I’ve decided to change my first name to something so mysterious, so captivating that restaurateur Mark Caragiulo would design a restaurant after me. Changing my name is probably the only way it would ever happen. Seriously, would you go to a restaurant named Jill?
Veronica’s Fish and Oyster Bar is one of the newest restaurants in the Hillview District, taking over the spot where Sam Snead’s thrived for over a decade. So, when following an icon like the legendary golfer Sam Snead, restauranteur Mark Caragiulo, (legendary in his own right,) knew he needed to completely change the image of the restaurant and create something so spectacular you’d forget where you were and just focus on the food and ambiance.
Welcome to Veronica’s Fish and Oyster Bar. One of over a dozen restaurants designed by Mark Caragiulo. And, no . . . there isn’t an actual woman named Veronica.
It was actually Elvis Costello who inspired Caragiulo with the name Veronica, the title of a song Costello wrote in homage to his grandmother, who suffered from dementia and memory loss. For Caragiulo, the inspiration in the song is the lost love of the eponymous Veronica, pining her life away, waiting for a young man who set out on a sea voyage, never to return. Caragiulo’s Veronica is lost in elusions of a life she would never know, longing for everything the sea took away from her. But instead of fighting against the sea, she embraces it . . . honoring her lost love with a love affair for the bounties of the ocean, each taste a reflection of the love she’ll never let go. That’s a pretty dramatic basis to build a restaurant on, don’t you agree?
Veronica’s Fish and Oyster Bar features . . . you guessed it . . . a chilled raw bar packed with shellfish, and other delicacies. But it’s the cocktail bar that grabs your attention when first you enter. It stretches a good half of the length of the restaurant, with stylish sofas and comfortable seating grouped nearby. A metal sculpture of a mermaid hangs over the bar where it makes a 90-degree turn, separating the bar from the raw bar, a siren overlooking the preparation of crustacean and cocktails below her.
The back wall of the restaurant features a mural of the fictitious Veronica, her soft green eyes ever watching for her beloved’s ship on the horizon. Her look would be haunting if it weren’t for the distraction of the music, clinking cocktail glasses and the aroma coming from the kitchen. I’m guessing Caragiulo fell in love with Veronica a bit . . . there’s certainly a lot of love coming from the kitchen and wait staff. You can just taste it!
We were a party of four when we visited Veronica’s. Mart and I were guests of our client’s trustee, who took us out to dinner as thanks, in part, for overseeing the renovations of one of their properties. Working out of Tennessee, they clearly knew what they wanted for dinner. “When in Florida, shouldn’t you be having seafood,” they asked. But of course!
Having been to Veronica’s before, we knew the portions were good sized, so we all focused on entrees, by passing the tantalizing small plates offered on the menu.
Our host, Allen, decided to try the Wood Grilled Corvina, a fish he hadn’t tried before. Served in a lemony broth, and topped with Crawfish Giardiniera, his Corvina set atop a velvety Cauliflower Puree. Allen was delighted with the flavor of the fish, describing it as similar to sea bass in flavor. It has a mild, sweet taste with firm flaked meat that soaks up the flavors of Veronica’s sauce. (I almost ordered it myself!)
Henry ordered the Bouillabaisse, the weekly special on Monday nights, and I knew immediately how happy he was with his dish. Once he started eating it was like he’d zoned out into another world. He did not say a single word throughout the rest of his meal, so focused was he as he cleaned out the mussels and clams featured in his dish, dunking crunchy crostinis into the savory, saffron-flavored broth. Seasoned with fresh onions, tomatoes, olive oil, fennel, thyme, scallions, and other spices I can only imagine, we had one happy dinner companion in our midst.
I could NOT resist ordering the Two Crab Fazzoletti, a pasta dish featuring both Dungeness Crab and Blue Crab, absolutely swimming in a wild mushroom and truffle butter sauce. Served with sliced grilled asparagus (is there any better kind?) and Pecorino cheese, I was overcome with the scope of flavor in this dish. The pasta was obviously freshly made, with just the right amount of chew, but . . . to be honest, Veronica’s had me at “truffle butter.” It’s a flavor I absolutely adore, and it couldn’t have been better paired than with the large chunks of mushrooms and pasta. The crab flavor stood on its own, but I’d have ordered this dish for the sauce alone. I love, love, loved it! (Didn’t I say there was a lot of love coming out of the kitchen?)
Mart walked in the door knowing he’d be ordering the whole fish, which featured the day’s fresh catch, in this case, a yellow tail snapper. There are two preparation options for whole fish at Veronica’s . . . a Thai Crispy presentation or a Chimichurri version. Mart chose the Thai because he really wanted to try the pickled green mango salad that came with it, along with fresh butter lettuce and Nuoc Cham, a sweet dipping sauce with hints of chilies and garlic.
The presentation of the fresh fish is always a treat, and fortunately, Mart knew how to remove the fins, separating the tail and the head from the body of the fish, and then slicing along the spine, gently separating the meatier dorsal half of the fillet from the bones. If you feel particularly unskilled at deboning a whole fish, I’m sure you could ask your server for a little tutoring. Our server hovered around just long enough to know Mart was able to enjoy his dish, sans fish bones, without assistance!
While we chose to bypass appetizers, we didn’t get past Allen ordering a dessert. I wish I remembered all the dessert choices that night, but I won’t forget the Chocolate Key Lime Cheesecake. Allen graciously ordered four spoons so we could all taste his dessert. And believe you me . . . it was delicious. I loved the shaved lime zest over the whip cream topping, the milky chocolate dripping down the sides of the key lime cheesecake. It was creamy and tart and chocolate goodness all wrapped into one dynamite bite . . . or two. (But who’s counting, right?)
All in all, Veronica’s Fish and Oyster Bar is the ideal spot to treat yourself to an over the top seafood dinner. There are a few fowl and land lubber offerings on the menu, but if you want seafood worth pining over, you’ll want to set your sights on Veronica’s. Check out their website for their weekly specials, like Lobster Thursdays or Meatloaf on Sundays. . . or stop by the bar for small plates or a sampling from their raw bar. Veronica’s is quickly becoming the hippest place to discover other fish in the sea!