Keys Strokes

Fine dining in the Keys has always been somewhat problematic for me. Seems as if any time I read or hear about a supposedly great, upscale restaurant down there and then visit it, more often than not I find the reputation has been inflated. Usually turns out that the view was so terrific that the tipster's overcooked fish had been forgiven; or the proprietor's welcome was so impressive that the menu's lack of imagination was overlooked; or the dining room was so atypically fashionable that the dubious talent in the kitchen was generously pardoned.

After all, I've known people to say, "Remember where we are: back country, backwater, the Keys." This kind of temporizing is called tailoring expectations to location, a practice I can't stomach. If a restaurant has gained a name for being classy and creative, then it should live up to that characterization no matter its locale. But when it comes to the Keys, I have held out little hope of this happening. Consequently I was pleasantly surprised by the three-year-old Barracuda Grill in Marathon, a perfect example of an eatery that has not only earned its rep but has retained it.

Situated at mile marker 49.5, the Barracuda Grill is an urban contemporary restaurant that caters to a growing population of locals who aren't willing to compromise. That means characteristics of the rural Keys are present: Smoking is permitted in the 50-seat dining room (and almost everyone was puffing away during our recent visit); reservations aren't accepted (unless you're a regular and call from home to say, "We'll be there in five minutes"); and the place closes "when we feel like it" (usually around 10:00 p.m.). It also means that you won't find early bird specials, and that you will find a thoughtfully chosen selection of microbrewed beers and California wines -- at prices that are as unfamiliar in these parts as snow.

Much of Barracuda's sophistication can be traced to chef-owners Jan and Lance Hill. Executive chef Jan is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and she once worked as a sous chef at the Dining Room at Little Palm Island, an exclusive Keys resort consistently rated by travel magazines as one of the best in the United States. She met her husband, also a chef, at the Hyatt in Key West; he'd had experience at Louie's Backyard, a fertile training ground for the area's creative cooks. Together they ran a restaurant called Club 800 on Cudjoe Key for two years, then moved north to Marathon several years ago.

A decorative barracuda motif permeates the Hills' Grill: Paintings of the fish, found in waters around the Keys, hang on walls; marble sculptures rest in corners; wrought-iron candleholders adorn tables. But you won't find barracuda on the menu. (Its flesh contains toxins that can kill a human.) In fact you won't be ordering much South Florida seafood at all here. Only a couple of items -- an appetizer of conch cake, the evening's fresh catch entree (mangrove snapper garnished with mango salsa) -- are from local waters. The barracuda actually serves as something of a metaphor here -- as in "bite," which is to say that the kitchen revels in peppery, spicy fare.

We first encountered such bite in the tasty "cheezy quesadilla" starter. Heartier than we expected, these buttered and griddled tortilla sandwiches, sliced into quarters, were oozing both cheddar and Jack cheeses along with a healthy number of jalapenos. A zingy, cilantro-heavy tomato salsa rode shotgun, as did a soothing, cilantro-spiked sour cream.

Another appetizer -- this one called "Now that's a conch cake!" -- was more piquant than we'd anticipated. The large pan-fried cake was studded with red bell pepper, but the breadlike texture was doughy, and the nuggets of Bahamian conch were rubbery.

Better start with the smoked fish spread, a small plate for two. Mangrove snapper is smoked on the premises, then minced and served as a huge mound (it could feed four) with water crackers. The chunky spread, akin to whitefish salad, was delicious either solo or paired with a garnish of slow-roasted garlic cloves. Presented in an oyster shell-shape dish, the garlic was caramelized and dripped olive oil, a mellow, sweet accompaniment.

All main courses were served with mixed green salads of outstanding quality; caesar salad was available for an extra four bucks, which we thought extravagant given that the house salads are gratis. The restaurant makes its own salad dressings, including a sinus-clearing vinaigrette, robust with balsamic vinegar and black pepper.

A whimsical sense of humor dots the list of entrees, culminating in dishes with appellations such as "I just want a caesar & pasta" and "Good ole shrimp scampi." The latter was excellent, a reworked classic with eight jumbo shrimp. Served over al dente linguine, the shrimp were plump, off-the-boat fresh, and rosy as a Key West sunset. The sauce was delectably rich, comprising a healthy but not overwhelming amount of sauteed garlic, chopped parsley, clarified butter, white wine, and a squeeze of key lime juice.

The menu's half-dozen meat dishes require good eaters. The mixed grill -- baby-back ribs, grilled chicken, and a skirt steak -- was a tremendous amount of food, noted in the dish's menu description as "a tribute to backyard grillin' and big appetites." The skirt steak alone, an exceptional cut, would have been sufficient -- marinated, grilled to tenderness, and sliced into four substantial quarters. We might have preferred it without the arid, boneless, and skinless breast of chicken that had been coated with crushed pepper, and the dry, hickory-smoked ribs that, while tasty, were juiceless.

On the other hand, a chargrilled veal rib chop practically exuded moisture. Beautifully prepared, the medium-rare chop, a trifle fattier around the edges than the waitress had claimed, was soaked in a slightly too salty veal stock. Stalks of fresh rosemary infused the meat with fragrance, which countered the salt, and the veal was unquestionably of top quality. "Chef's accompaniments" come with both meat and fish entrees -- familiar smashed potatoes, speckled with pepper, and an uninteresting saute of shaved carrots, summer squash, zucchini, and tomatoes -- and were served on side dishes (there was no room on the entree plate).

The dinner menu warns you to save room for the restaurant's dessert specialty -- raisin-bread pudding. We heeded the hint but squandered our tummy space on homemade key lime pie instead. Barracuda's version was more like cheesecake, lightly tangy and smooth, nestled into a buttery graham-cracker crust. Some things down in the Keys are sacred, you know. Key lime pie has always been one of them. And now Barracuda Grill is too.

Barracuda Grill
4290 Overseas Hwy, Marathon; 305-743-3314. Dinner Monday -- Saturday from 6:00 to 10:00 p.m.

Cheezy quesadilla

Smoked fish spread (for 2)

Good ole shrimp scampi

Chargrilled veal chop

Key lime pie


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