Cedar Reef Fish Camp had us at the Pickle Bites appetizer, and that was before we set foot in the restaurant. My dining companion, Cathy, and I were perusing their menu online, and since she had just tried her first fried pickle the week prior these were of particular interest. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Cedar Reef Fish Camp is located in the Venice Village Shoppes at the intersection of Jacaranda and U.S. 41, three doors north of Publix. Parking is no problem. The restaurant itself is relatively small, with a short bar in the back, booths lining two walls, and a row of tables down the center. There is outdoor seating on the sidewalk that’s great for people watching or taking in the sunset. Inside, the sunny yellow walls feature surfboards, chalkboards touting the specials of the day, and original artwork, some of which appeared to be for sale. Strings of globe lights crisscross overhead. Tables are covered with white paper, flatware comes in a plastic wrapper, and there is a roll of paper towels at every table (always a good sign at a down-home, Southern-style “fish camp”). There is free wi-fi that can be accessed with a clever password. It feels as if the place has been around forever, though it was just opened in July 2011 by owner Dean Donnelly.

Dean has spent years in the restaurant business, managing places like Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. and, closer to home, the Anna Maria Oyster Bar locations. He cordially visits his patrons making sure they’re having a great experience, then dashes back to the kitchen. The staff, hustling on this very busy evening, was equally friendly and attentive, and even though this was my first visit I felt like family.

The Pickle Bites ($5.50), which we ordered along with the Smashers appetizer ($5.00), were more than worthy of our pre-visit fantasizing. A large portion of bite-sized, deep fried, crispy, crunchy, salty dill pickle chunks came served in a basket with ranch dressing for dipping. The light batter held onto the pickles nicely in the dipping process. It’s a peeve of mine when the batter comes off the item being dipped and leaves the dip itself filled with batter bits. That did not happen here. Both Cathy and I noted that the pickles were of very good quality. The Smashers are also served in a basket and look like hush puppies, but they are Cedar Reef’s housemade smashed red skin potatoes mixed with cheese which is then rolled into fritters and deep fried—far more delicious than hush puppies. Smashers come with a dipping sauce that tasted like Thousand Island dressing which had been spiced up a bit.

A basket of two lightly herbed, cheesy drop biscuits was brought out along with our appetizers, and of course I had to sample them so I could provide you with a full report of my experience. They. Are. Good. The butter pats were thoughtfully placed beneath them in the basket to soften up a bit. If I had a southern grandmother, I imagine she would have made these.

Before we made our entrée choices, Cathy asked our server, Angie, if there was a favorite dish of their guests. Without hesitation she replied, “The Cedar Plank Salmon—it’s ree-dic-u-lous.” She went on to explain that they make everything they possibly can from scratch, and use local products as much as possible. Points for Cedar Reef! I love ridiculously delicious food that’s prepped fresh. Who doesn’t?

When our three—yes, three—entrees were delivered to our table, we had the attention of the entire restaurant so it was at that point I had to explain that I was writing an article for the magazine. People began calling out their favorite dishes, I kid you not, offering suggestions of what we should try. I replied that the three large dishes in front of us would probably be enough. Some people questioned what was in the bigger-than-your face bowl; it was the Homemade Lobster Lasagna ($14.50). Bearing the description of “chunks of lobster tail and scallops baked with four cheeses, garlic, spices and vodka cream sauce,” I could not resist. The tall slab of lasagna was at least five inches square, stuffed with seafood, and resting in an abundance of rich vodka crème sauce which nicely complemented the flavor of the lobster rather than competing with it. It’s also a very cheesy dish and nearly impossible to eat without strings of cheese finding their way onto your chin.

The Cedar Plank Salmon ($14.50) really was ridiculously divine and served piping hot on a cedar plank alongside naked (sans gravy) housemade smashed potatoes and a garnish of steamed carrots. The fish is marinated in a mouth-watering blend of bourbon, soy, pineapple and sesame and then baked on a cedar plank to add a hint of smoky flavor. This was a perfectly cooked large cut of salmon full of sweet and savory flavor. No wonder it’s so popular.

Our third entrée choice was the Surfboard Fried Chicken ➤ ($10): a full breast of crispy battered chicken that also came with smashed potatoes and carrots. The chicken sported the right amount of Marsala gravy as did the potatoes, and I was thankful the food wasn’t drowning in it. Here again the batter was light, crisp and just enough to keep the chicken breast moist and tender inside. Another fine selection from the vast Cedar Reef menu.

After nearly every bite of these delicious dishes, there were sounds of appreciation and comments such as, “I bet their wings are really good,” “I bet their oysters are really good,” “I bet their shrimp and grits is really good.” In fact, I bet there is not an ordinary-tasting item on the entire menu.

After a few deep breaths and two boxes for our leftovers, we had to try the Key Lime Crème Brulee ($5.00) for dessert. This won out over the Mousse Sampler, Smores and Peanut Butter Pie, all offered for the same price. (I bet the Peanut Butter Pie is really good.) After working my way through three generously-portioned entrées, I should not have been surprised that the crème brulee was also, well, large. After breaking through the crusty caramelized top, you find a light, tangy, smooth, teasing lime custard. As Cathy tasted her first bite of this unique offering, she looked like a woman with a juicy secret. Just then Dean swung by our booth again and said, “You know, everyone makes Key lime pie. I like to put a twist on things. I had never made crème brulee in my life but I knew darn well I could.” That was it—I officially fell in love with Cedar Reef Fish Camp, and when I got home I liked them on Facebook.

The prices here are unbelievably reasonable for what you get. I can easily see these same types of dishes being offered at other places for considerably more . . . and without the quality, passion and attention to detail that Dean serves his customers. The variety of menu offerings is quite astounding, too, and it shows a sense of humor: Don’t Peel, Just Eat shrimp; Devilish Eggs; Bubba’s Wedgie salad; Oyster Rich Boy sandwich; Reef Debris seafood boil; Ribbit Sticks frog legs; Smothered Clucker; and Fancy Schmancy oysters, offered six different ways in addition to raw. If you like to eat, Cedar Reef Fish Camp is paradise.

A final point not to be overlooked is that this is a dog-friendly establishment, which was in evidence by the number of dogs tethered to the outdoor tables of their human companions. Plenty of water bowls were set outside and some of the dogs had been treated to a Cedar Reef doggie dinner. Humans can select either a chicken-and-rice or a beef-and-rice dinner for their canines for a small charge. Dean told me he owns three rescue dogs, earning the establishment even more points in my book.

Cedar Reef Fish Camp

4167 S. Tamiami Trail, Venice

941.451.8564  cedarreef.com

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