The so-called Redneck Riviera might not be the first place you'd think of looking for great foodunless you've been there. This slice of the Gulf Coast, stretching from the Florida Panhandle across Alabama and Mississippi, was long the province of locals and vacationers from neighboring states, who kept its blue waters and pristine beaches to themselves. But now the word is out, and the region is undergoing a development boom. On a recent drive, I found that the juxtaposition of beachfront seafood shacks, classic fried-chicken places and ambitious new restaurants is making the Redneck Riviera one of the most exciting places to eat in North America.
Le Cordon Bleu on the Beach
I began my east-to-west drive across the region in Seagrove Beach, Florida. At Sandor's (pronounced "SHON-doors") European Cuisine, the food is French-cum-Eastern Europeanbut that's not the whole story. The chef and owner, Sandor Zombori, served with the U.S. Army in Vietnam, where he acquired a taste for the flavors of Southeast Asia. "When the other guys were out at the girlie bars," he told me, "I was in restaurants begging to learn."
Raised in a Hungarian orphanage in the 1950s after his dissident parents were jailed, Zombori escaped to the United States in 1969. In exchange for six tours of duty (and multiple gunshot wounds) in Vietnam, he acquired his citizenship. Thereafter he saved his money and bided his time until he could pursue his dream. In 1989 he traveled to France to train at Le Cordon Bleu. He opened Sandor's in Pensacola in 1990, relocating to Seagrove in 1994.
There is only one person in Sandor's kitchen, and that is Sandor. He does everything, from taking reservations to washing the dishes for his 25 customers a night. Asian spicing subtly influences his food. Crabmeat salad with mango chutney and brandy was perfectly balanced, so that I tasted the sweetness of the crabmeat pushing through the spices. Zombori makes his own chutney; when I asked about a slight tomato flavor, he told me, "Oh, that's ketchup"also homemade, from fresh tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, hot peppers, horseradish and Worcestershire sauce. When I quipped, "Do you make your own Worcestershire sauce, too?" he looked at me as though I'd asked a dumb question and answered, "Of course."
One of Zombori's side dishes is his take on a classic French brandade; instead of the traditional salt cod, he uses smoked finnan haddie. (Yes, he smokes it himself.) And his veal short ribs may be the best short ribs I've ever had: braised in oxtail stock for eight hours, spiced with an exotic mixture that includes cardamom, mace, lavender and za'atar and served atop Israeli couscous.
Straight Out of the Gulf
The granddaddy of the new "traditional neighborhood development" projectsartificially created villages in which the planners seek to correct the mistakes of so many earlier suburbs by offering sidewalks and walkable downtownsis Seaside. It's just down the beach from Seagrove; walking along, I found, right next to the post office, an old Airstream trailer that had been turned into a sushi bar, Akatonbo. What sushi bar could be better located? I kept strolling and soon came upon the new WaterColor development and its David Rockwell-designed hotel, the WaterColor Inn, home to the seafood restaurant Fish Out of Water.
How can a year-old hotel restaurant be this good? Well, the seafood comes straight from the Gulf, a few yards away; whatever ingredients aren't local are mostly air-shipped from the best New York and international suppliers. Chef Kevin Peters, a Missouri native formerly of the Ritz-Carlton St. Louis, knows how to make the most of these raw materials. My blue-crab bisque was based on a heavily concentrated shellfish stock and big, delicious chunks of crabmeat. Even better was a surf and turf: big, sweet seared diver scallops next to a pile of beautifully braised short ribs. (I find it hard to resist short ribs.) And the wine list is ambitiousthere are 300 selections already and it's growing fast.
Driving into Pensacola over the Bay Bridge, I came upon a quaint, manageable downtown filled with coffee shops, museums and art galleries, many of them housed in historic buildings. (The city dates from 1559.) Pensacola has some impressive, forward-looking chefs. Jim Shirley, the fisherman and seafood fanatic behind The Fish House, has turned his large, busy restaurant into a local institution. Irv Miller, of the city's most serious restaurant, Jackson's, fuses Mediterranean and Florida cuisines into a single, coherent style. He has also been a leader in developing local ingredients.
But Pensacola is also a wonderful place to sample down-home Southern cooking. I was lucky enough to hit Hopkins House early on a fried chicken dayby 11:30 it was impossible to get a seat. I was led to a large communal table, with my dessert (coconut pudding the day I was there) already in a bowl in the middle of my plate. Iced tea sat in pitchers on the table, and the food came at mefastin bowls, on platters and in baskets that were refilled before they were even a quarter empty. I helped myself and quickly passed everything along.
The fried chicken was truly home-style, with a dark golden, crunchy exterior and moist meat. (Cora Edwards, who fries the birdsMiss Cora to the restaurant staffhas been on the job for nearly 40 years.) Macaroni and cheese came in a steel trough, with a thick layer of baked cheese steaming on the surfacethe real thing. And the numerous sides boasted all the flavor of old-fashioned stewed vegetables without having been cooked to mush in the old Southern manner. Everything was goodhearty and honest. I know because I sampled everything, which at Hopkins House is an accomplishment.
The Alabama Gulf Coast offers the same wide beaches as neighboring Florida, with the same white quartz sand that squeaks when you walk on it. Tourists come from all around, to golf, boat, camp and go birding and fishing. I came to eat at King Neptune's Seafood Restaurant.
Most of us tend to think that shrimp is shrimp. But in shrimp country, the differences between shrimp are as marked as the differences between wines. There are Whites; there are Browns; there are Pinks. "I could go on about shrimp all day, and believe me, it'd take all day on account of how slow I talk," Al Sawyer, the owner of King Neptune's, told me. "You, my friend, have the extreme good fortune to be present during the season for Royal Reds." Royal Reds are immenseseveral inches long when stretched out to their full, head-on lengthand they're red when raw. They're a bit difficult to peel, which makes them less desirable commercially, but it's worth the effort for their sweet, lobsterlike flesh.
Sawyer's restaurant is traditionally Southern, but his spice mixtures are more robust than you'd expect outside Louisiana. Half of the rich, deep gumbo King Neptune's serves is solid shellfish. The po'boys are made the way I like them, with big oysters and shrimp that aren't clumped together, and without too much in the way of garnishes. And Sawyer's shrimp, fried or steamed (which he prefers to boiling), are not only a joy to eat, they're cheap. The kitchen also turns out a mean bread pudding, with plenty of raisins and a strong whisky sauce.
I drove on toward Biloxi, Mississippi, the endpoint of the Redneck Riviera, and Jennifer Diaz's marvelous Green Oaks Bed and Breakfast, where a breakfast of crab cakes and poached eggs would rival any meal I'd had on my trip. As the city's glittering casinos came into view, I found myself wishing that the Gulf Coast stretched all the way across the country. I knew I would miss the region, but at least I was going home with a piece of itI'd brought along a few of Sandor's chocolate petits fours for the road.
Steven A. Shaw's dining-guide Web site is www.fat-guy.com. His book The Menu New York City will be published early next year.