Salt Cracker Fish Camp looks like a giant, sleek, white-and-silver, three-tiered rectangular wedding cake. As one of the latest restaurants from Frank Chivas’s Baystar Restaurant Group, it rises majestically from the asphalt at the Clearwater Beach Marina, just south of the roundabout as you exit the Memorial Causeway. There, it’s surrounded on all sides by dozens of parking meters; I imagine them as Dickensian orphans standing upright, hungry for your quarters. Instead of having to feed the beast every 30 minutes, however, the Camp offers a $2 parking tag, so you may stuff your face without interruption.
Once you snag your pass just inside the main door, you may opt for the brisk air-conditioned interior, or, if the Florida sunshine is at full beam, ascend to the outdoor terrace to stare at the boats lining the marina. There is no extra charge for an ample side dish of nautical envy.
The Camp is open daily, beginning with a wide-ranging 7 a.m. breakfast each morning, segueing to lunch and dinner at noon. We wander in at dinnertime in search of classic fare and immediately pick three “dockside snacks.”
The smoked fish camp dip is a chunky mix with bits of red pepper, celery and a touch of mayo to bind it all together. There’s light smoke on the palate, allowing the fish to predominate as it’s heaped on Saltine crackers. The spread is standard-issue, unlike the fried green tomatoes, which come as a mini cast-iron skillet filled with little bite-size triangles to dip in a mild remoulade. It’s an interesting, tasty choice that makes the dish easy to share.
We skip oysters, shrimp and chowder to focus on a quartet of warm Southern hush puppies. The four perfect dark-golden orbs are light and airy, indicating more flour than cornmeal in the batter. I’m used to a denser texture, so this takes me by surprise, but these are quite enjoyable, even without the accompanying pimento cheese fondue. Actually, fondue — as it’s called on the menu — is a misnomer. While the cheese is soft, it’s not at all liquid (you need to add it on with a knife). Either way, they’re a hit, and we’re now fully primed for entrees.
The chicken and waffles is impressive. It’s served “Mack the Knife”-style with a huge blade impaling the crisp, sweet tea-brined breasts and assuring they remain firmly on top of hot, crispy golden Belgian waffles. There’s a bit of black pepper bacon butter and, of course, maple syrup — we ask for some more and our attentive server is happy to oblige.
Obviously, a big lure of the Camp is the fresh catch “direct from our own fleet of dayboats fishing right off our shores.” In our case, it’s grilled grouper (also available blackened or fried, though when you have a great piece of fish, I highly encourage you to stay simple to taste the catch in all its glory). This fish comes with rustic, well-seasoned red-skinned whipped potatoes that are chunky, firm and dotted with pieces of skin. There’s also a tablespoon of “Aztec corn” with onion and red pepper. It’s flavorful, if fleeting; the size of the serving seems like an afterthought.
The stuffed bone-in pork chop fills a tiny slot with cubes of spicy andouille sausage, caramelized onions and Swiss. Sadly, peeking out from under the yummy red-eye gravy is a totally incinerated piece of pork when a slight char will do. It’s the kind of culinary faux pas that Gordon Ramsay would reject at the pass and send screaming back to the line chefs of Hell’s Kitchen. How it got to my table, I’ll never know. Cooked properly, this should work — but someone should’ve seen the burnt chop and sent it back to be refired.
I’m surprised at this, because the manager on duty during our visit is clearly paying attention to detail, coaching the servers who are less experienced and moving around with great skill to be sure the dining room is humming.
The current menu offers three desserts, but two of them differ from an earlier menu posted on Yelp after the Camp opened. The constant is key lime pie à la meringue, which we order but are told is not available. When you only offer three desserts, it’s not good for one of them to be out of stock. We try the others, both served in a small cast-iron skillet.
Although the bananas Foster bread pudding, featuring caramel sauce and powdered sugar, is warm and pleasant, it certainly could use some of the cream or ice cream that’s such an essential part of this classic. The offering is one-dimensional as is. The house-made cinnamon roll comes hot from the oven with molten sweet cream cheese icing. Its cinnamon-laced dough is soft and hard to cut when it first arrives, and the tangy icing drips since it hasn’t had time to set. This dessert is one that improves as it has a chance to cool. I would’ve loved to taste the banished apple crisp and chocolate chess pie.
Quibbles and misfires aside, Salt Cracker exceeds most other similar beachside cuisine.
Jon Palmer Claridge dines anonymously when reviewing. Check out the explanation of his rating system.