Friday, October 21, 2016

Road Trip To Apalachicola

I was driving in my car the other day when a voice came from the music box singing about a woman who could shuck oysters better than any man can, and about Sopchoppy, and getting the Ochlockonee River Blues. By the time Brandon Strickland's album Dirt Road Melodies finished playing I was ready for a road trip up to the Florida panhandle. Since my bride, the Belle of Gulf Boulevard, is always up for a road trip and I am always on the prowl for some seriously good, freshly shucked oysters on the half shell, we packed a couple of bags, gassed up Gussie, and we were on our way.

We got our road trip rolling with a Monday morning wake-up and a nine o'clock departure from our stately pleasure dome on Indian Shores in our trusty Chevy. A couple hours later we realized that was a mistake in timing. Except for a plethora of fast food joints, not much is open on a Monday. Holy crap, Ouzts' Too Oyster Bar on U.S. 98 in Newport was closed! Damn, had to drive all the way to Apach before I tasted my first oyster!

I wouldn't plan on eating much besides oysters and fried foods in Apalach on a Monday or a Tuesday. There aren't that many memorable restaurants in that sleepy little fishing village on either of those two days that are open for business.

We finally crossed from East Point to Apalach over the Apalachicola River bridge around three and our first stop was at Boss Oyster. That, dear readers, was our second mistake on this trip. We've enjoyed the Boss many times over the years, but on a trip about six years ago we had a less that stellar experience. I figured they should have gotten their feces amalgamated since then, but I was sadly mistook.

The Belle and I stood at the host station a good five minutes before someone bothered to seat us in a near empty restaurant. Once seated we were informed that several beers listed on the menu weren't available. We were also informed that the huge, and at one time, delicious heads-on shrimp listed on the menu weren't available because those huge shrimp had gone extinct because, well, because ... blah, blah. All right then, how's about a dozen of those famous, freshly shucked Apalachicola oysters on the half shell?

Our server disappeared and moments later reappeared with my oysters swimming in a tray of watery ice. I refused those oysters and asked for freshly shucked oysters on a bed of ice, not ice water. That tray was taken away and within five minutes a 'fresh' tray was presented. Now, everyone in the oyster eating world knows that it takes longer than five minute to shuck a dozen oysters. What I got was fresh ice and a dozen of these mollusks that had been sprayed with a saline solution to make them look a little fresher than they were. The tourists still give the Boss high marks, but for an oyster aficionado they just S-U-C-K ... both the tourons (tourists/morons) and Boss Oyster.

After this Boss debacle, my bride and I checked into our upstairs room at the Apalachicola River Inn. We have stayed there several times over the years and have always been pleased with our accommodations overlooking the river. The Inn is a little long in the tooth, but is still comfortable and includes a really grand breakfast like shrimps and grits and a delicious gut-bomb oyster omelet. We booked a king on the second level, but if you get a first floor room you can fish right outside your back door.

These folks spent the two days we were at the Inn fishin' themselves into a stupor. I brought my own rod, reel, and tackle, but never gave them a work out. All this guy reeled in was this alligator gar and a butt load of saltwater cats. Our view from the second floor balcony was awesome. We had front row seats for the sunrise and river boat traffic.


After getting settled in and washing away some of the road grime, we boogie out the door to do the town. Unless you are into antiquing, doing the town means drinking and we found a dandy joint that perfectly met our needs.

The Apalachicola Ice Company had only been open eight days and while James, the owner, said this was still a work in progress, the Ice Company was a fantastically eclectic dive serving up some of the coldest brews in the village. We didn't hear any dirty jokes, but when they kick out the jams, da blues will be rocking the waterfront.

You will find nipples to the right.
When you spy the Indian war ax embedded in a telephone pole, you will know you have arrived, and cold beer and wine await.

Another must-visit quaffing spot a few blocks away from the waterfront is the Oyster City Brewing Company. They feature a large selection of craft brews, but unlike Apalachicola Ice Company they do not serve wine. The charming lady behind the bar told us that we could hit the wine bar across the street and bring our wine back to the Brewing Company. The two businesses have a cordial relationship that seems to permeate throughout Apalachicola. The business folks up yonder really appreciate your business. Except for the fat, white tourists from up Alabama way, everyone we met was friendly, helpful, and generally tickled pink to have us stop by.

"But what about the oysters?" you are probably wondering. As I eluded to before, stay the heck away from Boss Oyster. Two places that came highly recommended was Hole In The Wall Seafood on D Street and Up The Creek Oyster Bar on the waterfront. I got my oyster fill at both locations and they were both just perfect.

Properly shucked and presented raw oysters are really hard to come by in the seafood armpit of gastronomy that is Tampa Bay. There is an art to shuckin' and presentin' these jewels from the sea ... an art that few in our area have mastered.

Here is how I learned to do it while growin' up on the Gulf Coast of the Florida panhandle.
  • First off, wash them suckers before you begin to shuckin'. 
  • Next, hit the hinge with a proper oyster knife and twist the top shell while sliding in the blade to cut the adductor muscle holding the shell closed; in that process do not, I emphasize, do not allow the liquor to drain out.
  • Now cut through the bottom muscle without mangling the whole damn thing.
  • And, DO NOT wash the shucked oyster in anything.
  • If there is a bit of shell debris, just gently scrape it off with the knife.
  • Serve on a tray covered with either clean crushed ice; if serving at the bar place the half shell oyster in front of the patron whilst refraining from commenting that you don't like oysters and they make you puke. Seriously this actually happened.
And, dear readers, that is exactly how Hole In The Wall and Up The Creek do it. The difference between the two places is this, at the Wall you can sit at the bar and watch your oysters being shucked. At the Creek, you place your order at the counter and when ready, your selections will be brought to your table.

At the Creek you will find an adventurous choice of prepared oysters. I had the Moscow, (raw) cold and dressed with caviar and a sour cream horseradish sauce.

This was a truly delectable oyster presentation, and I was hard pressed to decide if I liked these better or my second choice, "Southern" Fella, (cooked lightly) with collard greens, butter, Parmesan cheese, bread crumbs and crispy bacon.

Once I had oystered myself up adequately, the Belle and I went back to our second floor deck and rocking chairs. From there we could recharge while gazing at the river and wildlife.

The closest we came to gourmet dining in Apalach was at Gormley's at the Gibson. Chef Brett Gormley has been featured with Emeril Lagasse, Food Arts Magazine and New York Times. After placing our wine order, I knew I would have to have my way with the Braised Pork Belly with Bourbon barbecue glaze, topped with a granny smith apple and currant slaw, finished with crispy fried shallots. Holy moly, that was a mighty fine hunk of belly!

While I was getting my pork on, the Belle enjoyed the bread basket with honey butter, garlic olive oil, and edamame butter - one of the best bread baskets ever.

And, her entree: Southern Stuffed Chicken, a pan seared bacon wrapped chicken breast, stuffed with collard greens and Asiago cheese, served with house made ricotta stuffed ravioli, steamed collard greens and carrots, then finished with a chardonnay cream sauce and Asiago cheese. Now, that was a heavenly dish!

Touch my chicken and I keel you!
I had the grouper special of the evening and except for being just a tad over cooked, it was delicious with black beans and mango salsa.

This two day road trip just about did it for us. Unless you are into the fishing or go to the St. George Island beach there is not much left to do. We had been to the museums on past trips and had no great desire to go back to my former home at Panymaw (native speak for Panama City).

I feel that Apalachicola is a must-do as soon as possible before the developers destroy the old Florida charm as they have done with Panama City's beaches, Cedar Key, Key West, and anywhere along Gulf Boulevard in Pinellas County.

One last thought, if you take U.S. 19 south through Crystal River and get hungry, I would suggest you avoid Charlie's Fish House. This place is suitable only for tourists and others who don't know diddly or squat about seafood.

This was a really good road trip that pretty much summed up the adage, you can never go home again. “Make your mistakes, take your chances, look silly, but keep on going. Don’t freeze up.” 
― Thomas WolfeYou Can't Go Home Again

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