On our first night along Florida's Emerald Coast, I told my cousin and his wife that my wife and I really wanted fresh caught seafood for dinner. They contemplated a number of places that proliferate the area, but decided that we needed to go to a place with a not too tantalizing name - Stinky's Fish Camp. They said it was one of the most popular seafood restaurants in the area. That sounded perfect for us.
Jim Richard is a native of Lafayette, LA in the heart of Cajun country. Richard came from a family of chefs and food purveyors - his family exported turtle meat, frog legs and rabbit back to their ancestral home in France. Richard went to the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY and ended up becoming the sous chef at the famous Commander's Palace in New Orleans.
Along the way he met a young Mississippi born and raised chef, Brannon Janca, who learned the art of southern seafood cooking from his grandparents. Janca went off to college, but he eventually dropped out to enter a culinary school in New Orleans. Janca had previous experience at the famous Gautreau's Restaurant in New Orleans before he moved to Northwest Florida in 2001 to work at the Lake Place, a restaurant that Richard and he bought in Santa Rosa Beach.
A devastating fire in 2006 wiped out the Lake Place and Richard moved his talents for a short time over to the Harbor Grille in Destin. Along with chef Todd Meisner - also a graduate of the C.I.A. in Hyde Park - Richard and Janca opened Stinky's Fish Camp in 2007 in a small building that was next to the original Lake Place. The trio formed the Word of Mouth Restaurant Group and started Blue Mountain Catering. In 2009, they rebuilt the original Lake Place, but by that time the Stinky's Fish Camp name had stuck. The called the new restaurant Stinky's Fish Camp and the old place Stinky's Bait Shack.
Richard said in a magazine article that he never intended for the name Stinky's to stick. During his days at the Commander's Palace in New Orleans, the kitchen was hectic, cooks came and went quickly, and there were times he didn't even know the names of people that he was working with. Each chef was nicknamed "Stink", which, according to Richard, was part fun, part meanness, but sort of a camaraderie term of endearment. When they opened the casual restaurant in the small building next to the old Lake Place property, Stinky's was supposed to be a temporary name until the new place was built. Stinky's Fish Camp had taken off and they just went with it.
The other part of the story is that Richard was going through some of his grandfather's things years after opening Stinky's Fish Camp and he found a menu for a restaurant by the name of "Skunk" where his grandfather was the chef. It featured spicy Cajun food in the front and illegal gambling in the back. Richard took this to be a message from his long-passed grandfather that he was on the right track.
Famed chef and television star Emeril Lagasse has a home along the Emerald Coast and he hosted a program on the Cooking Channel called Emeril's Florida. Stinky's Fish Camp has been featured on one of the show's episodes. Here's a picture of Brannon Janca, Emeril Lagasse, Jim Richard and Todd Meisner. (Photo courtesy 30A Eats.)
Richard recently opened a new restaurant in New Orleans - Trenasse, a Cajun term for a waterway that leads to a fishing hole. Trenasse is more upscale than Stinky's and features fresh Gulf seafood and traditional Cajun dishes including rabbit. But some things that he's perfected at Stinky's - including the Stinky's Stew that is a combination of gumbo and cioppino - are on the menu at Trenasse.
Stinky's Fish House is located on the scenic 30A Highway that not only is the main drag through the beach towns along the Emerald Coast, but it also signifies a frame of mind - laid back, relaxing, no worries. (See map) After walking along the beach for a bit, my wife, my cousin John, and his wife Bonnie jumped in our car to head down 30A toward Stinky's. However, the torrential rains that bore down on the Florida panhandle a couple three weeks prior had washed out a portion of the road along 30A. We had to double back and take a detour up to U.S. Highway 98, then go back toward the beach from the western terminus of 30A. It was a Sunday night and we didn't expect a lot of people at Stinky's, but the place was packed. They offer free valet parking at the restaurant and we took advantage of that.
We walked in the front door of Stinky's Fish Camp and were greeted by a couple young ladies at the hostess stand. They told us it would be a 45 minute wait for a table. We went to the bar and my cousin had a gift card for Stinky's and he used it for drinks at the bar. I was surprised - actually more delighted - to see that they had Kona beers on tap at Stinky's bar. But not the Kona Big Wave Golden Ale that is my beer of choice these days. However, I did see that they had Sweetwater 420, a very good pale ale that I fell in love with a few years back. My cousin was trying to get me to try a beer from the Grayton Beer Company, a small locally owned brewery just down 30A. He said, "Sweetwater is out of Atlanta. You can get that anywhere!"
I said, "Well, I can't get it in Iowa, John." He understood after that.
On the wall near the bar were a couple posters for The Steenos, a husband and wife musical duo who are friends of ours that my wife and I met through my cousin when he lived in Milwaukee years ago. Bob and Lisa Steeno retired about 10 years ago and moved back down to the Emerald Coast as Bob was in the stationed in the area in the late 70's. Accomplished musicians, Bob and Lisa regularly play a number of places around the Emerald Coast and have a standing engagement for Sunday brunch at Stinky's Fish Camp. (Bob has a once a week solo gig at the smaller and more casual Stinky's Bait Shack next door.) It was sort of funny and neat to see our friends on posters at Stinky's.
We hung around outside for a bit before Bonnie made the suggestion to go over and hang out at Stinky's Bait Shack while we waited. We took our drinks and walked across the parking lot and into the Bait Shack. The decor was funky, but fresh. A small area in the corner is where musicians - including Bob Steeno - would set up and play. There was a bar and a few table set up in the area as you come in. Toward the back and to the right, a large gift shop was in a spot that used to be a dining room of the original Stinky's Fish Camp before it moved next door.
We were there for about a half-hour and I was ready for another beer. I looked in their glass encased beer refrigerator and saw that they had the Kona Big Wave Golden Ale beers in bottles. I was in heaven. I immediately fell in love with Stinky's Bait Shack.
Each year, Stinky's sponsors a pompano fishing contest. Actually, I didn't know that there was a fish called a pompano, but I had heard of Pompano Beach situated north of Miami. I was looking at the 2014 tournament results on a board behind the bar in the Bait Shop and it turned out that our friend Bob Steeno got second place and $400 bucks. "Bobby won't say for sure, but he thinks the guy who won it may have cheated," my cousin told me. "The guy who won it is a commercial fisherman and he came in a day or two before the end of the tournament (it runs April 1 thru May 15) with a bigger fish than Bob." First place is $2500 bucks.
Our buzzer lit up not long after and we were escorted into the dining room to a four-seat hardwood table. We were given menus and not long after our server for the evening, Billy, came over to greet us. I was ready for another beer and while I noticed that they had the Kona Longboard Lager and the Koko Brown on tap, I wondered if they had the Big Wave Golden Ale in a bottle like they did over at the Bait Shop. Unfortunately they didn't and this time my cousin talked me into trying the Grayton Original. It was a good beer, but not one that knocked my socks off.
Billy rattled off a couple of their specials that evening. The first was an appetizer plate of handcrafted charcuterie that featured housemade smoked andouille sausage, morcilla sausage (a Spanish-style blood sausage), and a country pâté jam made with rabbit and served with Creole mustard. The dinner specials were a grilled Gulf cobia fish with crawfish maque-choux (mock SHOO - a traditional Cajun side with corn, tomatoes, bell peppers, onions and sometimes with garlic and celery) and pepper jack cheese grits. (Lots of places had cheese with grits along the Emerald Coast. I like my grits plain with a little bitter mixed in.)
The other dinner special that evening was a traditional surf and turf that featured tempera lobster meat with a 12 ounce ribeye steak. It came with roasted red and fingerling potatoes, roasted locally grown squash and served with a bearnaise and portobello demi glace. Now, THAT sounded damned good. As did a number of other things on the menu including the Oysters ALL WAYS - 10 different ways to prepare oysters including rare, steamed, with smoked bacon, with garlic, and gratin. Oysters and shrimp sounded damned good to me.
When Billy came back to take our order, Cindy got one of the catches of the day, the grilled red grouper; Bonnie got the grilled shrimp and angel hair pasta entree; John got the other catch of the day - grilled pompano. The catch of the day entrees came with stir-fry veggies and Brabant potatoes - also a traditional Cajun side dish that features cubed potatoes - slightly boiled - then finished in a fry pan with butter, oil, onions, parsley, Worcestershire sauce and garlic.
Me - I ordered a dozen oysters on a half shell and the peel-and-eat shrimp appetizers. I also got a cup of their gumbo, too. I wanted to get close to a crustacean and bottom-feeder overload as I could that evening.
The gumbo came out first and it was a generous size for a bowl. I like a good gumbo and this was some of the best I'd ever had. It had a smoky flavor, but not overpowering. Thick cuts of seafood, chicken and andouille sausage were mixed in. It was simply outstanding.
The oysters were big and meaty, but they weren't from the oyster beds at nearby Apalachicola that are so famous. Billy told us that they were Louisiana oysters. Years of drought in the Southeast coupled with water diversion upstream on the Apalachicola River has choked out the brackish water in which oysters thrive in Apalachicola Bay. But it was no matter to me. The oysters were thick and flavorful.
Everyone's meal came out including my peel-and-eat shrimp. There were just a half-dozen in the plate. I immediately said to Billy, "Bring me another one of these right away." The shrimp were good sized and boiled precisely. They were fresh and just wonderful.
Cindy's grilled red grouper sat on top of the stir-fry vegetables and the Brabant potatoes. The fish was light and flaky and had a seasoning on the outer side of it. Cindy declared her fish to be "wonderful". She traded me a bite of her fish for one of my peel-and-eat shrimp and it was very good.
John's grilled pompano was similar to Cindy's in appearance. I had never had either red grouper or pompano before, but they seemed to be two popular Gulf coast fish. Looking back, I wish I would have tried the pompano just once.
Bonnie's grilled shrimp and angel hair pasta was topped with a toasted garlic pesto sauce and shaved pecorino cheese. A small grilled fish filet came with it. It was swimming a the sauce and looked excellent.
After dinner - and I had nearly achieved seafood overload - Billy came back to tempt us with dessert. I didn't want anything, nor did Bonnie or John. However, my wife ended up ordering a piece of the key lime pie and asked for four forks. The key lime pie slice had a small dollop of real whipped cream and was sitting on a squiggle of strawberry sauce with fresh cut strawberry slices on the side. It was a nice presentation and an even better pie. The tangy and tart key lime pie was a nice finish, even though I was only able to have a couple three small bites. I was simply stuffed.
As we were leaving Stinky's Fish Camp, I gave my valet ticket to a young guy who ran over to get our car. I gave him a five buck tip for bringing the car around and we got in and shut the door. There was some horrific odor in the car and it was too late before I figured out that the valet had to have just left a horrible greasy fart in the car stinking up the environs. I said, "My God, I think the valet shit his pants in the car!" Had I known he had just flared out a smelly air biscuit before he gave us our car, I would have withheld the tip. We all laughed and laughed over that. I figured that was a signature of a place called Stinky's - to leave an eye-watering smell in your car courtesy of the valet.
The valet farting in our car aside, we ate in a lot of very good seafood restaurants while we were on the Emerald Coast. But my cousin and his wife spoiled us by taking us to the best seafood place we encountered on our first night. I loved the food, the atmosphere, the service - everything about Stinky's was excellent. We had contemplated going back there for at least lunch at some point - and we did a disservice to ourselves for not going back toward Santa Rosa Beach for dinner on some of our nights. There were some very good restaurants that we encountered during our stay, but I can't think of one that was better than Stinky's Fish Camp.