Sometimes, when you’re looking for a place to eat, you’re seeking comfort. You want to know that whatever you choose from the menu will leave you feeling reasonably satisfied with a smile on your face. Nothing complicated, just someplace relaxed, where T-shirt-clad servers bring you a fun cocktail, there’s apt to be a cool breeze, and you can just chill, away from the stresses of the real world.
For me, that place is Sea Sea Riders. I don’t know why — perhaps it’s the old Florida 1903 house with a huge wraparound veranda — but every time I go there, I feel like I’m a kid visiting a favorite relative. “Oh boy, we’re going to Great Aunt [insert familiar name here]’s house near the water in Dunedin. Will she make us conch fritters or some shrimp and grits?”
If the weather’s nice, grab a table on the huge porch and watch the world go by. The menu is mostly fresh Floribbean seafood, simple sautés with a touch of heat or spice to provide a tasty twist and kick it up a notch. And while the kitchen doesn’t push any culinary envelopes, the food pleases a wide range of palates. I take countrified relatives from the mountains and sophisticated friends from New York City. In all cases, after we’ve eaten we leave happy.
Once you get that favorite cocktail to loosen up the conversation, try the crispy tempura grouper cheeks with a sweet and spicy soy glaze and some tangy marinated cucumbers, or the iconic conch fritters with a touch of the spicy Floridian aioli for balance. Their crunchy calamari comes with an eight-hour ragout that provides a nice tomatoey contrast to the fried squid.
Then comes a wide choice of seafood entrees; they’re fresh, but not designed to break boundaries. Two simple sautés are served over linguini if you prefer a pasta accompaniment to the standard wild rice blend. The Sea Sea sauté combines Gulf shrimp and Bay scallops in a swirl of white wine, garlic, and olive oil with a sun-dried tomato, pesto, and feta cheese garnish.
Or try the shrimp scampi where the shellfish melds with lemon butter, roasted garlic, chardonnay, Greek kalamata olives, some fresh herbs and a garnish of grape tomatoes with wilted, aromatic arugula to provide some bite.
One of my favorites is the shrimp and Anson Mills grits that are given a distinctly non-Charlestonian twist with nutty, Spanish Manchego cheese, crisp scallions, some sweet and spicy bacon, and just enough tangy BBQ sauce to make it interesting; this is Southern comfort food. Another traditional Southern treat is a Mississippi-farmed catfish fillet with a stone-ground cornmeal crust, some spiced pecans, and Creole tartar sauce for a hint of ol’ New Orleans.
The pan-seared mahi Key West coats a fresh mahi-mahi fillet with Key lime-tequila-cilantro-butter for acidity, and warm mango-habanero chili salsa for heat to complement the coconut wild rice blend.
If you’ve got a diner in your party with a sweet tooth, one popular dish that aims to give you both a sweet and spicy taste of the islands is the vanilla rum-glazed grouper. It’s char-grilled with macadamia nut “brittle,” spiced pineapple, and a spicy red curry coconut cream to mix in with the wild rice blend timbale that completes the plate.
If you’re just not in a seafood frame of mind, there are also three steak options and a Jamaican jerk chicken for the holdouts. I tried a New York strip steak with smoked sea salt, a touch of Argentine chimichurri butter and herbed mashed potatoes to see if it would do the trick. Hey, it’s not Bern’s, but neither is the bottom line.
When it’s time to finish off with something sweet, your choices are perennial favorites including flourless chocolate torte and cheesecake. We chose the Key lime pie and an absolutely humongous carrot cake slice. They were generic, but acceptable as a sweet, low-keyed ending to a laid back meal. And that’s the secret to Sea Sea Riders’ menu and their service.
REEELAAAAX, drink a cocktail on the veranda, order seafood, embrace your inner Floridian, and think of Great Aunt what’s-her-name.
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