Grist for the Mill

Pepper Mill serves up tradition — and a side of spice

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click to enlarge NEWFANGLED GROUPER: Our favorite, the - flavorful Grand Marnier grouper, came from the - 'Asian style" section of the bisected menu. - VALERIE MURPHY
VALERIE MURPHY
NEWFANGLED GROUPER: Our favorite, the flavorful Grand Marnier grouper, came from the 'Asian style" section of the bisected menu.

Nobody claims that old local standby the Pepper Mill is setting any culinary trends on fire. It's a comfortable spot, popular with the Lincoln-driving, white-haired, early-bird-special crowd (in passing, the early-bird menu is comprehensive and highly affordable). For many years, it's been the place to take your grandmother for a very special birthday dinner.The décor is bright and flowery, with white painted metalwork chairs and blossom-printed vinyl coverings reminiscent of garden furniture on the booths. Another room features inoffensive, dark-wood furnishings that provide a cool, relaxing respite from the bright Florida summer. A giant live oak arches its branches over the building and the annoyingly small and poorly designed parking lot. (Combine the tiny spaces with the giant sedans that tend to occupy them, and you're in for a navigation nightmare that not even On Star can help you escape.) But all in all, the effect is comfy and old-fashioned — though the food at the Pepper Mill transcends its homey atmosphere.

A few years ago, the Pepper Mill changed hands, but the new head honchos, Bill and Lina Shi, didn't muck with the menu that had served the restaurant's loyal clientele so well. After all, the restaurant's slightly mature customer base isn't one that takes well to newfangled cuisine changes. However, you apparently can teach an old pooch new routines. The Shis have borrowed from their days as Chinese restaurateurs and added a host of fabulous Asian fusion dishes to the menu. These new dishes are suitable for diners of all ages — even those who aren't yet eligible for Social Security.

All meals at the Pepper Mill begin with a bread basket of fresh rolls including homemade poppy seed bread, which is better eaten without the addition of the overly sweet — and extremely bright pink — strawberry butter. In addition, all entrees include a small tasting dish of decent, if not particularly imaginative, stuffed mushrooms, and a large green salad (this restaurant continues its love affair with poppy seed in its signature salad dressing). Each of these starters had the cozy, familiar feel of a dining tradition.

On the appetizer front, I sampled the restaurant's celebrated crab cakes ($8.95), which came with a creamy remoulade sauce. I wasn't excessively impressed with the flat, slightly soggy cake, and much preferred the Asian-style appetizer I ordered. The enormous Empire shrimp ($5.95) were served swimming in a delicious, deep golden sauce made with ginger, garlic, herbs and white wine.

In the world of entrees, the Pepper Mill is best known for its eponymous Pepper Mill steak ($19.95), a 14-ounce New York strip sirloin of Angus beef covered in a variety of — you guessed it — peppercorns and served with sautéed wild mushrooms. Fortunately, they keep the actual working of their pepper mills to a minimum in this dish, and the peppercorns encrusting the steak are generally large and chunky. Another oldie-but-goodie is the lobster tail baked to a beautiful golden brown in a lemon-garlic sauce ($23.95). If, like certain dining companions I could mention, you can't decide between steak and lobster, then go with the surf and turf ($32.95). This dish is utterly in touch with itself — it's even described as "traditional" on the menu. And of course, no matter what your age, it's tough to complain about eight ounces of perfectly cooked lobster tail supplemented with five ounces of similarly impressive beef filet.

It should come as no surprise, though, that my favorite menu item came from the "Asian style" section of the bisected menu. The flavorful Grand Marnier grouper ($18.95) featured fresh, herb-encrusted grouper fried to a crispy golden brown and served with a sort of Asian "ketchup" sweet-and-sour sauce made with Grand Marnier. The luscious and unusual sauce proved a perfect foil to the mild, almost sweet white flesh of a fresh grouper filet. All of these entrees are served with a side of grilled veggies and your choice of rice or potatoes. I chose a side of steak fries sprinkled with Parmesan cheese, an addition that elevated the potatoes above the level of simple french fries.

A variety of desserts are prepared daily in the restaurant's kitchen, and another fun little Pepper Mill tradition dictates that diners are served chocolate-dipped strawberries as a prelude to their final course. During my visit, the chocolatey fruit completely satisfied my sweet tooth.

The Pepper Mill has a great early-bird (they call it "prime time") menu that runs from 2:30 to 5:45 p.m. Monday through Saturday (2-5:45 p.m. on Sundays), with entrees ranging from $9.95 to $16.95. In addition, it holds a Sunday Buffet brunch that brings in a crowd of regulars drawn to the restaurant's homey style. The ambiance extends to every aspect of the Pepper Mill, from the décor to the menu to the fine quality of service. My server was polite and eager to please, and during my visit I saw him greet repeat customers as if they were old friends. It serves the Pepper Mill well to play to its strengths — a bright, comfortable spot with a few surprises on its menu for the more open-minded among its tradition-loving clientele. A little bit of Asian fusion gives this cute, quality restaurant a modern, but very suitable, dash of spice.

Contact freelance food critic Diana Peterfreund at [email protected].

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