There are many bad restaurants in the Florida Keys.
There. I said it. Somebody needed to.
It's not that I don't love the whole laid-back Keys aesthetic, but does the world really need another restaurant that serves dolphin sandwiches and bad beer?
That's why I was delighted to find myself at the 3-year-old Chef Michael's in Islamorada at the end of a day spent snorkeling at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Yes, we wanted seafood. This is the Keys, after all. And on the recommendation of an employee of a local resort where we'd stayed on a previous trip, Chef Michael's it was.
"Chef Michael's: Peace, love and hogfish," the sign out front reads. All you can see of the restaurant from the road is a big awning on what was built as a long-gone Cuban restaurant — Manny and Isa's — 30 years ago. The dining room inside seats just 28, while a covered porch has space for 30.
On a breezy evening a few weeks ago, we sat on the porch, where we were quickly greeted by one of the strongest servers around. We sat on plastic armchairs, the kind you may find on a friend's patio, and listened to our server as she guided us through the menu.
At Chef Michael's, the catch of the day is truly what fishermen brought to owner Michel Ledwith. Two local fishermen give Ledwith first dibs at their catch. He also has three fish markets close by. The daily catch changes constantly, but it may include hogfish, yellowtail, swordfish, tuna, tripletail and grouper.
"We just pray that they're fishing and catching," Ledwith says in a phone interview.
Hogfish, which is mostly caught by spear, is a house favorite. The restaurant even sells "Got hogfish?" T-shirts.
You choose the preparation: grilled, sauteed, fried, blackened ($28) or one of five signature preparations. They are Pontchartrain ($32), lightly blackened with crawfish and shrimp in Creole cream; Ambassador ($32), sauteed with crabmeat, shiitake mushrooms, capers and Key lime butter; Adriatic ($28), grilled and napped with olive oil and herbs; Juliette ($34), seared with shrimp, scallops, chardonnay butter and toasted almonds; or Mixed Nuts ($30), pistachio, cashew and macadamia crusted served with mango sauce.
The price doesn't change with the species of fish you order.
I was glad to find lionfish on the menu, which I ordered Juliette style. Lionfish is the invasive species that more chefs are trying to include on their menus. It tastes like a sweeter combination of snapper and grouper, made richer with the chardonnay butter and toasted almonds, which our server had recommended. All seafood entrees come with a choice of rice, potato or simple vegetables.
Queen snapper was ordered Mixed Nuts-style. The crust was definitely crunchy, while the snapper itself was moist and piping hot. I've never used the word "juicy" to describe a piece of fish, but that's the best way to describe this dish. Hogfish was ordered Ambassador-style, with the Key lime butter a nice match to this delicate-tasting fish.
There are plenty of nonseafood entrees here, too, including a braised lamb shank ($30), roasted duck ($30) and a couple of prime steaks ($36-$38). But I can't imagine not eating the local seafood. Eighty percent of Chef Michael's customers agree, Ledwith says.
We started with rock shrimp and conch fritters ($10). The conch was a bit too chewy, but unlike so many fritters in the Keys, it wasn't all cooked flour. Peppered tuna tataki ($16) was simply glazed with sesame and soy. This is what all raw tuna should taste like. We also split a special Mediterranean wedge salad ($12), where romaine replaced iceberg and feta replaced the blue cheese typical to wedge preparations. Our server had it chopped in the kitchen and split three ways. She knew what we wanted before we could ask.
Ledwith has been cooking in this part of the world for 20 years. His resume includes stints at Kaiyo Grill, Green Turtle Inn and the private Islamorada Fishing Club.
So he knows that to have a restaurant in the Keys, you have to serve an outstanding Key lime pie ($7). His is served with strawberry coulis, which for purists will only serve as a distraction. Creme brulee ($10) is made almost every day, and it's not served, improperly I might add, ice cold, but at room temperature. You can taste the citrus in the cream and the lovely sweet crackle of sugar on top.
I wish every Keys restaurant delivered this kind of food and service.