Among the pleasant surprises of our recent visit to the Gulf Coast were the excellent restaurants. Many of them featured locally caught seafood, including oysters, shrimp, grouper, redfish and pompano, drawing inspiration from the cooking of New Orleans and incorporating Southern comfort food, like grits, cornbread and fried green tomatoes. Because this coastline is home to large communities of Vietnamese-Americans, as well as recent immigrants from Mexico and Latin America, their kitchens contribute to the delicious repertoire of modern Southern cooking.
Here’s a selection of restaurants we particularly enjoyed.
Since it opened eight years ago, chef Alex McPhail’s relaxed restaurant with an open-kitchen in downtown Pensacola has become one of the best contemporary American bistros in the South. Start with a cocktail — the smoked Old-Fashioned, garnished with house-cured bacon, is excellent, as is the Mai Thyme with rum, blackberry thyme cordial, orgeat and lime — and then tuck into starters like hearts of palm Caesar salad or fried oysters and barbecued pork belly with pickled watermelon rind. Standouts among the generous main courses were seared Gulf redfish with a crawfish-and-corn sauce and pork schnitzel with charred peppers and muscadine jelly. The wine list is surprisingly sophisticated. And the service was prompt and friendly. Dinner only; closed Sunday and Monday.