When Hemingway's Key West Grille first opened in 1996 -- actually, it sort of reopened, since a Hemingway's (minus the words "Key West Grille") occupied the same building on Old South Gaylord from 1977 to 1985 -- the author must have been rolling over in his grave. I know a meal there made me feel like I was headed for an early one, since the raw food was of poor quality and the cooked food was lousy ("A Removable Feast," January 23, 1997).
But today Papa would be proud of his namesake. Chef Randy Pyren has been running the kitchen for the past nine months, and he clearly knows what he's doing. The fish he's buying is top-quality, the food coming off the grill is done right, and sundry other items, from vegetable sides to cocktail sauce, are all well-prepared. Finally, meals here are a match for the atmosphere, which looked cool from the start.
Current owner Max Barber took five years to renovate the building that first had been the Marine Bar and Grill (from 1947-1965), then Hemingway's, and then collected dust for eleven years. Barber decided to merge the original nautical theme with Ernest Hemingway's passion for Key West, and, like the island, the resulting space -- low-key, comfortable and filled with nautical knickknacks -- looked ideal for heavy drinking and good-natured carrying on.
Now it's a good spot for eating, too. The peel-and-eat shrimp ($6.99 for a half pound) were fresh and flavorful and got an extra boost from Hemingway's housemade cocktail sauce, which is heavy on the horseradish. The oysters ($6 for a half dozen) were tops; they're even better at happy hour (3-6 p.m. Monday through Friday), when they cost 50 cents apiece. And these weren't the teeny, smooshy, metal-tasting things that often pass for oysters around these parts, but large specimens in all their raw glory.
When cooking's called for, Hemingway's meets that challenge, too. The crabcakes ($9.95), while more tampered with than I usually like, were still packed with sweet crab flavor; a deep-fried order (you can also get them sautéed) arrived with a gloriously golden crust. Accompanying the two cakes was an aioli redolent with roasted garlic (it deepened the flavor more than raw garlic, which is often used in aioli), as well as a crunchy, creamy chayote-squash slaw.
Seafood bisque ($3.50 a cup) requires careful attention in the kitchen; otherwise, the creamy base can scald or thicken too much over the course of a day. Hemingway's version, teeming with bay scallops and lobster and crab bits, had a rich, sherry-spiked taste that came from brewing long enough for the various elements to blend, but not so long that it became pasty. While the Caesar ($5.95) we paired with the bisque sported a very, very garlicky, creamy dressing that could have used a little salt, it made for an otherwise solid salad.
Our entree order netted a few winners. The fish and chips ($9.50) were fresh, not frozen, and the tender pieces of cod were beautifully battered in a thick beer concoction that had been fried golden-brown and held little pools of good grease in the crispy waves. The blackened swordfish ($16.95) was actually blackened, not tortured, so that inside, the steak was still soft and juicy, and not the dry jerky that a thick piece of fish often becomes. The side of pineapple salsa was sweet and sharp, ideal for balancing out fiery Cajun seasonings. But the best item we reeled in was the king crab legs ($31.95), a one-and-a-quarter-pound serving of the limbs, impeccably steamed so that they were still moist. (On Sundays, those crab legs are all-you-can-eat for $29.95.)
A few years ago, I was ready to throw Hemingway's back into the sea of Denver dining. But now I'm hooked: This place is a keeper.
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