Grits. Hushpuppies. Fried eats on sticks. All these pop to mind when thinking of dining in Florida's northwest.
The culinary elite generally view the region as a step or two down the food chain from, say, Manhattan or Paris. But as the area polishes itself - construction booms, more travelers arrive - fine eateries arise. It's a new type of cuisine, an epicurean mélange of urban tastes. Regional chefs embrace an "If you got it, flaunt it" attitude. And what northwest Florida has is seafood.
In Pensacola, I try The Fish House. Views of Seville Harbor dominate the décor, along with huge aquariums housing tropical fish. (The Atlas Oyster House, sister restaurant of the Fish House, sits next door and offers similarly fine fare in a more casual atmosphere.)
Don't miss the chance to try Parmesan-crusted Gulf grouper served over pappardelle pasta, resting in a lobster fennel cream and finished with fried leeks ($24), or Southern-fried green tomatoes cracker-crusted, fried, and served with three sauces: cherry-pepper vinaigrette, white rémoulade, and spicy Creole aïoli ($9). Finish the experience with a slice of homemade key lime pie ($6), which is Florida’s official state pie; theirs is naturally yellow, as it should be.
I indulge in the restaurant's signature dish: Grits à Ya Ya. Its centerpiece is a pile of spicy Gulf jumbo shrimp, mixed with spinach, portobello mushrooms, bacon, garlic, shallots and cream, served over a mound of Gouda-topped grits. I'm not a spice person, but I love how the inspired flavors combine and bite. I barely finish it. If I were a man, I'd be loosening my belt. And so it goes in the New South.