In the 1880s, an entrepreneur named Henry Shearer thought he could make a buck by raising wild boars on a barrier island off the coast of the Pinellas peninsula. His experiment on Hog Island backfired, however, when 100 or so coastal residents decided to incorporate Dunedin in 1899 to control the hogs who, by then, were running rampant and freely through the city streets.
Then, in 1921, a hurricane blew through St. Joseph Sound. The high winds and storm surge carved through the heart of Hog Island, creating Hurricane Pass to separate the southern beach, which we now call Caladesi. But it wasn’t until 1939, when a New York developer built 50 honeymoon bungalows with thatched palm roofs, that the northern part got its current name.
Honeymoon Island State Park is one of the great natural wonders of the Bay area. It’s been shielded from the “progress” that’s turned so many of our beautiful beaches from sand to condo havens over the past half century. So the decision of chef Walt Wickham (whom locals will recognize from Olde Bay Café) to invoke Dunedin’s roots and the communal legacy of the Great Depression by calling his new restaurant Hog Island Fish Camp must have been music to the ears of Old Florida aficionados — those who shed a tear when Sam’s Fresh Seafood closed in this spot last summer.
Now, as you enter the parking lot just north of Main Street, a sailboat is chained to a towering oak. There’s a huge marlin on the wall, and large communal outdoor porch tables, made with single, long, bark-edged center-cut boards sawn from a tall tree. There’s atmosphere galore.
As for food, the starters are what you might imagine from a fish camp: oysters, crab, mussels and three kinds of fish dip. We can’t resist the stone crab claws, which, for someone who spent most of his life working ever so diligently to make a meal of tiny Chesapeake Bay blue crabs, are pure nirvana. They’re available warm or cold, but I don’t think you can top dipping hot, cracked claws of sweet crab into warm, melted butter. It’s a great culinary joy where we live.
The restaurant also does a bang-up job with fried green tomatoes, topping the warm, thick slices of cornmeal-crusted fruit with plump, juicy shrimp and spicy remoulade with an arresting Cajun kick. And with the beer cheese soup, emphasizing the latter under a bacon garnish.
The salt and pepper-fried hogfish entree is simple and delicious. Wickham’s approach is to season lightly and let the local, fresh fish speak for itself. Hogfish is a sweet, firm white fish; the taste shines despite its less-than-appetizing name. Slightly fancier are the other fish entrees, which, whether they’re grilled or broiled, share “salty Southern” country roots. Our perfectly moist mahi mahi pairs beautifully with grilled zucchini and roasted tomato butter dotted with whole grape tomatoes, their skins shriveled and ready to pop once they hit your mouth.
If you’re less enamored of local seafood, Hog Island also offers land-bound options of hanger steak, roasted pork with bourbon, and made-to-order Southern-style fried chicken. I’m sorely tempted by the sound of venison with blueberry-sherry gastrique, but that will have to wait. What captures my eye and heart is the buttermilk fried quail. This little game bird is seldom seen, yet devoutly to be wished for. Wickham’s version is a dream combo. His slightly sweet, cast-iron skillet corn bread is split in half to frame a pile of braised greens that retain some body and provide a vinegary kick to contrast the smooth, smoky sawmill milk gravy. Resting proudly on top is a juicy, flavor-packed quail fried in crispy buttermilk batter. I, historically, have not been a fan of cooked greens, but these flavors are arrestingly good.
We also can’t resist a couple of sides served in tiny cast-iron skillets. The butter bean fregula combines tiny limas with bits of Sardinian pasta, made from a semolina dough that’s oven toasted to resemble corn niblets. The plate could use another dimension with onions or leeks, plus some more seasoning. It’s a great idea, but doesn’t have nearly the flavor of the mac and cheese. That tiny skillet has a five-cheese sauce, including fontina and provolone, that coats tubular rigatoni, larger than most pastas used in the popular side.
The only disappointments are the house-made sweets. Though there is no dessert menu, the mason jar parfait, supposedly filled with “salted caramel mousse” alternating with crushed Oreos, is a gloppy mess. The thick filling seems to be a sweet cream cheese amalgam without a hint of salt or caramel. The whipped cream on top is delicious, but this one is totally skippable. Slightly better is a slab of peanut butter mousse with “chocolate ganache.” While the filling is creamy and flavorful, the bottom is a thin chocolate base with no ganache in sight. It’s finished with a layer of chocolate crumbs and peanut butter chips. Unless you’re a Reese’s fiend, stick to an imported dessert from Mike’s Pies; key lime is a tart wonder.
The rest of Hog Island’s lineup is so pleasing, the laid-back environment so appealing, and the Cigar City hard cider and mead so refreshing, that I can’t get too worked up about a few deficiencies. I can’t wait to return.
Jon Palmer Claridge dines anonymously when reviewing. Check out the explanation of his rating system.