In Orlando for a small trade show earlier this year, my colleague John and I had packed up our gear and decided to drive over to the Atlantic coast to see if we could find a restaurant in Cocoa Beach that offered seaside dining. When we got there, we found that there weren't a lot of places that were along the coast at all. A couple of the places looked like fish shanties that served deep fried shrimp and seafood. Wanting something a little nicer, we stopped into the Cocoa Beach Hilton hotel and asked the desk clerk where a great place to get some seafood in town would be. After initially telling us that the restaurant in the hotel had some of the best seafood in town, I thanked her for the recommendation and then said, "No, we'd like to go to where the locals would go for good seafood." She immediately pointed us to a very nearby restaurant by the name of Florida's Fresh Grill.
For years, an old world Italian place by the name of Silvestri's occupied a space in a strip mall along Atlantic Ave. in Cocoa Beach. After it closed a couple three years ago, local restaurateur Bill Walters - who is a managing partner in Bonefish Grill and Outback Steakhouse locations in the Merritt Island area - and his wife, Susan, leased the location to do their own non-franchised restaurant. The Walters opened Florida's Fresh Grill in June of 2013 specializing in fresh caught seafood along with steaks, chicken dishes and what has turned out to be an off-the-chart burger. More on that later on.
Florida's Fresh Grill is located in the Banana River Square strip mall in Cocoa Beach near a large Publix grocery store. (See map) The front of the restaurant is rather nondescript with a green awning and white columns underneath. We went in and were quickly greeted by Susan Walters at the hostess stand. The dining area was full at the time as were a number of tables near the square bar in the center of the restaurant. She told us that we would be able to be seated in 20 to 30 minutes and asked if we'd like to sit at the bar.
We took a couple seats at the bar and I ordered up a Florida Lager from the nearby Florida Beer Company in Cape Canaveral. As we were waiting for our table, a lady seated next to me at the bar was served one of the Cravable Classic Burgers they have at Florida's Fresh Grill. I said, "Oh, my God! That looks great!"
She said, "Oh, it is. They use ground brisket for the burgers here. They are off-the-chart."
I asked if I could take a picture of her burger for posterity. She didn't mind in the least. I told her that I was all set to get seafood that night, but I would have loved to have tried the burger. She said, "Yes, this is great. But you guys need to try the Corvina fish special that they have tonight. It's fabulous."
While we waited for our table to come open, we sat and talked with the lady whose name was Alison and who was wintering in Florida. She was from the Boston area and this was her first winter in Florida. "My company went through a change a couple years ago," Alison told us. "It turned out that I was on the road most of the time and didn't really need to come into the office in Boston all that much. I sold my place in Boston and bought a place just over the border in New Hampshire for tax reasons. I found that I could tele-commute from my home when I wasn't on the road."
Alison said that she figured that she could live just about anywhere with the new set up in her company and she started to look around at other places to live. She found a great deal on a condo for the winter months on the east coast of Florida and all she had to do was convince her boss that it was as cheap to fly out of Orlando - if not cheaper because of all the tourists flying in and out of the area in the winter. "I left just after Thanksgiving and I'll go back to my place in New Hampshire the first of April." Just in time for the Red Sox season to start, I pointed out. "That's exactly the reason I'm going back when I am!"
We marveled at the timing of Alison's decision to winter in Florida given the record snowfall they had in New England this year. "Yeah, a lot of my co-workers in Boston aren't happy with me," she said between bites of the big burger. "Or, I should say they're jealous."
We were having a good time talking with Alison who - for vacations - has traveled to Africa multiple times. John has been to Africa as a founder of a missionary group known as Water for South Sudan. Listening to their tales of travel to Africa and the people they've met on their respective journeys made us lose complete sense of time.
I figured we had sat there for over an hour - I had three beers - when our bartender said, "Hey, did you guys have your name in for a table? There's a bunch of tables open."
John went over to talk to Susan Walters about our table and she said to him, "Oh, my gosh! I called your name at least three times! I figured you guys left." We were seated at the bar not anymore than 20 feet from the hostess stand and we sure never heard our name being called. But that was quite all right - the conversation we were having with Alison, the snowbird from Boston, was very entertaining.
We were seated at a table near the bar and given menus as we sat down. Our server, Chris, came over to greet us and made sure that we were OK with drinks. He told us of a couple specials, one of which was the Corvina special in a lemon butter sauce with capers. Garlic mashed potatoes came on the side. Our new friend at the bar spoke about the special with so much conviction that we both couldn't say no to getting that.
But first, we ordered up a couple appetizers. John decided we should get some calamari - it was lightly breaded and flash-fried, then served with a house-made marinara sauce and a somewhat spicy - and very good - pepperoncini dipping sauce. The calamari was an outstanding start.
I had a hankering for shrimp and they had a wood-fired seasoned shrimp special appetizer that evening that sounded pretty good. And it was better than pretty good, it was fabulous. Plump shrimp were lightly grilled and seasoned with herbs, then served on a plate with a romaine lettuce leaf bed with scattered kernels of sweet corn. A somewhat spicy sauce came with the shrimp. Florida shrimp is always good and this was no exception.
Our entrees came to the table not long after we finished sharing our appetizers. The Corvina filet was lightly grilled and topped with the lemon butter sauce that had a thicker consistency than I expected. Capers were generously sprinkled on top of the fish. A side of garlic mashed potatoes also came with our fish entree. The fish - which is also known as a drum fish in other locales - was light, flaky and very tasty. It was rich, but not overly filling. The Corvina special was just that - special. For a Midwestern boy who doesn't get a lot of seafood, this was a meal from heaven.
Even though I was more than full after the appetizers and the Corvina fish dinner, I still needed to have a piece of Florida's Fresh Grill's key lime pie. Hey, when in Florida you have to try the key lime pie at each place were you eat that offers it on the dessert menu. The key lime pie this particular evening was very good. It was sweet and sour in taste, a great graham cracker crust and it was very rich. I think I ate about two-thirds of the pie before I threw in the fork. I let John have the rest of it.
Even though it wasn't on the coast looking out over water, I'd still give Florida's Fresh Grill high marks for their food, the ambiance and the service. It was a memorable meal for both John and I considering we're both somewhat land-locked where we live and don't always get ultra-fresh seafood like they serve at Florida's Fresh Grill. The conversation we had with Alison from New England was more than entertaining and it helped the fact that we didn't get back to our hotel over in Orlando until about 10:30 that evening. But the hour trip over and back was definitely worth it. It was as near of a seafood overload that I had on my visit to Florida.