Dining Out: Cafe de Marco is a terrific spot for seafood diners

By JENINE OUILLETTE, Special to the Islander
June 17, 2005

Call it serendipity. Call it luck. Call it area restaurants able to get their act together now that our seasonal feeding frenzy is over. Whatever the reason, I've been telling you about some very fine dining lately (if you haven't been paying attention), and saving you a few dollars with specials here and there!

That said, I must tell you about the lovely dinner my friend and I enjoyed last week at the Café de Marco. I love the restaurant's casually elegant ambiance and white tablecloth, crystal and silverware setting of the main dining room and, of course, the consistently excellent quality of the food. It's no wonder the restaurant has been voted "best seafood" for six consecutive years. I'm equally fond of the low-key, very flattering lighting and surroundings conducive to friendly conversation, as well as the attentive and professional service of the experienced wait staff and especially our server, Scott.

May I also add that early dining here (5 to 5:45 p.m.) is rewarded with a menu of nicely balanced (usually poultry, meat or fish) selections called Twilight Specials? These dandy dinners are also cooked to order and served with a garden salad (choice of dressing), fresh vegetables, rice or potato, and fresh baked rolls just like the Main Selections in the regular menu. Speaking of regular, the Café's wine list is anything but. It is spectacular, featuring the best vintages (by the glass or bottle) from American and international vineyards.

Speaking of food, I just love saving money on main courses (like my scrumptious tilapia Twilight Special) so I can splurge on starters such as our delectable Maryland blue lump crabcakes and divine oysters Rockefeller and Oscar combo! The two plump crab cakes were just that — mostly all sweet blue crab meat subtly seasoned and sautéed golden brown — perfectly paired with piquant mustard sauce.

While the oysters Rockefeller were deliciously topped with bacon, spinach, cheeses and a whiff of anisette, the oysters oscar stole the show with a bountiful blanket of crab in gratin sauce topped with seasoned crumbs and baked till bubbling — simply superb! More tilapia tidbits: I just love experiencing epiphanies, especially when they're food-related like my first ever taste of that scrumptious sautéed tilapia fillet.

Reposing elegantly on an oval platter, the fillet was golden brown, plump and glistening with buttery juices as it separated seductively into opalescent flakes when pierced with my fork. My last epiphany of note occurred when I inhaled the ambrosial essence of Williams-Sonoma's Dish Soap with Essential Oils of Pink Grapefruit. Go figure!

Suds aside, my guest's gorgeous grilled grouper topped with succulent Nantucket Bay scallops swimming in divine, creamy wine sauce with indescribable layers of flavor got thumbs up from both of us. The dish, one of the evening's specials, was perfectly paired with parsley potatoes and verdant florets of broccoli — just lovely, we agreed. Among other stellar seafood selections available that evening was the Café's signature Shrimp Lenny, a fabulous melange of large shrimp stuffed with surimi crab, wrapped with bacon and broiled till sizzling and crowned with a golden coverlet of hollandaise — too wonderful for words!

Although the restaurant's award-winning menu focuses on seafood, the meat lover can feast on several equally stellar selections such as chicken marsala, a 10-ounce grilled filet mignon, a rack of lamb or the 12-ounce New York strip steak. Incidentally, a petite version of this popular cut was one of the featured selections of the Twilight Specials menu. Vegetarians would delight in a beautiful blend of fresh vegetables sautéed with meaty mushrooms, then simmered in a white wine teriyaki sauce and served over rice or pasta called, of course, Vegetarian Delight.

More than delightful was the section of the menu called Finishing Touches that featured the Café's "homemade selection of after-dinner delectables," and urged diners to "save room to taste and enjoy." We were happy to take that advice seriously and decided to bypass the signature Café Puff (big enough to share) and splurge with two — cheesecake and chocolate cake — decadently rich and delectably delicious. The dense and creamy cheesecake slice was appropriately adored with raspberry sauce and whipped cream rosettes, while every surface of triple layers of chocolate cake was embellished with Valrhona bittersweet chocolate and sour cream frosting. Both definitely to die for, — 'nuff said!

Jenine C. Ouillette is a retired features editor of the Key West Citizen and a former food writer and restaurant reviewer for other publications in the Keys and mainland Florida.