Sunday, December 28, 2008

When 'Local' Means Your Own Backyard

Fresh Grouper Sandwich

Fried Oyster Sandwich and Slaw

Frog's Legs over french fries and gravy

Alligator Fry Bread

The owner's delightful daughter...

View from behind the sangria

Homemade sangria poured from a jug...

Sometimes a drive to the country clears the head. The lonesome, even sometimes boring, stretch of highway, with the promise up ahead of nothing more than quiet and distance, stretches out before me, and I glide along on an empty brain and a Nina Simone CD. The relief comes about 90 miles away, in a place called Everglades City, pop. 513. An odd place, one that was supposed to have been a golden place. But like many Florida dreams, this one ended not with a bang, but with a whimper, when cities like Naples and Miami bullied their way onto the stage, leaving EC, as I like to call it, a sleepy gateway to other, more exotic, places. (Also leaving it room to become a leading drop off point for pot smugglers in the '70's and 80's.) And on an August Thursday afternoon, the pure clean air and quiet waters are all the evidence one needs of this place's simple charms. Over some strong coffee at Big House Coffee, which is actually in Chokoloskee (don't ask), I wonder where a poor city kid can get a decent lunch away from the crowds (just kidding-there's no one here). I 'm sent to Camellia Street Grill, whose screened-in dining room, with a wrap-around porch, overlooks the waterway where air boats and barges cruise by. Go ahead, wave to the nice man in the cowboy hat. The chef/owner, Terri Rementeria, is a pleasant, smiling woman, whose pride in her restaurant is evident. Help yourself to a drink, like the just-sweetened iced tea, and order off the blackboard menu. This is frog's legs country, and here, instead of fried like in most places, they are served sauteed, so I order them along with a salad. They are moist, taste like froggy chicken, and I pick up each one to get the last of the white, silky meat. Their juiciness is the result of expert pan-work by the chef. The herbed bed of rice on which they are served absorbs some of the juices, which give it an extra-rich flavor. The salad is fresh-all the ingredients, I'm told, except for a little iceberg lettuce added 'for color', are from the garden out back. The salad is topped with various edible flowers, including hibiscus, and is just gorgeous. Fresh basil, fennel, and, surprisingly, collard greens, are aromatic in the warm, humid air, and it feels like you are eating as close to the land as one can eat today. The view from the porch, along with the slight afternoon breeze, and this simply but expertly prepared lunch, is gently relaxing my brain and body. Terri reminds me that this is the South, thus the collards, and the warm hospitality that always ends with a 'come back and see us'. As I walk back outside for the drive back to Miami, there's the fragrant garden, with everything in full bloom. The wooden screen door, on its spring metal coils, boings shut, and I imagine the chef, with fistfuls of fresh-picked greens and blossoms, making her way to the kitchen, to wash and chop the just-picked morsels, and compose another soul-satisfying meal, for another weary traveler.
NB-Before you head back to your car, check out the photo exhibit in the men's room. Tight.
Camellia Street Grill
208 Camellia St
Everglades City, FL
(239) 695-2003