Duval Street Jag

I have a recurring nightmare about an all-you-can-eat buffet.
I enter a dark, two-story building, whereupon a grim hostess shoves a hotel-white china plate into my hands. Then I trudge after a line of people up a flight of musty stairs, through an endless series of dining rooms, and finally down another flight of stairs, all the while passing tables laden with dish after gourmet dish. But the crowds prevent me from getting close enough to taste anything -- it's a case of water, water everywhere. I exit the building hungry and frustrated, my empty plate still balanced on my outstretched palms.

Call it job stress. Anxiety. Trauma over lapsed Judaism (an issue my mother raises more and more as we both age). A Freudian friend even went so far as to interpret this dream as evidence of an unresolved Electra complex.

Clearly my id feels deprived of something, but I doubt it's sex with my father. Because this dream often strikes during the summer, I've identified it as a crisis between my physical self and my mental self. When it's so hot out, I physiologically require less fuel (i.e., food) to keep my body running. Hence my appetite decreases. The problem lies with my palate, which doesn't understand the sudden lack of stimulation. Since when, it demands, does hunger have anything to do with tasting?

The only way to banish this nightmare, then, was to make plans for something I used to do with my sister: Ultimate Eating Sunday (UES).

UES was a ritual binge we engaged in after a week of starvation dieting. Simply put, it was a day on which anything went -- as in, into our mouths. It was a day to reaffirm our faith in food before another week of abject denial. It was a day that, as I left adolescence and bulimic behaviors behind, I refined into a way to strengthen my responsibility toward consuming as much fine fare as possible.

To properly engage in a UES, I've decided, one must commit one's culinary sins outside one's hometown (which is to say, where no one knows you) and in the company of relatives (the ones that don't criticize) or good friends (the ones who have more faults than you do). You must eat at least three full meals, include snacks and sweets, and drink lots of caloric beverages (preferably alcoholic). You must sleep late. You must not engage in exercise (that includes golf).

And you must feel no guilt whatsoever.
Key West seemed an obvious destination. As one of my guests put it: "Key West is great. You get up, you sit down. There's just enough up, and plenty of down." You can imagine the up -- it involved pushing back the chair, standing, and stretching. Here's what we did when we were down:

Martin's Cafe
1015 Fleming St., Key West; 305-296-1183. Breakfast, lunch, and Sunday brunch Tuesday -- Sunday from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Dinner Tuesday -- Sunday from 6:00 to 11:00 p.m. Prices: Breakfast and brunch from $4.50 to $8.00; lunch from $4.00 to $7.00; and dinner from $4.00 to $8.50 for soups, salads, and appetizers and $14.50 to $19.50 for entrees.

UES must begin properly, with brunch. And this fine-dining German biergarten, hidden away from busy Duval Street in a stunning garden setting, was ideal for it. The menu presents a rich a la carte selection of crepes, variations on eggs Benedict, and omelets, accented by some of the sweetest fresh-squeezed orange juice I've had since the Century on South Beach closed for the summer. It was a bit early in the day to pick a Riesling from the reasonably priced wine list, but a splash of the German sparkler Deinhard squeezed a more memorable mimosa out of the juice.

We couldn't resist a special Benedict of the day. Instead of the traditional Canadian bacon, slices of tender filet mignon topped a toasted English muffin along with blanched spinach leaves, perfectly poached eggs, and a superb hollandaise. Similar in design and captivation, "Strammer Max" featured slices of smoked ham, melted Gouda, and two sunny-side-up eggs dripping over thick, slightly sweet, toasted wheat bread.

Though three-egg omelets stuffed with bacon, ham, and cheese or mushroom, tomato, and onion come with grilled potatoes, the tasty farmer's omelet was a more utilitarian way of enjoying eggs and spuds. As in a frittata, the potatoes were mixed into the egg along with bacon and onions. Then the whole mess was cooked "open-faced" in a skillet.

If the fare sounds heavy for the first meal of the morning, that's because it is. But those with lighter appetites can choose yogurt with fresh fruit, a crepe with fresh fruit, or a thin, crusty waffle dusted with confectioner's sugar and partnered by a mound of melon, pineapple, kiwi, and red and green grapes.

Stand up. Time to sit down to lunch.

Yellowtails Cafe
218 Whitehead St., Key West; 305-294-2229. Breakfast and lunch daily from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (closed Wednesday). Prices: Soup and appetizers from $2.50 to $6.95; salads, sandwiches, and lunch specials from $6.25 to $11.95; and dessert from $3.75 to $5.50.

After the strenuous walk from Martin's, we revived ourselves with fresh-squeezed key limeade in this tiny sponge-painted boutique of a restaurant. The cafe fits only four green wrought-iron tables inside, but there's a full complement of seats in the front courtyard. Interesting variations of typical Keys seafood plumped up with homemade sauces and dressings dominate the menu, which is executed with few frills in the one-chef kitchen.

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.

Cafe Marquesa
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.


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