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 listings.
Calypso's Seafood Grill, 1 Seagate Blvd, Key Largo; 305-451-0600. Open Wednesday through Monday 11:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. If dining were any more laid-back than at this open-air restaurant fronting Pilot House Marina in Key Largo, it would be comatose. No hassles, no pretensions. No reservations, credit cards, or desserts either. But that doesn't matter to the hordes of hungry diners who pack the place during season, most of whom head straight for one of the restaurant's wildly popular fried baskets -- conch, shrimp, dolphin, or combo, served with coleslaw and French fries. More elaborate dishes are generally less successful, though the house signature pasta, a whimsical amalgam of dolphin, shrimp, clams, artichoke hearts, kalamata olives, and sun-dried tomatoes in an artery-clogging feta cream sauce is surprisingly tasty. Besides, you gotta love a place whose motto is: "Yes, we know the music is loud and the food is spicy. That's the way we like it!"
Half Shell Raw Bar, 231 Margaret St, Key West; 305-294-7496. Open Monday through Thursday 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday noon to 10:00 p.m. If God set out to create the quintessential Keys dive, She would probably come up with the Half Shell. Located on the water at Key West Bight, this former shrimp processing plant has all the funky charm of any world-class dive. The walls of the scruffy-looking bar are plastered with license plates from around the world, seating is at picnic tables scattered about the cavernous dining room (with a handful of tables overlooking the water), and the only air conditioning is from the ocean breezes and lazily revolving overhead fans. The food can be uneven, but the good dishes are great. Begin with an oyster shooter -- an ample bivalve, pepper vodka, and cocktail sauce -- and then move on to a peppery clam chowder, spicy beer-steamed shrimp, rich and gooey oysters Rockefeller, and plump steamed clams.
Island Grill, 85501 Overseas Hwy, Islamorada; 305-664-8400. Open daily 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. This riotously colorful eatery is a pleasant surprise in two ways. One, it's a surprise there actually is a restaurant partially hidden beneath the Snake Creek Bridge; two, the Grill's contemporary multiculti cuisine is surprisingly good. In mild weather, the outdoor patio overlooking the bay and mangrove stands is the best place to enjoy dishes like whole fried snapper, its crunchy skin glistening with a sweet-hot Thai chili glaze, or Key West shrimp served with grits and andouille sausage in a creamy tomato sauce. It's worth the trip just for the Grill's substantial tuna "nachos" -- crisp won ton skins topped with seaweed salad and slabs of seared-rare tuna, all drizzled with a piquant wasabi aioli.
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Kaiyo, 81701 Old Hwy, Islamorada; 305-664-5556. Open Monday through Saturday 4:30 to 10:00 p.m. Sophisticated big-city food, a gorgeous dining room, and the Keys' laid-back ambiance combine to make this chic Islamorada restaurant one of the best and most appealing places to eat in the islands. Chef/owner Dawn Sieber produces modern, Asianesque dishes that are as light on the palate as they are big in flavor. Duck confit wrapped in green tea crêpes, tempura-fried baby abalone (don't panic, they're farm-raised) with wasabi sauce, and slippery udon noodles with shellfish and kim chee butter are just some of the highlights. And if you need a sushi fix, the stylish sushi bar dispenses all the usual raw fish suspects (of impeccable freshness), as well as inventive maki such as the "Key lime roll," which comprises citrus essence, hearts of palm, and local lobster in a tart, luscious, elegant package.
Louie's Backyard, 700 Waddell, Key West; 305-294-1061. Open for lunch daily 11:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., dinner 6:00 to 10:00 p.m. If you had a back yard like Louie's, you'd brag about it too -- a tree-shaded, tri-level, oceanfront deck delivering panoramic views almost as impressive as chef Doug Shook's classically contemporary cuisine. Begin with his foie gras "pizza," a round of cracker-crisp crust spread with plushly textured foie and complemented by balsamic-glazed figs and peppery arugula. Few South Florida restaurants do sweetbreads, and none does these little nuggets of luxury and cholesterol better than Louie's, where they're paired with a crusty potato cake, fresh porcini mushrooms, and suave herb-butter sauce. Try the chocolate cobbler for dessert. For that special occasion or romantic interlude (you dog, you), there's no better back yard than Louie's.
Schooner Wharf, 202 William St, Key West; 305-292-3302. Open daily 11:00 a.m. to midnight; bar until 4:00 a.m. This fixture of the Key West waterfront is like so many Keys eateries -- funky, utterly unpretentious, beloved by locals yet often swarmed by tourists, and dishing up island staples of conch chowder and fritters, fish sandwiches, coconut shrimp, burgers, and the like. The difference is that the food at Schooner is actually good. Ingredients are fresh and of high quality, execution is careful and precise, and the cheery staff makes eating here a pleasure. Underneath the Keys-iness of it all is a smartly run restaurant, which doesn't detract a bit from the fun of hanging out at old, weathered wooden tables just a fritter's throw from the water, as you suck down a cold beer and a few plump oysters and watch the din of the outside world fade into insignificance.