Florida Keys Business
Sunday, May 25, 2014
Off the Hook and on the map

What happens when three veteran restaurant workers grow weary of working for other people and bored with the menu mainstays of so many local eateries?

Off the Hook happens.

The little restaurant at the corner of Simonton and Petronia streets is admittedly small in size, but is big on taste and ingenuity.

"The three of us all sort of mixed our own styles, personalities and preferences to create something that's unlike anywhere else in town," said Sophia Kloeber, whose Greek heritage provided the homegrown recipes for Off the Hook's spanakopita, hummus, gyros and baklava.

Kloeber, Chef Patti Cassavell and Deuce Jones had worked together at another place in town, and happy hour talk about opening their own place became a reality for the trio on Nov. 18, when Off the Hook Grill opened -- and ended the revolving door of restaurants that had occupied the small space at 728 Simonton St. since Dorothy's Deli closed nearly 15 years ago.

"Pasta in Paradise was the last thing here," said Jones. "It wasn't even open a year, and the place has been empty since then."

The Off the Hook trio gutted the place, eliminated the cramped drop ceiling, replaced the display cases with an eight-seat bar and lined one wall with bench seating, procured from a church in Miami.

"On the back of this bench, are still the slots for the hymnals," Jones said. "But this arrangement was really the best way to maximize our space, and it gives us the flexibility to push tables together for various groups. People have repeatedly said they feel like they're in a little pub in Greenwich Village."

And that works for the owners of Off the Hook, who hail from the Philadelphia area (Kloeber), North Jersey (Cassavell) and Tennessee (Jones).

And the eclectic menu is as diverse as the owners' backgrounds. In addition to the Greek specialties, the menu also features appetizers of fried green tomatoes, ahi tuna, smoked fish dip, mussels, a beet salad and chicken wings with a choice of eight sauces.

And nothing is as you'll find it in other restaurants.

The fried green tomatoes, for example, are perfectly crisped, and then topped with a lump of crab meat and a mango mint dressing.

And don't forget the duck bacon appetizer.

That's right -- thick-cut and applewood smoked duck bacon. You can get it with pancakes at breakfast, on a burger or pizza at lunchtime, or as an all-day appetizer served with a spicy ginger dipping sauce.

Lunch and dinner options include hand-tossed, thin crust pizzas, fish sandwiches, a seared ahi tuna BLT wrap, an open-faced lobster pot pie sandwich and the ever-popular Gobbler.

"We take sage stuffing and put it into a waffle iron, so you have a waffle made from stuffing, and we top that with an entire Thanksgiving dinner -- roasted turkey, bacon smashed potatoes and rosemary gravy," Jones said.

"We wanted to do things you wouldn't find anywhere else in town," Kloeber said.

And they've succeeded.

Take the fish sandwich. It's perhaps Key West's most ubiquitous menu item -- it's on every menu in every restaurant.

But at Off the Hook it's not just grilled, blackened or fried. It's coconut-crusted and topped with a mango jalapeno salsa.

"My whole family has always been cooks," Cassavell said. "I'm self-taught, and I love making things with a little twist, like baked clams topped with duck bacon. Or a peach cobbler topped with duck bacon whipped cream. None of us wanted to open a restaurant that had the same menu as a hundred other places."

Macaroni and cheese on the dinner menu is actually gnocchi lobster mac and cheese with lobster meat and gnocchi smothered in cheese and baked with a garlic Parmesan crust.

The fresh grouper dinner entree is served in a French bouillabaisse broth, and the side orders include sweet potato tots.

Vegetarian and gluten-free options are also available.

"We really try to have something for everyone," Kloeber said.

Lunches cost about $13, while dinner entrees range from $14 for the dinner-sized Gobbler to $28 for a 12-ounce New York strip steak.

Oh, and the meal isn't complete without homemade desserts of Greek baklava, mango Key lime pie or dark chocolate-covered banana bread. Cassavell also creates a daily dessert to accompany the day's lunch and dinner specials.

"People are also loving our huevos rancheros at breakfast," Jones said, adding that the bulk of their clientele has been locals thusfar. "Which is fantastic, and is what a local place needs to survive. We each had our own group of friends and a local following, so they came in and told their friends, who told their friends until we had a great local clientele without doing any advertising. We really didn't start getting many tourists until people started posting great reviews on Trip Advisor. Then the tourists found us."

At just six months old, Off the Hook is already packed most days for lunch and dinner reservations are highly recommended.

They're closed Tuesdays, but open for breakfast, lunch and dinner the other six days.

"At lunchtime, we have sports or news on the televisions over the bar," Jones said. "But at dinner time we've been showing old movies."

And the service is impeccable, Kloeber added.

"Not only do we provide great food in a fun atmosphere, but our servers are amazing," she said. "They really care about everyone's experience. They know what they're doing. They're pros."

And finally, the key to success, in addition to great food, is consistency.

"Hey, we know that," Jones said. "And if Chef Patti's not feeling well, we'll close. We won't open the doors that day if we can't be the best we can be."

mmiles@keysnews.com

More Florida Keys Business
Sunday, July 27, 2014
Sunday, July 20, 2014
Sunday, July 13, 2014
Sunday, July 13, 2014
Sunday, July 6, 2014