Photo by John D. Ivanko/farmsteadchef.com
Fresh lionfish stuffed with shrimp and scallops and encrusted with Japanese breadcrumbs is signature dish at Castaway Waterfront Restaurant & Sushi Bar.
At some seafood restaurants, the “fresh catch” might come from hundreds of miles away or arrive frozen (or even mislabeled), but at Castaway Waterfront Restaurant and Sushi Bar in Marathon, Fla., avid spear fisherman John Mirabella serves up the catch he spears during his deep-sea dives. We celebrated our last Valentine’s Day at Castaway, and the meal was delicious, local, fresh and shared with the ones we love—the way all meals should be.
Mirabella is Captain Nemo meets Ernest Hemingway. A modern-day spear fisherman, he takes his spear gun and scuba gear to bank reefs and shipwrecks in search of his prey, especially lionfish. “The great thing about spear fishing is there is no bycatch and we don’t kill or throw anything back that might not survive,” Mirabella notes. “Every shot is intentionally and always used for food.”
GPS coordinates for wrecks or other underwater structures where fish tend to congregate, feed, breed and eat are worth something in the Keys. “These coordinates and the location of these wrecks are like treasure,” Mirabella explains.
Mirabella is on a mission, along with many of his diving buddies, to rid the reef of the troublesome, invasive lionfish that are eating the baby and juvenile fish that draw millions of divers, snorkelers and those eager to cast a line for some of the best fishing in the nation. “We prepare lionfish many ways cooked—and also as sushi,” he says.
We caught Mirabella cleaning his day’s catch outside Castaway, which he co-owns with his wife, Arlene. (She’s is a diver, too, but tends to cover his back while he moves in for a kill.) “He loves to dive and go hunting with a spear,” Arlene Mirabella says. “He’d do it eight days a week.”
Castaway probably serves more lionfish than any other restaurant in the Florida Keys, but other items are on the menu, as well. Alrene’s Filipino-heritage-inspired fried lumpia pork spring rolls, for example, make a great appetizer. Her talent for baking also led the restaurant to serve her versions of a New York-style cheesecake and key lime pie for dessert.
There’s a reason Castaway has been around since 1951. It’s not its less-than-idyllic location: a canal surrounded by the tailings of commercial fishing operations, with lobster traps piled high. It’s the food you’ll taste here. Under the Mirabella’s vision, the restaurant’s original signature dish, beer-boiled shrimp, is but one of many fresh seafood items on the menu.
“When we bought the restaurant in 1999, about 70 percent of the sales were steamed shrimp,” Mirabella says. Raised on a sailboat and having worked in a nuclear-powered submarine for years, he set sail with Arlene and happened upon the restaurant; they soon decided to become restaurateurs, leaving their corporate jobs behind. “When we bought the restaurant, it was the first time that I had not lived on a boat since I was 9 years old,” he recalls.
Starting out as a 40-seat restaurant with a tiny screened in porch, the restaurant today can serve 150 patrons from an expansive menu, which includes a diversity of seasonal seafood dishes, caught locally if not by Mirabella himself. The restaurant also includes a sushi bar and perhaps the largest selection of beers on tap (33 and counting) anywhere in the Keys.
And most meals come with honey buns, hot from the fryer and with honey for dipping.
At this central-Keys restaurant and bar, you’ll find local retirees, commercial fishermen and island-hopping travelers feasting at a cozy booth, parked on a stool at the tiki bar, or kicking back at their outdoor seating that overlooks the canal and marauding pelicans in search for their next fish dinner along the docks. “The most demanding customers are the local fisherman and residents. They know seafood,” Mirabella admits.
He’s seen it all in his business. Hurricanes aside, in 2006, a section of the floor his restaurant suddenly collapsed in the middle of dinner due to the building’s poor construction in the 1960s. The disaster that might have closed most restaurants led to the renewal of Castaway, with a large new dining area, plus bathrooms that included waterless urinals to conserve water.
“The locals really supported us through the ordeal and helped us to stay busy while our seating was limited during re-construction,” Mirabella says.
Last week, we featured Castaway’s award-winning Mazatlan-style fish preparation, a creamy, white-wine and basil sauce served atop lionfish or snapper with artichoke hearts, tomatoes, mushrooms and scallions, served with lightly steamed vegetables, sweet potato fries and a salad topped with their own ginger dressing. A dish that’s a close runner’s up is their Wreck Diver, shared below.
Recipe: Castaway’s Wreck Diver-style Lionfish
Yield: 6 servings
Turn over fish when golden, and reduce heat while adding garlic, tomatoes, capers, white wine and lemon juice. Cover to hold steam in and cook until fish is fork-tender. Add basil and serve immediately.
Garnish with sprig of parsley or kale and lemon wedge.
Savoring the good life,