By Erika Webb
For Hometown News
It's a step back in time - to "Old Florida". The rough-hewn walls, loads of comfortable seating, nautical treasures and panoramic views of a vermillion sun melting into the water, at day's end, quench a thirsty soul.
And then there's the menu. From Smoked Gouda Salmon ($24.95); Trigger St. Johns, a chef's choice featuring broiled trigger fish topped with parmesan cheese, breadcrumbs, scallions and tomatoes ($22.95); Seafood Au Gratin with shrimp, fish and scallops baked with Alfredo sauce, and topped with melted cheese; to Black and Bleu Tuna - blackened tuna steak topped with melted bleu cheese sauce ($22.95), the choices alone will entertain you. Eighteen items comprise just the seafood portion.
All entrees are served with southern-style hushpuppies, house salad or coleslaw, and choice of garlic mashed potatoes, roasted potatoes, French fries or fresh steamed vegetables.
"Miss Ann's" Cheesecake ($4.95), Key Lime Pie ($4.95) or Mile High Chocolate Cake ($6.95) will no-doubt complete the meal.
The property's long and interesting history is detailed on the website, but the short version is: Captain Frank Timmons purchased his parents' fish camp, Timmons Landing - established in the 1940s - and opened a bar for fishermen. Someone came in one day and said, "Hey, How about a fish sandwich?" That question spawned the present day Down the Hatch Restaurant.
Early bird hours are from 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. A variety of seafood and chicken sandwiches, as well as burgers and salads, make up the lunch menu. Prices start at $8.95.
On a perfect day to mosey we opted to go for lunch. Bluebird skies and a calm Intracoastal were visible from every spot in the dining room, through spotless windows, I might add.
We started with the "Famous" Smoked Fish Dip and crackers. Two heaping scoops of smoky-sweet fresh fish were served with lemon and a heaping basket of captain's wafers and saltines. One bite of this "secret recipe" leads to another and another and another.
Chef Slavomire Vesley was cranking out made-to-order dishes, dealing with food vendors and still found time to stop and chat with us about the fare at Down-the-Hatch.
His kind, blue eyes, ready smile and unrestrained passion for cuisine let us know we were in for something several notches above an average lunch on the water.
When asked what he wants people to know about the food at Down the Hatch, he didn't miss a beat.
"Best seafood and steaks anywhere," he said.
His presence in the dining room obviously wasn't an isolated incident. He listens to the patrons.
"I used to want to use more spice, but I've found that most people prefer their food more bland so I toned it down," he said. "I was stubborn. I was like, 'Don't argue with me.' I would say, 'Put your $20 back in your pocket. I don't want it.'"
He laughed at the memory.
"I can do that in Europe but not here," he said. "And the shrimp ... I was buying them right off of the boats, still moving. Customers sent them back, saying they tasted too fishy. I listened and began buying the shrimp from seafood vendors."
My guest goes straight for the pasta on any menu. Chef "Slavic", as he is known, recommended one of the specials - Shrimp Parmesan. I didn't have to taste it to understand. I could see the crunchy coating beneath the blanket of melted cheese. The pasta, twirled through just the right amount of marinara, was clearly perfectly al dente. My guest was delighted to the last bite, and impressed by the unexpected and creative deviation from the usual Parmesan dishes. The house salad, served beforehand, is not to be missed. A blend of mixed greens, apples, dried cranberries, nuts and strawberry vinaigrette dressing, it's Saturday at the farmer's market, bursting with an assortment of flavors, colors and textures, a delicious balance of sweet and salty.
On this warm day my eye went straight to the Shrimp Salad. Served in a crisp tortilla bowl, it was loaded with fresh, plump shrimp, mixed greens, onion, celery and juicy tomatoes. The house-blend dressing was smooth and creamy, and the whole thing was perfectly tossed, for artfully-even distribution, then topped with shredded cheese. It bears repeating that every bite was full of succulent shrimp.
Our server was way above average - very efficient, cheerful and enthusiastic. The entire staff seems happy to be there, making the experience that much better.
There are two full-liquor bars at Down the Hatch - one inside and one outside on the covered deck - and live entertainment every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Check the website: www.down-the-hatch-seafood.com for special events and live entertainment schedule.
Down the Hatch Seafood is lat 4894 Front St. in Ponce Inlet. Call (386) 761-4831.