Restaurant Review: Off to Salt Cracker Fish Camp

Salt Cracker Fish Camp looks like a giant, sleek, white and silver, three-tier rectangular wedding cake. As one of the newest restaurants in Frank Chivas’ Baystar restaurant group, it rises majestically over the asphalt of the Clearwater Beach marina, just south of the traffic circle off Memorial Causeway. There, he is surrounded on all sides by dozens of parking meters; I imagine them as Dickensian orphans on their feet, eager for your quarters. Instead of having to feed the beast every 30 minutes, however, Camp offers a $2 parking tag, so you can stuff your face non-stop.

Once you’ve collected your pass just inside the main gate, you can opt for the air-conditioned interior or, if the Florida sun is at its peak, step onto the outdoor deck to watch the boats cruise by. border the marina. There’s no extra charge for a hearty, nautical-craving side dish.

The camp is open daily, starting with a hearty breakfast at 7:00 a.m. each morning, followed by lunch and dinner at noon. We walk around at dinner time looking for classic dishes and immediately choose three “dockside snacks”.

Click to enlarge

Nicole Abbette

Delicious fried green tomatoes (bottom left), hush puppies and a glass of red sangria.

The smoked fish camp dip is a thick mix with chunks of red pepper, celery and a touch of mayonnaise to bind it all together. There’s a slight smokiness on the palate, allowing the fish to predominate as it’s heaped on Saltine crackers. The spread is standard, unlike the fried green tomatoes, which come in the form of a mini cast-iron skillet filled with small, bite-sized triangles to dip in a mild remoulade. It’s an interesting and tasty choice that makes the dish easy to share.

We skip the oysters, shrimp and chowder to focus on a quartet of hot Southern pups. The perfect four dark golden orbs are light and airy, indicating more flour than cornmeal in the batter. I’m used to a denser texture, so this surprises me, but these are quite enjoyable, even without the accompanying chilli cheese fondue. In fact, fondue – as it’s called on the menu – is a misnomer. Although the cheese is soft, it is not liquid at all (it must be added with a knife). Either way, they are a hit and we are now ready for entries.

The chicken and waffles are awesome. It’s served ‘Mack the Knife’ style with a huge blade impaling the crispy, sweet, tea-brined breasts and ensuring they lay firmly on the hot, crispy golden waffles. There’s a little black pepper bacon butter and, of course, maple syrup – we ask for more and our attentive server is happy to oblige.

Click to enlarge The menu instructs diners to ask their waiter for the fresh peach, served with whipped potatoes and "Aztec corn." - NICOLE ABBETT

Nicole Abbette

The menu instructs diners to ask their server for the fresh catch, served with whipped potatoes and “Aztec corn.”

Obviously a big draw of the camp is the fresh catch “straight from our own fleet of dayboats fishing just off our shores”. In our case, it’s grilled grouper (also available blackened or fried, but when you have a nice piece of fish, I strongly encourage you to keep it simple to enjoy the catch in all its glory). This fish comes with rustic, well-seasoned red-skinned whipped potatoes that are thick, firm, and dotted with bits of skin. There is also a tablespoon of “Aztec corn” with onion and red pepper. It’s tasty, so ephemeral; portion size seems like an afterthought.

Bone-in stuffed pork chop fills a small slot with spiced andouille cubes, caramelized onions and swiss cheese. Unfortunately, peeking under the delicious red-eye sauce is a totally incinerated piece of pork when a light char will do. It’s the kind of culinary misstep that Gordon Ramsay would throw back at the pass and send shouting back to the line managers of Hell’s Kitchen. How it got to my table, I’ll never know. Cooked properly, it should work – but someone should have seen the burnt chop and sent it back to be redone.

This amazes me, as the manager on duty during our visit is clearly attentive to detail, coaching less experienced servers and moving around with great skill to ensure the dining room hums.

Click to enlarge The casual and elegant restaurant offers indoor or outdoor seating at the Clearwater Beach Marina.  - NICOLE ABBETT

Nicole Abbette

The casual and elegant restaurant offers indoor or outdoor seating at the Clearwater Beach Marina.

The current menu features three desserts, but two of them differ from a previous menu posted on Yelp after Camp opened. The constant is the lime meringue pie, which we order but are told it’s not available. When you only offer three desserts, it’s not good that one of them is out of stock. We try the others, both served in a small cast iron skillet.

Although the Foster Banana Bread Pudding with Caramel Sauce and Powdered Sugar is warm and nice, it could definitely use some of the cream or ice cream that is such an essential part of this classic. The offer is one-dimensional as is. Homemade cinnamon roll comes hot from the oven with melted sweet cream cheese frosting. Her cinnamon batter is soft and hard to cut when it arrives, and the tangy frosting drips because it hasn’t had time to set. This dessert is one that gets better because it has a chance to cool. I would have loved to taste the banished apple crisp and the chocolate chess pie.

Quibbles and duds aside, Salt Cracker tops most other similar beach fare.

Jon Palmer Claridge dines anonymously during the review. Discover the explanation of its rating system.

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