I grew up on the west coast of Florida. As a kid, I was spoiled with seafood. Seafood to us was the freshest possible – many times we would watch our lunch or dinner being pulled from the Gulf of Mexico while we waited. One of our favorite places was Hap Clark’s Fish House – a modest building a stone’s throw from the Pithlachascotee River, which ran out to the Gulf of Mexico, practically a shack with a kitchen, wooden picnic tables, and the best seafood for miles. We used to alternate eating a few bites with catching hermit crabs on the shore – pure bliss.
In college, my friends and I would drive from Tallahassee (the most landlocked I had ever been up until that point), to St. George Island to buy fresh seafood from the fishermen on the beach and then either bring it back to prepare it or cook it right there on the beach. Frozen seafood was something we really only saw in the grocery store but never really ate.
Then I moved to Atlanta.
Living 4-ish hours from the coast is not that bad. I mean, at least we’re not in, say, Kansas (no offense, Kansans). We can get delicious seafood from a quick weekend jaunt to Savannah or Charleston, but who wants to wait to have time to get out of town? Wait no more. Chef Ford Fry (of JCT Kitchen and No. 246) has brought us seafood the way seafood should be at his new restaurant, The Optimist.
Billed on the menu as “Fish Camp and Oyster Bar,” The Optimist lives up to my childhood memories of seafood, right off the boat. It’s a little fancier than, say, Hap Clark’s Fish House, but the same feeling of freshness is there. We enjoyed a delicious (if overindulgent) meal last week. Here’s a sneak peek at what we enjoyed!
First things first: cocktails! The cocktails menu, like the rest of the menu, made it hard to choose just one. So we didn’t. But one can only drink one drink at a time, so I started with The Truth As We Know It (A martini of Bitter Truth Pink Gin, Dolin Blanc and Angostura’s Bitters, $12). To be honest, I chose this drink for its garnish: I was lured in by the promise of a smoked salmon and caper berry garnish. It sounded delicious and completely unique. It was, and as I was promised by our server, it wasn’t just for shock value, it really complimented the drink! My husband, Ben, chose the White Train (Death’s Door White Whiskey, Lillet Blanc, Marie Brizzard crème de cocoa, lemon, served up, $12). A very promising start to the meal! I also tried the Mother of Pearl (Death’s Door Gin, Fever Tree Tonic Water, Fee Brothers Celery Bitters, celery salt/black pepper, fennel frond and celery leaf, $10) – it was incredibly light and refreshing and paired with my scallops entree, it was a very good contrast of light and rich.
We couldn’t resist a little taste from the oyster bar (even though it was May and that month very obviously does not include the letter “r” in it) – warm weather, be damned, we sampled two each of the day’s East Coast ($2.50 each) and West Coast ($3 each) oyster selections, which are served with fresh horseradish (the freshest I’ve ever tasted) and housemade cocktail sauce and hot sauce, along with housemade wheat crackers.
The Parkerhouse yeast rolls with butter and sea salt were delicious, but filling up on those seemed sinful with so many other great things on the menu, so I only had one (or maybe two). For starters, we chose Garlicky Tiny Clams with Pork Belly and Hand-Town Croutons ($9) – it came highly recommended by our server and she was right: I could’ve eaten three more servings and then bathed in the broth. I didn’t, of course, but I did ask for more rolls to sop up the broth, and our genius server came up with a better idea: ask for some sopping bread, delicious, buttery slices of bread made just for the task of soaking up all that heavenly broth. Take note: order the Garlicky Tiny Clams and then ask for the Sopping Bread.
It wasn’t easy to choose our entrées. Believe me when I tell you that simply everything on the menu looks incredible. Our server had her favorites, but even she admitted that there isn’t a thing on the menu she’s sampled that she hasn’t loved. I picked the Maine Sea Scallops with Oxtail Marmalade and Brown Butter-Chicken Jus ($28). The dish was so delectably rich that I almost couldn’t finish it (notice I said almost). My husband chose the Duck Fat Poached Swordfish with Pickled Sweet Peppers and Crispy Pancetta ($24).
We were told in advance not to miss out on the Potato Gnocchi with Lobster Butter and Corn ($6) for our side dish, but that will have to wait until next time. I am a bit of a hushpuppy snob and tend to judge seafood restaurants by the quality of their hushpuppies. The moment I saw that The Optimist not only has hushpuppies, but they have Corn Milk Hushpuppies served Beignet-Style with Cane Sugar Butter ($6) and lightly dusted with powdered sugar, I was sold. Take it from me, they are worth ordering – they may even be my dessert next time!
Speaking of dessert, I highly recommend leaving room. We sampled the Grapefruit Tart with Mimosa Reduction and Venezuelan White Chocolate ($8). It was refreshing and light and the perfect end to a very rich meal, and it was very much enjoyed while sipping on a cup of Batdorf and Bronson coffee.
Each of the two sides of the restaurant has a distinctive feel: the dining room is a little more upscale, still comfortable but more of a date-night feeling; the oyster bar is a more casual “fish camp” style venue featuring a raw bar and a spacious outdoor patio. Free self-parking is available in the adjacent lot Sunday through Wednesday, and valet parking is available Thursday through Saturday.
Walk-in seating is available (first-come, first-seated) in the Oyster Bar; reservations are encouraged for the The Optimist dining room. Hours of operation are: lunch at The Optimist, Monday through Friday, 11:30 AM until 2:30 PM, and dinner at The Optimist, SUnday through Thursday 5:00 PM until 10:00 PM and Friday and Saturday, 5:00 PM until 11:00 PM. The Oyster Bar hours are Monday through Thursday 5:00 PM until 10:00 PM (or later); Friday, 5:00 PM until 11:00 PM (or later); Saturday, 3:00 PM until 11:00 PM (or later); and Sunday, 3:00 PM until 10:00 PM (or later).
Full disclosure: The Optimist graciously hosted us for dinner and our bill was comped by the house. However, all opinions expressed here are my own.