(2010) A lot of thought went into the Caragiulo brothers’ latest venture, a casual restaurant under the big banyan tree next door to Burns Court Cinema called Owen’s Fish Camp. From the clever menu placemats to the equally amusing wine and beer list to the fishing shack decor to the food itself, the new restaurant fairly shouts Franchise me!
This is in no way intended as criticism. The food is good, the setting delightfully Old Florida and the service congenial. What worked for Bonefish Grill, which started as one independent restaurant in St. Petersburg, is likely to work for Owen’s Fish Camp. It has the feel of a winner.
That’s all speculation, of course. What we know for sure is that the down home concept deployed in the renovated cottage that Owen Burns built for himself in Sarasota’s infancy offers lots of Southern comforts, from the old-timey twang of the soundtrack to the best collard greens I’ve tasted in a long time. There are, alas, no hush puppies on the menu but you can—and should—get a fried pie with vanilla ice cream that will knock your flip flops off.
Let’s start with the drinks list, which offers a pleasant selection of beers on tap and in the bottle and a brief wine list divided into Cheap ($5 the glass/$20 the bottle), Decent ($7/$28) and Good ($9/$36). The wines are interesting and well chosen at each price point, mixing old faves with nice little surprises, all of them affordable.
The starters list contains an amazing bargain: a half dozen oysters of the day (they were from Alaskan waters on our recent visit), accompanied by a good, shallot-rich mignonette dipping sauce, for $7. We thought at first the price was a misprint, and when assured that it wasn’t, we had to try them, although we didn’t really expect much. Good oysters usually don’t go for just over a buck apiece these days. We were pleasantly surprised at first bite and wolfed down every one.
Also coming in at $7, from a menu section headed Jars, is a smoked fish spread appetizer enlivened with tiny specks of minced veggies and served with saltines. We devoured this delicious concoction with such dispatch we alarmed our attentive waiter. We could have gone for Bloody Mary oyster shooters ($4), but decided to save those for next time.
For a main course I chose a pair of pan-fried soft shell crabs ($18) from the menu box headed Naked Fish. You get your choice of several sauces (I chose lemon caper and was glad I did) and two sides from a fine list. That’s where I found the exceptional spicy collard greens spiked with bits of bacon and first-rate herb-flecked shoestring fries. The little crabs were perfectly fresh and delicious, just crisp enough.
Colette ordered from the Plates subheading, where the sides are chosen for you. Her seared scallops ($18) proved to be fresh and succulent under an unusual topping of tangy pulled pork braised to a tender turn.
The combination seemed unlikely to me until I tasted it; then I was sold. The scallops come with a tasty succotash (also available as a side dish for $3) that combined corn, baby limas, garbanzo beans and red onion to good effect. I don’t believe I’ve seen garbanzos in succotash before, but it works.
When it came time for dessert, our waiter was emphatic: Go for the fried blackberry pies and ice cream ($6). He knew what he was talking about. Two little crescents of fried dough stuffed with real blackberries, one for each of us, came to table flanking a scoop of chilly vanilla goodness. We were tempted to order another portion to take home for a midnight snack. Next time, maybe we’ll try the root beer float ($5), but odds are pretty good we won’t be able to resist the fried pies.
Also on our list to try on future visits are the buttermilk fried chicken ($15) from the Baskets section and the Fish Camp tacos ($9) with green salsa and something called Baja sauce from the Sandwiches heading. Or, if we’re in a certain mood, we might go for “a nice plate of vegetables with bacon” ($12). Our veggie sides were so good we could easily make a meal of them.
Owen’s Fish Camp
516 Burns Lane, Sarasota
Reservations (only for 6 or more): (941) 951-6936
Hours: dinner 4-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover
Handicapped accessible: yes
Parking: small lot or on street