Grand Marlin: Top of the Catch in Pensacola

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Grand Marlin's dining room is sleek and sophisticated

Drive along the commercial stretch of beach front real estate the next time you’re hungry in Pensacola, and there are few surprises. Eateries are casual and family friendly, with the emphasis on down-home cuisine and good value. While downtown Pensacola is undergoing a veritable renaissance, driven largely by the opening of sophisticated restaurants and retro entertainment venues, the beach is the place to kick off your shoes and keep it simple.

Of course there’s an exception to every rule.

Welcome to the Grand Marlin, a gorgeous waterfront restaurant boasting pristine seafood so fresh that the menu is printed twice daily. Sleek in design, without a kitschy maritime theme in sight, the Marlin is a collaboration between operating partner Bryan Housley, last of Atlanta’s well regarded Ray’s on the River and executive chef Gregg McCarthy, a CIA grad passionate about Gulf seafood. Chef Gregg sources out the freshest local seafood possible, as well as the best from other regions, in dishes like New Orleans style barbecue Gulf shrimp and a Maryland style lump crabcake made from blue crab that was swimming just a few days before landing on your plate.

The oysters harvested from Apalachicola to the southwest are sweet and slightly briny, served with a housemade cocktail sauce and a red wine mignonette. Tasty medallions of yellow edge grouper from nearby Destin arrive picatta style, crusted with parmesan with accents of crispy capers and brown butter. Try the crispy lobster fingers drizzled with a vanilla infused honey mustard sauce, and the delish salad of slow roasted beets and Alabama goat cheese, topped with a round of pumpkin seed brittle.

A daily menu of fresh fish, all sustainably harvested and wild caught, can be had simply grilled with rice and seasonal veg or served on with a green salad dressed with a tomato basil vinaigrette. Portions are large, with appetizers in the $9.95-$16.50 range, entrees from $18.50 to $25.95 for seafood, $31.95 for a 16-ounce bone-in cow girl rib eye with all the trimmings. The snappy wine list boast fish-friendly whites like Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc ($35) and a wonderful Willamette Valley Pinto Gris from Lange ($39), along with a tasty array of California-centric reds and a menu of hand crafted cocktails.

So the next time you’re in Pensacola, raise the bar on beachfront dining and land a table at the Grand Marlin. We think you’ll agree that it’s quite a catch.

 

Florida lobster tail is just one fresh option

Beyond the Beach in Funky Pine Island

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Nothing shy about Matlacha artist Leoma Lovegrove

Located just 30 minutes west of Fort Myers and off of most tourists’ radar, Pine Island, Florida doesn’t have a single beach to its name. Ditto for high rise development, theme parks and the typical chain stores. Yet its Old Florida appeal is undeniable, both for the 9,000 year-round residents of the 17-mile long island, and for the savvy visitors who come calling.

Besides a plethora of wildlife and a no-frost tropical clime, Pine Island is also home to the Calusa Blueway Paddling Festival, which takes around the beginning of November every year. . Hundreds of paddlers, competitors and outdoor enthusiasts convene to follow in the wake of the Calusa Indians, who first paddled along the pristine gulf coastline.

Pine Island is at the northern most point of the Blueway’s 190 miles of marked water trails that start in Bonita Springs, and offer meandering views of leggy wading birds, mangrove tunnels and sugar-sand beaches.

Pine Island’s section of the trail brings you in splashing distance to the artsy small town of Matlacha (say Mat-luh-shay), with its funky waterfront galleries and restaurants. Here, you’ll meet Leoma Lovegrove, whose Painting Out Loud performances have earned her international acclaim. Peggy McTeague at Wild Child Gallery is proud to showcase her own metal sculptures, along with art by more than 120 mostly local artists. And Lou Demek, a New York shoe wholesaler who “retired” to Matlacha and opened the Shoe Gallery, a lemon-colored shop full of serious fashion bargains. Stroll up and down the main drag, and in each shop, it’s the owner who will welcome you, something that just doesn’t happen at your average chain store.

So while the masses flock to the sandy beaches of places like nearby Sanibel, the fortunate few seek out the road less traveled to Matlacha. People like Bill and Diane Stoelker, who moved from Philadelphia to this quirky little town a few years ago. Co-owners of the comfortable Angler’s Inn, the couple fell in love with the island’s laid back lifestyle and friendly vibe.

A paradise for boaters, Matlacha is made up of a series of canals, so you’re never far from the water. And there’s a strong sense of community in town, a one-mile strip of ramshackle fishing shacks turned into galleries, restaurants and shops. Painted in rainbow hues, downtown Matlacha is reminiscent of what Key West used to be like, long before the cruise ships started bringing boatloads of tourists to town.

Order some just caught fish, blackened, broiled, fried or grilled, at Olde Fish House, a waterfront market that serves food Thursday through Sunday out on the shaded patio. Or grab a cold one at Bert’s Bar, where you can sample the best smoked smelt in all of Lee County.

Pine Island isn’t the usual FLorida beach destination, but if it’s authenticity you crave, along with fresh seafood, friendly bars (when was the last time you had a $1 beer?), great fishing and a bona fide artists’ community, then you’ll give this off-the-map destination five stars.

Philly transplants BIll and Diane run the Anglers Inn on Pine Island