From Farm to Table in Northwest Florida
By Amy Minchin
“I order the crab cakes every time I’m here and the tuna dip is another favorite,” said freelance food and travel writer Susan Benton, owner of 30AEats.com.
With a wealth of knowledge about Gulf Coast food, restaurants and chefs, Benton has been cooking for most of her life and has deep roots in the region’s culinary community.
She joined us at Bud & Alley’s as we set out to find the best farm-to-table food in Northwest Florida.
“I’m glad so many people are taking an interest in their food and where it is coming from,” Benton said.
With the Gulf of Mexico in its back yard, Bud & Alley’s dinner menu features the freshest local catch, from grilled snapper, shrimp and scallops to the famous crab cakes.
On this visit, at our request, Chef David Bishop prepared a selection of dishes featuring farm-fresh produce, beginning with tomato and peach salad with feta cheese and fresh basil.
This blend of sweet and savory flavors was followed by an organic arugula salad with shaved pecorino and toasted pine nuts.
“Our chefs seek out local ingredients as often as possible,” said Dave Rauschkolb, owner of Bud & Alley’s.
“We were inspired by Alice Waters when we opened nearly 30 years ago and we’ve been proud to be at the forefront of farm-to-table and fish-to-table on 30-A.”
Another dish, the roasted beets salad, wowed with a colorful presentation over organic local kale topped with toasted pecans, Gorgonzola cheese and sugarcane vinaigrette.
Local eggplant and zucchini were stars of the last plate we tried. Served over stewed lentils with harissa, chickpea hummus and grilled pita, this hearty vegetarian dish packed intense flavor.
Next door at Bud & Alley’s Pizza Bar, Executive Chef Phil McDonald serves up wood-fired pizzas with fresh, seasonal ingredients. “The menu we have in summer is not the menu we’ll have in the fall,” he said.
In late summer, figs picked just outside the restaurant are combined with goat cheese and sherry shallot vinaigrette for backyard fig bruschetta. The farmer’s market pizza offers grilled local eggplant with charred corn. Paired with a side of Italian flat green beans prepared with olive oil and garlic, it’s a delightful way to eat your veggies.
Farming since 2005, Charles Bush and Shueh-Mei Pong, owners of Dragonfly Fields, are former restaurateurs themselves. Now, in addition to cultivating vegetables from their 17 acres of land north of Defuniak Springs, they pick, wash, clean, pack and deliver Italian green beans, tomatoes and arugula once or twice a week to Bud & Alley’s and to other chefs and retailers they supply in South Walton and Okaloosa County. They also sell to the public at the Seaside Farmers Market.
“There are so many good restaurants now on 30-A. Growers and producers have stepped up to meet the demand,” Rauschkolb said. “It’s a group of people who like and support each other, and we all share in the value of the region. Those relationships, plus the bounty of the Gulf at our fingertips, are good for visitors and good for everybody.”
Selling organic eggs, chicken, and other goods, FarmStand serves breakfast and lunch daily. “Our food is fresh every day according to what we have,” Savary said.
On this visit, a frittata made from Twin Oaks Farm eggs, ranked the number one organic eggs in the nation by the Cornucopia Institute, is served with green beans from Dragonfly Fields. Dessert is fresh fruit clafoutis, a flan-like dish prepared with peaches.
Savary is passionate for sustainability and organic farming, describing the methods she uses to raise and process her thriving stock of chicken, duck, and sheep.
The residents include around 50 large black hogs, which she affectionately refers to as Le Cochon Noir de Bonifay.
“I believe in maximizing what you get from each animal,” she said.
Alys Beach Executive Chef Kevin Korman works closely with Savary, visiting her farm and hand-selecting products for the heritage pork and chicken dishes on his farm-to-table menu at Caliza Restaurant in Panama City Beach.
In the Destin area, Benton recommends Tim Creehan’s Cuvee Destin. She notes Jackacudas Seafood & Sushi for its use of Fish Trax to identify diners’ fish entrees by type, as well as when, where and by whom it was caught.
With an accomplished career spanning three decades in Northwest Florida restaurants, Miller has forged relationships with farmers and fishermen throughout the region. His forthcoming cookbook, “Panhandle to Pan: Recipes and Stories from Florida’s New Redneck Riviera,” highlights growers and producers who define the farm-to-table spirit.
At lunch, Carmen’s kale salad and soup of the day are good bets for sampling seasonal vegetables and fruit. Josephs makes a gazpacho with all local ingredients, including tomatoes, bell pepper, cucumber and corn.
“I knew early on that fresh, quality produce would be a part of what makes Carmen’s attractive to our customers,” she said.
Offering many gluten-free options, Josephs incorporates more local ingredients into the nightly tapas menu. Homemade pepper jelly served over savory goat cheese cheesecake with crostini on a bed of arugula has been a popular item, she said.
Another dish, spiralized golden and green zucchini can be sautéed with homemade pesto made from local basil or served with Carmen’s Italian meat sauce with pork.
Josephs recently introduced a creamy local eggplant dip with basil-manchego-almond pesto. Garnished with roasted red poblano peppers and lemon zest, it is served with freshly toasted crostini.
Other restaurants to try on this westernmost end of the Panhandle include Type, Restaurant Iron, The Fish House and Atlas Oyster House. Offering waterfront dining in the heart of Pensacola, both Fish House and Atlas participate in the statewide Fresh From Florida On The Menu program, offering produce grown by Florida farmers and seafood caught in Florida waters.