New food tours offer deep dive into Key West seafood and rum
By LORI RACKL | Chicago Tribune | Published: February 24, 2017
KEY WEST, Fla. -- Chef Paul Menta is passionate about fish and rum, the subjects of colorful stories over the years in his adopted home, the Florida Keys.
Menta is executive chef at The Stoned Crab, a sprawling seafood restaurant in Key West. The Philadelphia native also co-owns a distillery that last year produced about 18,000 bottles of rum, or Key West coffee, as Menta likes to call it. (He says his Key West First Legal Rum is supposed to hit the shelves of Illinois liquor stores in March.)
The boyish, 50-something Menta wears a lot of other hats, too, not to mention a bunch of tattoos and a couple of shark bites. He's a pro kiteboarder, cookbook author and proud officer of the so-called Conch Republic, which "seceded" from the U.S. in the early '80s to protest the federal government's border patrol checks in the Keys.
"I'm the Administer of Rum," Menta says about his role with the satirical micro-nation. "When there's a problem, I administer rum -- and there's not a problem anymore."
A true character on an island full of them, Menta recently took on a new endeavor: giving visitors a literal taste of his culinary passions with a couple of new "eco-foodie" programs. One of them, called Chef Distilled, focuses on rum, while the Three Hands Experience is an in-depth look at the local seafood supply chain, from trawler to table.
"People want to know what goes into making their food, what goes into making their drinks," Menta says. "We want to show them."
The roughly five-hour Chef Distilled experience begins with a tour of Key West First Legal Rum Distillery, located in an old Coca-Cola factory. It's just a few blocks away from Sloppy Joe's Bar, a one-time favorite haunt of another Key West fan of rum and fish: Ernest Hemingway.
Opened three years ago, the distillery is full of Prohibition-era rum-running paraphernalia and rows of wooden barrels dated and personalized by various distillers. (A distiller from Chicago commemorated one of his barrels with a written shoutout to Blackhawks star Patrick Kane.)
Menta walks guests through the rum-making process, stopping to squeeze juice out of fresh Florida sugar cane -- no molasses used here, thank you very much. He points to the bubbling fermentation tanks where yeast is gobbling up the sugar, turning it into alcohol.
"The more vibration, the more production," Menta says. "We play music in here at night to keep the yeast moving."
Guests get to label their own bottle for a sippable souvenir. Then it's off to Menta's Stoned Crab restaurant for a mixology lesson and dinner.
The Three Hands Experience, while sounding more like a spa treatment than a food tour, is named after a sustainable seafood market next to The Stoned Crab.
The premise of Three Hands Fish is that only three sets of hands touch the fish you eat: the fisherman, the market's fillet master, and the individual or restaurant chef that prepares it.
"In the U.S., so much of what we catch, we export, and what we eat, we import, and the quality just isn't the same," says Menta, who met his fiancee while spearfishing. "We're surrounded by some of the best fishing waters in the world. That's the seafood you want to eat when you come to the Keys."
The full seven-hour tour has guests spending time with each of these sets of hands. It starts with a half-day charter fishing trip. The day's catch of grouper, snapper or whatever else you plucked from the water gets taken to the market's fillet master (the second "hand"), who teaches you how to fillet a fish. While you mosey down to your table at The Stoned Crab, Menta prepares your catch and serves it as part of a four-course dinner.
On a sunny December afternoon, Menta took me out on the water for a closer look at where the area's seafood bounty comes from. Several miles off the coast, we caught up with commercial fisherman Zane Osborn as he was hauling lobster and crab traps out of the Gulf of Mexico.
Stone crab season (mid-October to mid-May) was well underway, and Osborn was collecting the crustaceans' fat claws that sell for a pretty penny at restaurants up and down the Keys and around the world. In Florida, these lollipops of juicy crabmeat are typically served cold with mustard sauce or hot with butter.
Wearing thick rubber gloves and bib pants the color of construction zone cones, Osborn held up one of his captive crabs as I teetered on the small boat, trying to keep my balance as the waves bounced us around.
"You turn the claw kind of to the middle and then it just pops loose," he said, yanking the appendage off with a quick, efficient pull. He then chucked the one-armed crab into the water, where its missing limb will grow back.
"We'll catch him again in a year, and he'll have another big claw," Osborn said.
Added Menta: "Seafood doesn't get more sustainable than that."
CHEF DISTILLED: Costs $280 a person, which includes the distillery tour, a bottle of rum, a mixology tutorial at The Stoned Crab's Eco Bar, followed by a four-course seafood dinner. Call 305-296-1043, or email email@example.com to make a reservation for Chef Distilled or the Three Hands Experience. Free 20-minute tours are also offered at Key West First Legal Rum Distillery, 105 Simonton St.; www.keywestlegalrum.com.
THREE HANDS EXPERIENCE: The standard option (without the half-day fishing charter) costs $180 a person and includes time with a commercial fisherman, the market fillet master and a four-course seafood dinner at The Stoned Crab, 3101 N. Roosevelt Blvd.; www.stonedcrab.com. Add $450 regardless of the number of people for the half-day fishing charter.
STAYING THERE: Just steps away from the distillery, the newly refurbished and rebranded Hyatt Centric Key West Resort & Spa is tucked away in a tranquil, waterfront spot that's an easy walk to the Historic Seaport district and raucous Old Town action on Duval Street. The 120-room property overlooking the Gulf of Mexico wrapped up a multimillion dollar renovation last fall that included an expansion of its spa and an overhaul of the Blue Mojito Pool Bar and Grill, a laid-back spot to watch the sun set during happy hour if you've had your fill of the nightly circus at nearby Mallory Square. The refreshed, contemporary guest rooms all have private balconies. Rates start at $359 a night through April and $239 May to November. The $30 resort fee includes a glass of sparkling wine at check-in, Wi-Fi, two bottles of water and morning coffee, among other things. 601 Front St., 305-809-1234, www.keywest.centric.hyatt.com.
MORE: For tourist info about Key West and the Florida Keys in general, go to www.fla-keys.com.