Editor's note: Periodically we will publish capsule reviews like those below in addition to our weekly full reviews. This installment, dedicated to the Florida Keys, was written by Bill Citara. More than 530 capsule reviews of local restaurants can be found in our online dining listings.
Blue Heaven, 729 Thomas St, Key West; 305-296-8666. Open for breakfast Monday through Saturday 8:00 to 11:30 a.m., lunch noon to 2:00 p.m., dinner 6:00 to 10:30 p.m. If you can't have fun eating here, maybe the Keys just aren't for you. The ramshackle building in Key West's still-to-be-gentrified Bahama Village neighborhood houses a gift shop and a nifty little tiled dining room. But the real action takes place outside, at dozens of picnic and patio tables set in the dirt, where the restaurant's pet chickens and roosters peck and caw around your feet. Although it's open for lunch and dinner, Blue Heaven is most famous for its weekend brunch, which is much more interesting than you might expect. Omelets, pancakes, hash browns, and the like are a cut above the usual breakfast fare, but the real stars of the menu are dishes like an opulent lobster/eggs Benedict, and Key West shrimp served on a bed of grits infused with butter and Vermont cheddar cheese.
Chanticleer South, MM 81.6, Islamorada; 305-664-0640. Open Tuesday through Sunday 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Nowhere are the changes overtaking the Keys more evident than at this minuscule, finely appointed restaurant in Islamorada. For twenty years the space was occupied by Manny & Isa's, known for its homey Cuban fare and key lime pie. Now the chef and proprietor is transplanted Nantucket restaurateur Jean-Charles Berruet, who left the frigid North and headed south to cook his classically oriented, slimmed-down French cuisine. Foie gras with dried fruit compote is appropriately rich and decadent, but coq au vin is light, the tender bird plucked from a pot at your table and served with mushrooms and bacon shards. There is even a selection of artisanal cheeses and delightfully airy soufflés, plus a wine list that's a trove of exciting French and Californian bottles.
Keys Fisheries, 3502 Gulfview Dr, Marathon; 305-743-4353. Open daily 11:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Two words: lobster Reuben. Take two slabs of rye bread about the size of a manhole cover; add a sliced Florida lobster tail, sauerkraut, and Swiss cheese; slather the whole thing with Thousand Island dressing; and pan-fry until the bread is golden, the cheese melted, and the aroma enough to make grown men drool like babies. Sell 33,000 of them (at last count) and get ready to sell 33,000 (or 33 million) more. As good as it is, the Reuben isn't the only thing on the extensive menu. Stone crab, peel-and-eat shrimp, conch fritters, and the local catch (grilled, fried, or blackened) are first-rate too. They should be, for this joint ships the bounty of our local waters to restaurants nationwide, as well as supplies stone crab to the famous Joe's in South Beach. On the other hand, there's that lobster Reuben.
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Pilot House Restaurant, 13 Seagate Blvd, Key Largo; 305-451-3142. Open Tuesday through Sunday 5:00 to 10:00 p.m.; tiki bar daily 11:00 a.m. to midnight. It's not often you can use the words Key Largo and fine dining in the same sentence without gagging. In fact there's only one occasion in which those words belong together -- when you're talking about Pilot House. This long-time Keys dive, beneficiary of a seven-figure renovation in 2004, is the lone outpost of serious dining in an ocean of mediocre fish sandwiches and fried shrimp platters. The modestly upscale restaurant serves a range of well-prepared dishes, including a garlicky caesar salad, poached salmon with a creamy vegetable ragout, and a thick "cowboy" steak topped with molten blue cheese crowned with crisp onion strings. And at the waterfront tiki bar, for years a local fave, you can get the best hamburger and fish tacos in the Keys.