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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Florida Food Journal II

June 30, 2021

For the second time in two weeks my schedule took me to the Panhandle of Florida to deliver a speech to a trade group. When travelling, I have always kept a food journal. Throughout the year I refer to it and reflect on meals and experiences enjoyed. I also use the journal as reference notes for my year end top 10 best-meals list.

Before I checked into the hotel, I made Harbor Docks my first stop. It’s almost always my first stop. We sat at the bar.

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, I worked there back in the late 80s and became an instant fan of everything they do. I have remained a loyal customer ever since. But that loyalty is not blind loyalty. It comes from three decades of excellent dining experiences. Steve and Mike, the two bartenders that were working there when I worked there in 1987, are still there. They hold down the bar— and the entire restaurant, actually— with the calm, casualness of a surfer’s vibe. A rare trait in the restaurant business. Actually, the entire restaurant has a certain culture that I would love to replicate. But I honestly don’t think it is replicable anywhere outside of that small slice of real estate on Hwy 98, just above the harbor in Destin.

There were two wonderful Thai ladies that worked in the Harbor Docks kitchen back in my day. One of them, a lovely lady named Dang, is still there. She taught me how to make fried rice, stir fry, and how to roll egg rolls. Those three dishes are still, to my taste, some of the best representatives of those dishes I’ve ever eaten. The owner of Harbor Docks, Charles Morgan, also owns a wholesale seafood company which is located next door to the restaurant. Every day fresh fish arrives at the docks. Most of it is processed for wholesaling throughout the Panhandle. The rest of it goes upstairs to the restaurant. The only way you’ll eat fresher fish is to cook it on a boat offshore.

I had an early morning meeting and got to the Donut Hole, east of town, around 6:45. There was already a line out the door. I passed the line and sat at the counter which I will always do in any circumstance, at any restaurant. I would almost always rather sit at the counter whether it is in a fine dining establishment with a close view of the kitchen, an everyday cafe, or a donut shop. I don’t know how long the Donut Hole has been in that area but for as long as I can remember it has fed my friends and me at least once during every visit. In my partying days it was late in the evening, or more accurately, early in the morning. These days I’m there early in the morning, it’s just a different kind of early. The Bavarian custard-filled donut and the raspberry donuts served there are the gold standards in my mind for those two items. Stone-cold sober they are just as good as they have always been.

Later that morning, the wife and I were cruising down 30A and hit Stinky’s Fish Camp. It was a few minutes after opening so we walked in and sat at the bar. The raw oysters were on point and the other items we ordered were good, but of special note were the cheese grits. They were otherworldly. Many times, it’s the simple things that impress me the most. If you can take chicken and turn it into a dish that is memorable, then that is a feat that should be appreciated. Grits are grits. Cheese grits can vary and there are certainly versions that are much better than others. But these cheese grits were the best I had ever eaten. My wife agreed. I told her immediately, “There is a lot of heavy cream in here.” Then I asked our server who said, “Yes, heavy cream and pepperjack cheese.” Note to self: Work up a cheese grits recipe using heavy cream and pepperjack cheese.

I had just read a nice article about Emeril’s Coastal restaurant. I passed by for several years when it was an Italian-themed restaurant but had heard that he was back in the kitchen working most nights, so I wanted to relive my early days as a burgeoning chef when I used to drive to New Orleans to his first restaurant, sit at food bar, talk to the chef, and soak up as many ideas as I could. He wasn’t there that night, but Mississippi native, and chef de cuisine, Frank Szymankski was there, and Emeril’s son E.J. was also in the kitchen. I had a nice visit with each of them and an excellent meal.

Throughout the 1990s I spent a lot of time dining around New Orleans trying to teach myself how to cook. My two main influences back then— and still today— were Frank Brigtsen and Emeril Lagasse. I used to drive down for the night and eat my way through the city. My first stop was usually Emeril’s. I always enjoyed visiting with the chef in the early days as he began to build the impressive restaurant empire he created. The Creole cream sauce that I use in so many recipes today— and the one that has been printed in several of my books— came from him. That is why I sit at a food bar and talk to the chefs every chance I get. That night Lagasse was putting together a sauce for a fish dish, and he made a simple reduction of heavy cream, hot sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and Creole seasoning. He reduced it by about one third and used it as a base for a sauce with fish. I don’t remember exactly what the fish dish was, but he and I talked about it for a while, and I returned to my restaurant and replicated the sauce and have gotten many, many miles out of that versatile recipe from that one experience.

I told my wife that Emeril has always made the best use of Worcestershire sauce of anyone I know. I know that sounds like a strange compliment for such a simple ingredient. But I believe that the mark of a brilliant chef is to take a basic, simple, everyday ingredient such as Worcestershire sauce and create something memorable from it. The barbeque shrimp at Emeril’s Coastal is almost identical to the barbecue shrimp I was eating at Emeril’s in New Orleans 30 years ago. And that is a good thing.

Lagasse is truly brilliant when it comes to restaurants, dining details, and food development. The first thank-you letter I ever received from a chef came from Lagasse. I immediately started that practice, and still do it, today.

Lagasse caught some pushback when he first hit it big, but I always saw that as professional jealousy for such overwhelming success. I have been an admirer from day one and can state emphatically that I have never had anything that even came close to a less-than-stellar meal at any of his restaurants. Ever. He is extremely popular for a reason, because he is so very good at what he does. Period. End of story.

In three weeks, I’ll be headed back down to the Panhandle for another speech to another group. Harbor Docks will certainly be my first stop. I’ll definitely hit Emeril’s Coastal again, and I look forward to making new discoveries in that area that have meant so much to me over the past six decades.

It’s a tough job, but somebody has got to chew it.


This week’s recipe: Creole Cream Sauce

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