Caribbean conch fritters were a little too brown but were nicely flavored with nubbly bits of conch and dotted with carrot and celery. A zippy cocktail sauce laced with cream garnished the six fritters. Teriyaki sauce accompanied a half-dozen "snapper Jon tons" -- moist yellowtail encased in wonton wrappers and deep-fried. These greaseless little treats were supplemented inside with scallions for added flavor.
The shrimp burrito, a flour tortilla stuffed with Key West pink shrimp braised in Jamaican spices, white rice, and jack cheese, was delicious laced with sour cream. Blackened in jerk spices and slightly spicy, a mahi-mahi fillet was flaky and delicate, seated on a sesame roll with a tomato-onion salsa. The same salsa highlighted an "Everglades pork sandwich," a marinated tenderloin of pork succulent enough to pass for chicken breast. All sandwiches come with curly fries or a small green salad with a choice of freshly blended dressings: key lime vinaigrette, garlic-herb vinaigrette, or blue cheese.
Oysters, flown in from Louisiana, were the midday meal's only failure. Battered and deep-fried, then stuffed into Cuban bread with tartar sauce, these were old and tough rather than plump and buttery. Our disappointment was alleviated by a dessert of an outstandingly creamy wedge of tart key lime pie, and pretty much vanished when Yellowtails took the oysters off the check.
In fact, the key lime pie was so good that we had to:
Stand up, walk a block, and buy another wedge of pie from a street vendor, this one covered with chocolate and frozen on a stick. All that sugar made us too hyper to sit, so we had to go have a beer to counteract it.
Kelly's Caribbean Bar
301 Whitehead St., Key West; 305-293-8484. Lunch daily from 11:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Dinner nightly from 5:00 to 10:30 p.m. Prices: Soups, salads, and appetizers from $3.25 to $9.95; lunch from $5.95 to $9.95; dinner entrees from $10.95 to $20.95; desserts $5.00.
Housed in the original Pan American building and owned by actress Kelly McGillis, this courtyard brewery is a perfect place to while away the afternoon hours. Chug a home-brewed fruity wheat beer or golden ale and play cards with a souvenir Pan Am deck ($7.50 from the gift shop). Or sip a Pan Am Classic -- a bicolor drink comprising one-half pina colada, one-half strawberry colada -- and munch a Havana hot dog. (These were actually two dogs, steamed in the house's Havana red ale, then served on poppy-seed buns with jerk-spiced sauerkraut.) A chunky gazpacho, more like salsa than soup, was also a refreshing snack.
Stand up. Belch. Lie down. Nap.
600 Fleming St., Key West; 305-292-1244. Dinner nightly from 7:00 to 11:00 p.m. Prices: Soups, salads, and appetizers from $6.00 to $10.00; entrees from $17.00 to $28.00; desserts $6.00.
Connected to the Marquesa Hotel, a lovely inn with 1880s architecture and an orchid garden, the Cafe Marquesa so inspired a guest of mine that she decided to name her first child after it. I don't blame her: This handsome and contemporary New World restaurant, whose sponged walls and beaded lamps give off a warm, Creamsicle-color glow, has never ceased to impress me with its exquisite fare and superior service. Each meal I have here seems better than the last.
A sample trio of the day's soups was the first, second, and third reason our mouths watered: A chilled pear soup was notable for its fine texture and subtle flavor; orangey Key West seafood chowder was as fruity and fantastic as the morning's juice had been; and the third soup, more like a stew, featured beef and watercress in a powerful, meaty stock.
Watercress reappeared as a salad, fresh and crisp with banana-mango chutney and succulent medallions of Florida lobster. A bubbled brick-oven pizza appetizer was a stupendous achievement, strewn with leaf spinach, goat cheese, and kalamata olives and redolent of roasted garlic.
Entrees were uniformly awe-inspiring. Macadamia nut-crusted grouper was softened with a citrus tartar sauce and a mound of firm sweet potato salad. Pan-seared tuna loin, a sushi-quality fillet cooked medium-rare and enriched with crushed pepper, was heightened with a tamari vinaigrette and teamed with a tangle of homemade egg noodles coated with a spicy sesame sauce.
A presentation of coconut-mango-basted jumbo shrimp was especially impressive, leaning in a stack against what appeared to be a slice of golden layer cake with chocolate icing. Tasting revealed it to be polenta that was layered and frosted with spicy black bean puree, with a puddle of black bean sauce and a spicy tomato coulis spreading out from underneath. This dish rivaled an incredible rack of Australian lamb, four riblets so fabulous that they ruined me for future racks. A supple medium-rare and moist with an intense rosemary jus, the lamb was boosted by ratatouille and roasted shallot confit nesting in sweet potato noodles.
When confronted with an item like white chocolate-tahini cheesecake laced with chopped walnuts and raspberries, one can't help but desire dessert. My husband called this creation every child's dream -- edible Play-Doh -- and while it's true the terrine had a certain reminiscent texture, we couldn't stop devouring the innovative and addicting sweet. Nor could we stop sipping a delicious Wild Horse pinot blanc until it too was merely a memory to take with us back to Miami, where Ultimate Eating Sunday is always followed by Pay Penance Monday.