eater's digest: owen's fish camp

Relaxation (see: “beach vacation”) is not something I do well.  So when my parents requested - for the second year in a row - that we spend our Christmas break on the warmer shores of Florida, I begrudgingly acquiesced, mumbling something under my breath about strip-malls and the “dearth of culture”. But this year, my mother was out to prove me wrong, selecting Sarasota – home to the Ringling estate and museum, as well as the “Best Beach in America”.  It may have taken a few days (and some sifting through local food/travel publications) for me to settle in and truly enjoy myself, but eventually I came round – most notably, due to the literally and figuratively fresh dining scene we discovered in this beach community just south of Tampa.  (And yes, my mother is reading this, all too happy with my public declaration that she “told me so”).

Owen’s Fish Camp sits in an eclectic corner of downtown Sarasota, under the bows of an imposing banyan tree.  Across from a remarkable antiques shop and next door to an art gallery, the vibe is decidedly “trendy bayou”, with patrons in shorts and stilettos alike.

Waiting outside Owen’s is one of the most pleasant aspects of the restaurant.  The quaintly campy outdoor patio features a number of well-curated tchotchkes, including a life-sized, under-shirted “local” in a lawn chair.  The aforementioned antiques shop and art gallery also (wisely) leave their doors open late, reinforcing the laid-back block-party vibe.

Those who choose to grab a drink will find a light-hearted wine list (selections designated as “Good”, “Decent”, or “Cheap”), a solid beer selection and respectable cocktails.  That was where I also first spotted the absolutely delectable-looking pecan pie (more on that later).

I was seated with my family in the restaurant’s back room, oars hanging overhead.  Old-fashioned condiments dressed the table, and the menu was appropriately, a paper placemat.  The offerings were inspired by classic southern seafood, from cornmeal battered catfish to a softshell crab BLT.  We ordered both as entrees, as well as a shrimp basket, with a fried green tomato salad and clam chowder to start.

The starters were remarkable, almost the best part of the meal.  The cornmeal-crusted FGTs (fried green tomatoes) were served over arugula and romaine with chevre chaud, crisped country ham, cucumber, red onion, and an herb-buttermilk dressing.  Light, refreshing and impossible to resist – this was hands-down the best savory item we ate.  The creamy chowder was also noteworthy, with an almost lobster bisque-y flavor (enhanced by applewood bacon) and chock-full-of-clams.

Even compared with that rousing first round, our entrees proved to be excellent.  The shrimp basket arrived light and piping hot, with thin fries begging to be dressed with malt vinegar.  Crunching through the cornmeal crust, the catfish was flaky and fresh, almost shockingly moist.  And the sandwiched softshell poked out from its bun, spicy, tangy, “crabby” and undeniably indulgent.  But let’s not forget the savory sides, most especially the vinegar-y collards and robust, smoky succotash.

After all this soul-warming southern cooking, I could have easily bypassed dessert – but then again, I had already spotted the pecan pie.  We ordered this and the deep-fried blackberry pies, flaky half-moon dessert “pierogies” that sounded promising but lacked a true pie’s high fruit-to-crust ratio.  The pecan pie, however, was the very best item of the evening, a seemingly simple tart of pecans and honey, topped with homemade whipped cream.  The crust wasn’t overcooked, nor the nuts over-sweetened.  In fact, even my dessert-disdaining sister dove back in for seconds.

As we strolled out of the fish camp into the chilly (for Florida) night air, I knew this was hands-down the best meal I’d ever eaten in the popular coastal state.  Jumping on the moment of opportunity, my mother turned and asked, “Would you visit if we lived here a few months a year?”  In my satisfied stupor, I couldn’t help but murmur “yes, but make it Sarasota.”

Owen's Fish Camp 516 Burns Court, Sarasota, FL 941.951.6936 (no reservations accepted)