Monday, May 14, 2012

Review: The Whale's Rib Raw Bar, Deerfield Beach FL

Too many of my first trips to Florida had an Orlando destination. After enduring a plane full of screaming infants, insult was added to injury by lots of bad restaurants (especially when staying off-campus for a Disney vacation).  I drew some pretty broad conclusions after I had pizza in Florida for the first time (it was a wretched wet mess of an “everything” pizza on soggy crust). But on recent trips, I’ve been to Clearwater, Miami, Boca Raton – and found that there is indeed plenty of worthy, even destination eats, in Florida. Boca, for instance, is home to a growing coal-fired pizza trend.

But when I think of eating in Florida, I think “grouper sandwich” first. That ubiquitous white-fleshed fish is on the menu in most seaside restaurants (I have found that Florida has almost perfected the beach side restaurant, I see why Jimmy Buffett digs it). To me, beach dining is casual and ought to be, which is why a grouper sandwich seems more appropriate than a grouper entrée with a side of rice and green beans.
Click any picture to enlarge!

The grouper sandwich can be simple grilled fish, or blackened, or Buffaloed. But the version I like best is the most decadent – beer batter dipped and deep fried. Served on an onion roll, lettuce and tomato, and maybe a slice of cheese. Eat a dozen oysters as an appetizer and wash it all down with a pitcher of beer. Sometimes it can be even better than pizza! In my experience in Clearwater, when we visit in spring to see the Phillies, there are plenty of good-to-great choices for beach dining; the mainland is a wasteland of chains serving burgers and wings.

In Clearwater, Crabby Bill’s makes a great grouper sandwich, including the “Philly Cheesesteak” grouper sandwich. Just down the beach, Keegan’s Seafood Grille is a warm and friendly place, packed every night, with state-of-the-art grouper sandwiches on the menu. Keegan’s has been visited and endorsed by Guy Fieri of “Diners Drive-Ins and Dives.” But the standard is set by Clearwater’s Frenchy’s. Beyond perfecting the Jimmy Buffett beach grill vibe at their four Clearwater beach locations, their deep-fried grouper sandwich is superb.
One of Frenchy's four Clearwater locations

On recent trips to Boca, I’ve had some very tasty grouper sandwiches at the Holiday Inn on the beach. I’m always shocked to get a good meal at a chain; this menu seems to be developed by the locals, not some central chain of command. They add spicy banana peppers to their grouper sandwich. On my most recent visit, we had just seen a repeat of Guy Fieri on TV endorsing The Whale’s Rib Raw Bar restaurant in nearby Deerfield Beach. Fieri had sampled, and loved, the Fresh Dolphin Key West sandwich. Like grouper, you can choose grilled, blackened, or batter dipped and deep fried. He choose the deep fried and I had to have it.
CRIB outside The Whale's Rib

For starters, we decided to take Guy Fieri’s suggestion and get the Whale’s Rib version of Oysters Rockefeller. It includes tomato, provolone, breadcrumbs, and lots of spinach. Fieri loved them; we didn’t. The oysters got completely lost in all the other stuff. Not bad, we ate them all, but good oysters can be wonderful and these came up short. For the main dish, I selected the regular dolphin sandwich; CRIB (college roommate in Boca) followed Fieri and selected the Key West version, which added swiss cheese and purple cole slaw.
Fellow diners at The Rib

The sandwiches came out with a basket of “whale fries” which are essentially fresh home-made potato chips. The chips were wonderful, and they are served with “whale juice” which is a mix of mayo, sugar, mustard, white vinegar, and black pepper. It is delicious stuff, perfect for dipping these chips and also adding to your fried fish sandwich. Really, are you going to fret over the fact that you just ate a 4200 calorie meal when you could have held it to 4000 calories?
Cozy and casual interior

How was the sandwich?  Pretty damn good, because even as I snapped photos of the exterior, interior, and appetizers, I was so pumped for this massive sandwich that I scarfed it down entirely before I stopped to think that having a photo of the main event would have been a good idea!  But here is an image from Please visit his cool blog!

What that photo does not reveal is that the massive chunk of batter-dipped deep-fried dolphin stuck out about an inch on each side of the bread. This sandwich was enormous! I probably erred by not choosing to get the one with cheese and coleslaw; it offers more flavors and textures. My fish was superb, but the roll (“whale bun”) was distinctly pedestrian.  It was little better than a whole-wheat hamburger bun. Fish this good deserves better bread, whether it be the nice hoagie-style torpedo roll at Boca’s Holiday Inn or the perfect soft onion roll at Frenchy’s in Clearwater.
Whale fries

We waited an hour to get in, on a nice warm Florida night. The crowd and the staff were happy and friendly, and this is a nice place for a casual beach meal. But the food did not quite measure up to the hype.  The Oysters Rockefeller earns a 4, the whale fries are a 9, the whale juice is a 10, the batter-fried dolphin would be a 9 but the pedestrian roll drags the sandwich down to a 7.  Nice place, and I’d go back, but it falls just short of destination dining.

Whale's Rib (The) on Urbanspoon

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