Friday, December 23, 2011

Camellia Street Grill in Everglades City, Florida – A Diamond in the Rough!

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If Jimmy Buffet sailed by Camellia Street Grill, he’d jam with the musicians, have dinner, and the next day kayak the Big Cypress Swamp with Naturalist Ron. Well, you don’t have to be Jimmy to enjoy the same old Florida experience!

Camellia Street BBQ & Seafood Grill,  also known as "Camellia Street", "Camilla's", and "Terri's"  per the locals, is perched right on the Barron River. It looks like it’s been here for decades; a casual simple wooden structure festooned with hundreds of old crab pot floats, and hand written signs. The leisurely 45 minute drive East of Naples on US 41, Tamiami Trail,  takes you through picturesque swamps and grasslands- scenes right out of a Clyde Butcher six foot tall black and white photograph.
    Park, amble up and walk on the wooden deck over the water to watch airboats and kayaks go by, or sit in the outside catbird seats, in front of the musician’s covered spot by the outdoor bar.
This is Florida laid-back casual. Enjoy down-home Florida hospitality and friendliness with delicious Mediterranean accented dishes. It’s your “hole in the wall” spot that’s no ordinary  'hole", and come season, seats are packed by locals, their families and no shortage of  "damyankees", too!

Owned by Terri Rementeria and daughter Naiara, there’s a good mix of simple things done well. Walk inside to the counter, check out the daily specials, and place your order. Your server soon brings your food to your table. Arrive early for the best food selection, as things (blue crabs and soft shell crabs) may run out quickly. Ditto for getting a good table for a weekend’s live music. The décor is “Florida kitsch”-fun to read the signs and check out the decorations.
Appetizers are attractively  priced from $3 to $10 for goodly sized servings of frogs legs, calamari, gator tail with fry bread, cucumber salad, chicken strips, fried greet tomatoes, BBQ pork sliders, steamed shrimp and garden herb salad. The herbs and much of the salad comes from their own garden!

 Just before our dinner, I shared the afternoon with friends in kayaks, guided by Ron,  a Coastal Master Naturalist, one of the professional guides at Everglades Area Tours.
 He gave us a wonderful afternoon rich with sights of the cypress swamp's quiet beauty. Our 5 kayaks and canoes leisurely paddled past anhingas, night herons, tall wood storks, and a 3 foot long alligator sunning himself.
 From a discrete distance,  we got great photos of a pair of ospreys building their nest high in a tall cypress tree.
 We then brushed past tall grass and beautiful white swamp lilies, entering a hidden tunnel that opened to a wonderland of large original growth cypress trees, some well over 600 years old. Ron made the trip memorable as he shared nature lore, identifying flora and fauna as we passed by rare orchids and invasive species alike. Other tours silently go by wading birds and dolphins in the Gulf, a birder’s or photographer’s dream! At dusk, we watched the sun set over the trees and limpid water.
 As if on cue, flocks of birds passed overhead lit by dusk’s pastels, swooping down to their evening roosts.

Yes, we certainly worked up decent appetites before arriving at Camellia's. After, we were happy and satiated with our food!
   My $12 gator appetizer had a good assortment of fried gator tail pieces with a good spicing, served atop sliced fresh fry bread-a sort of fried pita, topped with a delicious fresh salsa.
While many spots have tough gator, these are tender with a crisp surface and welcome spicing. Recommended.
Calamari for $8 are a must have, thin rings and crisp small tentacles alike, delicately battered and lightly fried to a golden crisp goodness, with a mild dipping sauce.
 This is how fried calamari should be prepared! Highly recommended!
Next time, we’ll try the she crab soup, lima bean soup or vegetarian black bean soup.

My $16 fresh local grouper sandwich is a delicious large hunk of fresh grouper that’s properly cooked, tender and juicy on a fresh bun with lettuce. Recommended, with sweet potato fries!
Grouper Sandwich with Sweet Potatoe Fries
 All sandwiches have a choice of French fries, onion rings, cole slaw, sweet potato fries or herb salad.
The house herb salad is a delicious mix of greens topped with diced tomato, basil, dill, even dandelion at times I’m told. The secret light salad dressing makes this a must-have! The sweet potato fries are a goodly portion, thick and lightly fried-recommended.
     There’s a limited assortment of beers for $3, wines for $5, sweetened iced tea and soft drinks. Yes, the wines are  half the price of house wines in Naples.

Specialty dinners are all $19.95. Sample fresh local grouper, soft shell crab, blue crab (both run out early), herbed shrimp kabob, catfish in lemon herb sauce, fried oysters, frog legs sautéed in sherry-onion sauce and baby back ribs.
Crab Cake
The $16 homemade crab cake gives your money’s worth of 100% lump crab meat with just a little bit of filler with corn kernels-only enough filler enough to hold it together. Nicely pan sautéed with a crisp exterior, it had a slightly smoky taste to one friend. It would raise both eyebrows of one used to Chesapeake Bay area crab cakes. It's good, we had no complaint, it’s just not as good as other items at Camellia.

The $19.95 special of steamed clams in a white wine sauce with fennel was a generous portion of small clams whose salty broth/sauce was blah, lacking herbs, and just missing any unique taste at all. The fennel was not enough to carry the dish. My friend who ordered it said, "the sauce was way too soupy" and a "a dull salty liquid."
This shortcoming, the only less than "good" dish of the evening, could be easily enhanced with herbs and spices. Hey, gotta experiment-it's just a special. He wasn't happy to have paid $19.95 for an experiment.

In contrast, my other friend's  $13 quintet of seared fresh Florida  large shrimp were wonderfully grilled, served atop nicely made, tender grits with a Basque sofrito /roasted tomatillo sauce. Recommended.
My favorite of the evening was the $11 fresh fried mullet with a side dish-a generous portion of mullet so lightly fried that I couldn’t detect any oil, and oh so full of fresh taste! This is a delicacy you'll find in few other spots, and certainly not as tasty! Highly recommended!
We were happily satiated from our appetizers and entrees. Prices as a very wallet-friendly deal on such tasty foods-you'd easily pay 50% more in Naples. We did share a wedge of $4 Key lime pie that is good, very rich nicely sweetened, but not as tart with lime as I like. Though definitely worth $4, your taste and mileage may vary.

During the evening, we greatly enjoyed the duo of musicians who played everything from pop/rock to Caribbean Belafonte to light Country/Western –selecting an enjoyable mix, played at a volume that let conversation be heard as well. Some nights, owner Terri sings, and is said to be quite good. Next time!

We’d happily take another swamp or coastal kayak with Ron via Everglades Area Tours, and finish the day at Camellia’s to savor the food, hospitality and setting. The food quality is two cuts above what we expected for the casual ambiance. I’d return just for the weekend’s music and drinks alone. Having both delicious food and very good musicians in this open casual waterfront setting overlooking the mangroves is a double header. Camellia's is a wonderful slice of Floridiana that's well worth your  drive. 
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Don’t be surprised if Jimmy Buffet gets up to sing along-it’s that kind of place!

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Camellia  202 Camellia Street, Everglades City, 695-2003, serving lunch and dinner 7 days a week.
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Directions from Naples-- Take US 41 East from Naples, perhaps 35 miles, then turn right onto Highway 29 South. Go about 3 miles on 29. After you cross over the slightly raised bridge hump, Camellia Street (the street!) is about 0.2 miles further on the right, along the far side of the Circle K and its gas station. Go 2 blocks down Camellia, and the Camellia restaurant's grassy parking lot is on your right, past the stop sign and just before the parked, faded yellow Volkswagen car. There, you've arrived, and drat, the secret’s out!
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Everglades Area Tours, 239-695-3633  Evergladesareatours.com
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