Photo Credit: VISIT FLORIDA
A Florida Fish Story, Part 1: The Temptation Restaurant
By Catherine Shannon Ballman
On a quiet street in a sleepy town on a remote island in southwest Florida, is the fish house of your dreams, the one with fish, fresh from the sea, perfectly prepared and served up with Old Florida charm. Not much has changed at The Temptation Restaurant in Boca Grande, FL, since US Navy man, Homer Addison, home from the war, opened the doors in 1947. For the past 69 years, it has meant good food, good drinks and good times.
A jaunty neon martini glass attaches at a tilt to the second-story facade beckoning guests to park their pastel-colored golf carts, Boca’s conveyance of choice, and come on in. The screen door slaps shut and the evening starts at the bar, a pleasingly dim retreat from the Florida sun. Decorated with goofy signage – “Please, no profanity” and “Plan ahead, buy two cases” – and photos of former patrons, famous and not-so, liquor promotional odds and ends from the 1950s and bits of maritime art, the bar is easy sitting. And sit, people do, fishing captains and their mates jostling visitors from up North, beachcombers and politicians, debs and diplomats, telling stories and spinning yarns about the fish that got away.
Tradition suggests a Moscow Mule, that tasty L.A. import. The vodka + ginger beer + lime juice elixir is best sipped from one of the copper mugs hanging behind the bar. This being Florida, G&T’s are a year-round pleasure and the barkeeps know how to make this seemingly simple cocktail sparkle
Onwards to lunch or dinner, this jumble-box of a building offers different rooms with different charms but each with the same menu. Off of the bar to the left is the main dining room, often the preferred room for those who like to be seen or be seen out and about. Overseen by majordomo Kathy Merhar, she controls the always busy reservations list and is unflappable, no matter who walks in through her door.
Fancy, no, but the front room does glitter some, mostly with tans and laughter and clinking glasses. Chanel sits next to Lily Pulitzer next to cargo shorts and capris.
Record-sized marlin and tarpon hang high on the wall. Murals depicting Boca Grande and Gasparilla Island life painted in the 1950s by local artist Deo Weymouth encircle the room. Tables are draped with linen, candles are lighted and the stage is set.
Choose the Caribbean Room and you leave the bar in the back and thread your way through the liquor storeroom, passing a service bar managed by ace mixologist Danielle Zipay. Art by local artists cover the walls, all for sale to lucky diners who want to take a bit of Boca home.
To the right of the bar is a tiny corner of the island’s only liquor store furnished with a few high tables and chairs for twosomes wanting a quiet tête-à-tête. (Whichever room you choose, do make a stop in the powder room and take a gander at the old time cigarette dispensing machine. Nobody who sees it for the first time can resist telling their tablemates about this anachronism, dubious as its history is.)
In each of the dining rooms are couples on dates; three- and even four-generation families dine at the big tables scattered around. Long-time friends reconnect after summers away and vacationers wander in from the beach.
Servers promptly bring out breadsticks and butter to nibble while perusing the appetizers. Dinner is best kicked off with bowls of rich, creamy lobster corn chowder or (and sometimes, plus) briny, plump shrimp caught just offshore and served with tart old-fashioned cocktail sauce. Fried grouper fingers and oyster platters have their fans. And, calories are tossed into the deep blue sea when ordering the rich, creamy Hot Crabmeat Temp.
Fish is the main attraction, grouper and snapper and pompano and soft-shell crabs and sometimes hogfish just pulled from the surrounding waters. Co-owner Jeff Simmons says much fish comes directly from the sea, brought to the kitchen by local fishing captains with extra from the day’s catch, making it only hours old when delivered to the table. A wonder of the sea is that each fish tastes distinct from their watery neighbors. Grouper is lean, moist and mild with a firm texture. Snapper, too, is lean, moist and mild but has a sweetness to it. Hogfish is lean and has a delicate texture with very fine white meat; its unfortunate name comes from a head that looks unnervingly like a pig snout. The ubiquitous Florida fish, pompano, is richly flavored and firm with a very clean taste.
Recently, Co-owner and Chef Kevin Stockdale put lionfish on the menu. Both venomous and invasive, lionfish turns out to be quite lovely when prepared properly.
Whatever fish is chosen, the long-time and deeply knowledgeable waitstaff guide diners through the menu to select the fish. Back in the kitchen, each fish is perfectly prepared, bronzed, grilled or blackened to your preference. Accompanying the fish are a choice of classic sauces, the citrus bureau blanc being a particularly silky and flavorful choice. The House signature Pan-Fried Snapper with lemon, garlic and apple juice has starred on the menu for over 10 years. So popular and palate-pleasing is the menu anchor that many a regular has only ever ordered this dish.
Along with the fish, well-paired wines from The Temp’s cellar, a 14-year winner of the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence, are poured.
Accompanying the fish to the table are a choice of baked, sweet or Jamaican potatoes, along with special sides conjured up by Chef Stockdale, as well as fresh vegetables of the day. The good-natured serving staff is known to repeat the multitude of options for each diner of short memory at the table without grimace, groan or raised eyebrow.
It has occurred that guests have ordered steaks and even vegetarian meals and Chef Stockdale’s kitchen gives as much attention to those dishes as to it’s deep sea calling card. Also outstanding and much appreciated are the beautiful salads that come out of the kitchen. In one of the great ironies of the culinary world, Florida seems stymied by an inability to provide fresh, sweet-tasting fruits, vegetables, and herbs. Produce aisles at even the largest grocery chains and the smallest garden stands are full of limp, worn-out fruits and vegetables. Somehow, Chef Stockdale is able to sleuth out produce that shines on the plate.
A salad in regular rotation hits the eye like a flash of sunshine with juicy mango sitting proud on a bed of fresh frisee, dried cranberries and toasted cashews, all tossed with a creamy poppy seed dressing.
Room for dessert means either coconut pie, a Temp classic, or coconut layer cake, in addition to the more typical chocolate cake and ice cream options. The pie went off the menu for a few years when the waitperson, who had baked them from her own (secret) recipe, retired. A sorry substitute was offered. Finally, the original was recreated to the joy of all and dismay of dieters.
Photo Credit: VISIT FLORIDA
But maybe the very best meal at The Temp is the one guests provide themselves. After a morning or evening spent 10 miles or so offshore fishing, guests haul in their own catch of the day. Chef Stockade prepares it as you like but recommends the “something for everyone” approach: one-third fried, one- third grilled and one-third blackened. Served with heaping platters of cole slaw and french fries, it turns a happy day of fishing into a merry day of feasting. Order up some longnecks or Bloody Mary’s and the fish stories can get spun late into the day.
Is The Temp the best restaurant in Florida? In fact, it is the best restaurant in Florida – on the east side of Park Avenue. Almost directly across is PJ’s Seagrille, another superb example of authentic Florida fish houses. (Stay tuned for Part 2.)
The Temptation Restaurant
350 Park Avenue
Boca Grande, FL
For a place to rest your head on Boca Grande, try the luxurious Gasparilla Inn & Club. The Inn has plenty of dining options to appeal to any palate. With their own bakery on the premises, it is easy to grab a light breakfast before heading out to enjoy the gorgeous beaches just steps from the property.