priced wine, which was placed in a wine bucket beside our table, and our waiter never failed to show up to pour it at precisely the right moment. Great food, great service and a great view. We were very happy we chose this restaurant to commemorate our special occasion.
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Santiago's Bodega, unlike most other fine-dining restaurants in Key West, offers the same menu all day beginning at 11am. So it can be a lunch or a dinner stop. I recommend an early dinner so one can enjoy their Happy Hour from 3-6 pm. It offers selected plates for $5 including mussels, frog legs, beef skewers, crab cakes and pork empanadas and features half-price Sangria and $10 off a bottle of wine.
I only tried three of Happy Hour selections, skipping the mussels and frog legs, because I wanted the dates and mushrooms also from the regular menu. And I would skip the beef skewers in the future and stick to the usual beef tenderloin dish on the main menu. For while the skewers were cooked well, had a good sauce and a great looking appearance when presented, but the quality of the cut offered left me leaving half on my plate. The crab cakes, meanwhile, were good; and the pork empanadas were amazing. They were loaded with pork and accompanied by a spicy sauce that I loved. I consider them the best empanadas I have ever eaten and my new favorite dish at Santiago's. I will be craving these until next trip.
My recommendations for a happy hour dinner at Santiago's:
pork empanadas and crab cakes from the happy hour menu $5 each
dates - stuffed with goat cheese,
wrapped with prosciutto / 10
bacon and basil wrapped mushrooms with basil aioli 8
beef tenderloin - seared and topped with
a bleu cheese butter / 13
And accompany your meal with half-price sangria.
Salute on the Beach had been on my favorite lunch list, but I always felt it held its spot there more because of its location than my great passion for its food. But one evening this trip we were wanting to eat somewhere with a view, and my wife insisted on something more casual. She didn't really want to dine at one of the "fine dining" venues. So we finally settled on giving Salute a try for dinner for the first time. All I can say is, WOW!
I have often said that it takes a lot to wow me in a fish entree. I usually think they are good, i.e. the yellowtail at Blue Heaven or, with Thai curry sauce, at Seven Fish or the hogfish at Cafe Sole, or the black grouper at Azur. All are good, but none make we go wow.
The only time I had actually gone wow over a fish entree was a black grouper with chorizo lunch special I had at Louie's Backyard. Well, now there is a second wow on the list and it was the black grouper special I was served at Salute this trip. It was so good that Salute earned its spot on my Culinary Tour Dinner list to join its lunch time selection there.
And, of course, besides the black grouper 34, I had to have the Key Lime Pie with the tall meringue for dessert. 9
I dined at Square One for the first time in my inaugural Key West Culinary tour I had a fabulous meal there and ranked the restaurant highly, originally. But my wife was not pleased with her selection and so we had never returned as much as I wanted to. And, over the years, as I found new restaurants we both enjoyed, Square One eventually fell off my list of favorites. Now, with the new owners, and a new menu, they had given me a reason to return that she could not deny. Local friends had also recommended it, and I was eager to go there.
I started with a glass of Albarino, a white Spanish wine I had never tried, but that a character in one of the books I read did, and made me want to try it. I had planned for it to accompany the seafood lasagna I intended to order from the regular menu. However, everything I ordered wound up coming from the evening's specials. I started with the beef carpaccio. Phenomenal! ( My favorite item from the entire vacation.:) I wish the rest of my selections had been so fortunate.
We followed with the pork spring rolls appetizer. I thought they were good. My wife didn't care for them as much as I did. Then, even though I had looked forward to the seafood lasagna so much, when one of the nightly specials was lamb ribs, I was torn. And my wife, seeing that, volunteered to order the seafood lasagna herself so that I could at least taste it, while enjoying my beloved lamb. Well, let me say, I have never eaten lamb ribs before, only lamb chops, usually as in a rack of lamb. Lamb ribs are NOT lamb chops. They do have the advantage of being large so there is more meat to eat. But that meat is NOT lamb chops. They were still good, but a bit disappointing. On the other hand, my wife and I both agreed about the seafood lasagna. We found it to be a dish that while good, was something you wanted a smaller helping of, like a side dish, instead of an entree-sized portion. I wound up wishing I had ordered the other special of the night, which had also greatly tempted me, hogfish oscar. Oh, well, a restaurant cannot be blamed because I didn't order what I should have to make me happy.
Finally, the meal ended with another disappointment. One of the dishes I had most been looking forward to was the dessert of profiteroles based on Prissy in Paradise's review and picture of them. It is a puff pastry with green tea ice cream filling (that was what won my attention), and kahlua chocolate sauce.But, alas, they were out of them when I ordered. So I was encouraged to replace it with one of the everning's specials, a white chocolate blueberry tart that the waiter proclaimed was better than the profiteroles anyhow. If so, I would have been disappointed in them as well. Don't misunderstand. Everything I ate at Square One was good. But the meal started with great with my "best thing I ate this trip" appetizer, and suffered having to compete with that. At least they were competing with themselves.
I am looking forward to what should be a wonderful new happy hour there next trip in May.
P.S. Update: If you also read my lunch favorites, you will find that the beef carpaccio got edged out as best thing I ate on this trip, by the duo of tuna at Latitudes eaten later in the visit at my departure lunch. But don't hang your head over it, carpaccio. You were still fab!
I had always wanted to sample a properly aged vintage wine and Grand Cafe is known for its extensive wine list. I read an article that said that Barolo is the King of Wines, and I found one from what I read was from a good year, a recommended vineyard, and rated a 93. So having met all my criteria, I made reservations. To accompany my special wine, we started with an excellent cheese platter, followed by a tomato bisque with crab. My entree was the best crispy duck I have had in awhile, and we finished the meal with a white chocolate bread pudding.
We enjoyed the view from our outside table, but not always the fumes we picked up there from passing cycles. Our waiter was excellent also,always right there at the appropriate time to pour the wine. It isn't something I consider to be totally necessary, but when it is done, it is a gratifying experience The two other places I have had that in Key West are A&B Lobster House and Pisces. All of which are what I consider old school fine dining establishments.
This is another one of those restaurants, like Blue Heaven, that a very good dinner is available if one orders the right items but one could leave very underwhelmed if one makes other choices. I love its famous Lobster Mac & Cheese (or at least my wife did, so much so I didn't get a bite of it this trip.) I also loved the Grilled Marinated Key West Pink Shrimp with spice lime chutney and the Black Bean Soup. I did not care for the Tuna Watermelon Ceviche at all. As for the side dishes which accompanied our entrees, I loved the Maple Syrup Mashed Sweet Potatoes that came with my Bacon Wrapped Scallops. I don't think the roasted corn and broccoli cakes are a good choice as sides to other entrees. The roasted corn was simply not touched, because it is not an item we care to eat in public. My wife did say she wished she could take it back to the room and microwave it. LOL
As for the entrees, the bacon wrapped Scallops were so wonderful, plus there were 6 huge scallops, whereas most restaurants I have been to have maybe four. Both my wife and I thought the Swordfish with lime butter sauce was simply okay.
The Spicy Chocolate Quesadilla dessert was very good and it was indeed spicy, which I appreciated. I hate when a restaurant lists something as being spicy and it isn't. The dessert chef said he is planning to start offering three degrees of spiciness in the future, which excites me further.
The size of the servings are huge here. The service is friendly and attentive. I definitely recommend the restaurant and think you will leave very happy if you order the right dishes.
Lobster Mac & Cheese or Grilled Marinated Key West Pink Shrimp with lime chutney or Black Bean Soup as appetizers
Bacon Wrapped Scallops with Maple Syrup Mashed Sweet Potatoes 26
Spicy Chocolate Quesadilla for dessert
I am now a huge fan of Michael's because of their light menu which they offer daily from 5:30 to 7:30. It is smaller portions of their regular menu favorites for unbelievably inexpensive prices. But it is still a plenty big enough plate of food. There is now no one who cannot afford to have a find-dining experience while in Key West no imatter how fugal their budget. There simply is no bigger bargain.
Michael's Meatloaf $13.95
A luxurious blend of Kobe beef and prime tenderloin in a traditional style meatloaf,
grilled and served with a zesty tomato sauce, Accompanied by asparagus and mashed potatoes
and for you steak lovers:
Filet al Forno $17.95
Tender filet mignon topped with roasted garlic & Roquefort cheese Served with mashed potatoes and vegetables
This is one of a couple of restaurants in Key West that I simply cannot understand its review history. I had tried their Sunday brunch in the past that is so highly regarded by the locals and this time tried its new Tapas menu that was also recommended by several local friends. The food was amazing, the price was so reasonable, the service was extraordinary. What is there not to like? This is one of my very favorite stops on the island and I will be frequenting it even more after our wonderful evening there this year.
What we ate:
Waldorf Salad 12.50
Grilled Lamb Chop 9.50
Crab Cakes 13.50
Shrimp Scallops 950
Creme Brulee 6.50
2 Ice Teas 5.00
Total for all that 56.50 before tax and tip
How can you not eat here? How can you review it as anything but outstanding? It boggles my mind.