Back in the 1950s, Key West was the stuff of a cigar aficionado's dreams. A night out meant dinner and a Cuban cigar on the waterfront, a short flight over the Florida Straits, and gambling in Havana until dawn. Life was free and festive, and Pan-American, the Tropicana and Alonzo & Berlin's Lobster House were the institutions of the day. Then things changed.
More than 50 years after it opened, the A & B Lobster House is making a comeback. A local restaurateur, Paul Tripp, recently rebuilt the waterfront structure, with a commitment to its legacy. As the supper-club pianist plays yesterday's tunes, and yachts and schooners bob in the bight below, the line between A & B's past and present is indeed blurred. Class never goes out of style, and Tripp, the A & B's new owner, knows this. "With the A & B, I wanted to evoke the elegance and dining sophistication that made it famous as the place for lobster and seafood," says Tripp, who owns five other island restaurants, including the celebrated Half Shell Raw Bar.
Tripp, who is partial to Cuban Cohibas, gets what he wants. The sleek character of the original establishment--Alonzo Cothron and Berlin Felton's fish house, established in 1947--has been preserved and given a retro-sophisticated twist. The look is cool, somewhat Rick's Cafe. Inside are ceiling fans and terrazzo tile; shadows mark personal space. Outside, the deck is shaded and the tropical breeze keeps temperatures comfortable. Photos on the walls capture Key West when green turtles populated the ocean like daisies in a field and Cuban bands played Duval Street clubs on Saturday night.
But looks aren't everything. As before, the key to A & B's success is its seafood. Focusing on freshness and traditional tastes, chef Konrad Jochum holds true to fish house classics. Stews, pan roasts and bisques are his specialties. Formerly at Charley's Crab in Palm Beach, Jochum relocated to Key West, where "the shrimp tastes the best." The seafood can't get much fresher: yellowfin tuna, black grouper, Florida lobster, stone crab claws and Key West shrimp are supplied daily from Tripp's fish house. Live Maine lobster, Prince Edward Island mussels and Black Angus beef are flown in throughout the week.
At a white-linen covered table laid with sturdy New England-style silver and café china, several dishes make an impression. The house specialty, oysters Rockefeller, arrives warm from the oven, the spinach fresh and the Narragansett Bay oysters plump, with a hint of Pernod. The highly recommended lobster pan roast is excellent. Speckled with cilantro and red pepper, the hearty bites of slow-roasted lobster (not quite the medallions described) have been added to a broth of fresh herbs, cream and sherry. With the house-baked olive bread and a glass of Kenwood Jack London Merlot--chosen from the extensive list of entirely domestic labels--the pan roast is a meal in itself.
On an island where culinary trends run wild and complexity has become overbearing, Jochum offers a breath of simplicity in his tastes. A thick piece of sesame-seared tuna imparts the flavor of sashimi, with just enough pan heat to enhance the buttery texture. This dish is complemented with crisp sugar peas, mashed potatoes, pickled ginger and wasabi vinaigrette, which is a tad too sweet. The six-ounce filet mignon and the Florida lobster are prepared with a light hand. Cooked to perfection, the flavors are basic and the textures superb. The dish is excellent with the Rodney Strong Merlot. Desserts, made on the premises, feature featherlight pastries and fresh fruit.
Adjacent to the dining room is Tripp's pièce de résistance, the aspect of the A & B that will trigger nostalgia in even the stodgiest of patrons. Berlin's Cigar & Cocktail Bar is the swankiest spot on the island. "I wanted it to be a men's club, to have a masculine feel to it," says Tripp.
The elements for mental relaxation and sensual indulgence are in place. The intimate room is characterized by mahogany walls devoid of artwork and plush dusty-olive banquettes and carpet. Reasonably priced Partagas, Dunhills and Montecristos are stored in the humidor, and the bar is stocked with an excellent selection of Ports, sherries and Cognacs. Berlin's is the perfect place to sit back, savor a cigar and float back in time.--Ann Boese
Ann Boese is a writer based in Key West.
ALONZO & BERLIN'S LOBSTER HOUSE
700 Front Street Phone (305) 294-5880 Dinner $70 per person, without wine