It’s easy for a chef to understand why five nations have vied for control of Pensacola Bay over the past four and a half centuries. Heaping platters of oysters, steaming bowls of shrimp and grits, crunchy fried alligator and slow cooked collard greens with smoky ham have drawn sailors and settlers from Spain, France, England and the Americas. Any visitor to Pensacola’s historic downtown can easily eat their way through a timeline of great American southern cuisine.
The term celebrity chef has become ubiquitous in culinary lexicon these days, but the actual celebrities that can cook are a more limited number than television portrays. That makes Pensacola Celebrity Chefs all the more surprising for a city of 65,000 residents that five chefs deservedly represent a true pinnacle of excellence, and yet they are only part of the current list. An up-and-coming generation of chefs are redefining Palafox Street and the historic downtown assuring Pensacola’s position as a major foodie destination.
Jim Shirley is executive chef at the Fish House and a partner in the Great Southern Restaurant Group which also owns Jackson’s and Atlas Oyster House. The Fish House, Atlas Oyster House and the Deck Bar all occupy a handsome, sprawling waterfront location on the bay just a couple blocks off Palafox Street. Chef Shirley’s award winning signature grits a ya ya are creamy and redolent of smoked gouda. Cobia (lemon fish) is lightly blackened and napped with a white wine buerre blanc. It’s meaty and firm with a pleasant citrus flavor to the sauce. Their tartar sauce includes roasted corn that imparts a stunning and unique smoky flavor. Collard greens have a slight sweetness, the result of adding a touch of brown sugar that mitigates the characteristic bitter taste of the greens. A peach chutney with a mild chili bite accompanies homemade rolls.
Chef Irv Miller is another member of the Pensacola Celebrity Chefs. As executive chef of Jackson’s Steakhouse, Pensacola’s premiere venue for prime grilled meats for the past decade, he anchors Palafox Street’s restaurant revival. Yet it was an imaginative dessert that caught the eye of this chef writer, north shore key lime phyllo purse. The long flaky pastry was filled with a warm cream cheese lemon filling tinged with cardamon and garnished with fresh berries. It was paired with a superb Auchentoshan 12 year old single malt scotch that has a smooth smoky aroma.
At the end of Palafox Street, on Plaza de Luna and next to the marina, Jaco’s Bayfront Bar and Grill has an enviable location with sweeping views of Pensacola Bay. Sunday brunch is particularly popular and no wonder with $2 bloody marys, mimosas and champagne. Coupled with friendly and solicitous service, a seafood frittata, a generous fresh fruit salad plate and a bread basket with tender biscuits and small fruit muffins create a relaxing destination to spend a lazy weekend afternoon.
The 19th century Pensacola Cigar & Tobacco Co. building was the genesis for today’s Seville Quarter restaurant and entertainment complex in the historic downtown. Pensacola’s architecture will surprise no one familiar with New Orleans, considering centuries of Spanish and French dominance along the northern gulf shore. The rustic iron and brick interiors of the seven different bars, and cafes ooze charm even if buttery light beignets and strong coffee weren’t available. The Palace Cafe at Seville Quarter serves delectable oysters raw or baked. Imperial baked oysters are topped with crab, scallops, parmesan cheese and herbs. A generous cobb salad paired this traditional dish with popcorn fried crawfish and a generous amount of blue cheese.
For a lively, friendly bar scene and burgers with imagination, the Tin Cow is rapidly becoming a Palafox Street fixture. Patrons supply the imagination by building their own burger. The menu is a check list from which the patron chooses from a selection of burgers, ranging from angus to bison and a dizzying array of additions – with or without a bun. A venison burger on micro greens topped with roasted peppers and blue cheese was perfect. Non burger items include a chunky crab cake with cajun spice, veggie burgers and grilled chicken breasts. The bar serves an extensive selection of beers and excellent cocktails.
Not up for burgers? Across the street is chef Frank Taylor’s Global Grill. Another member of the Pensacola Celebrity Chefs, chef Taylor models the menu on small plate tapas popular in Spain, but utilizing ingredients from around the world. Traditional olives in flavored oils share space with southern fried frog legs and edamame in a sesame vinaigrette. Down the street, Carmen’s Lunch Bar ties together Asian and Mediterranean influences while in the nearby Historic Pensacola Village, Dolce serves up unique, small batch gelato and sorbet with such ingredients as goat cheese and fresh basil leaves.
In a stunning glass walled modern building, a ten minute drive across the Pensacola Beach Bridge, diners at the Grand Marlin have a panoramic view of Pensacola Beach.
Chef Greg McCarthy’s seafood creations are tasty and visual works of art. Utilizing the gulf shores abundance, chef McCarthy’s Hawaiian inspired ahi tuna poke and avocado napoleon with chili oil and lime sea salt, or calamari with sweet and hot peppers and habanero lime aioli pair ideas from international cuisines. New Orleans BBQ shrimp and colorful blackened fish tacos are as flavorful to eat as their presentations are attractive.
Pensacola’s five celebrity chefs will be at New York’s James Beard House for the third year in a row in 2013 preparing a Spanish themed dinner in honor of Pensacola’s heritage. But any visitor can enjoy this city’s exciting cuisine while witnessing both a historic urban revival and a culinary renaissance. Throw in stunning sunsets over Pensacola Bay and what’s a foodie waiting for?