Vol 7 No. 28 - April 4, 2007

Food is divine at the Sign of the Mermaid

Sign of the Mermaid
SUN PHOTO/LIZA MORROW
Ed and Andrea Spring, owners of the Sign of the Mermaid, are celebrating the restaurant’s 15th anniversary.

By Liza Morrow
sun staff writer

If you’re driving up the coastline and find yourself craving the unusual, a place that mixes whimsical décor with serious food, then Sign of the Mermaid is the place. Past a broken stone mermaid, a huge rusty anchor and a sign post with arrows pointing to everywhere from Margaritaville to Egart Island, up four crooked stairs from street level, Sign of the Mermaid is a quirky place at the tip of our Island that serves surprisingly sophisticated American food. Surprising because the décor is more funky than elegant. (It reminds me a little of an antique shop without the price tags.)

A peek inside the turquoise cottage shows purposely mismatched chairs, a mish mash of artwork on the walls, carpeted floors for muting noise and whimsical candle holders setting a friendly glow. In addition, there is a small Christmas wreath hanging in the porch and a vintage turntable on a sideboard that I half expected to be responsible for the pianist trilling popular rhythm and blues classics in the background. But what makes this charming place so appealing is not its out-of-the- ordinary decor, however inviting and fresh that is, but the winning combination of generous, well-prepared food and welcoming, upbeat staff.

It seems likely that the quirky décor is intentional and has been accumulating and evolving for the past 15 years. The restaurant will be celebrating an anniversary on April 29. Co-owners and co-chefs Ed and Andrea Spring are the husband and wife team who, with help from their daughter, Serena after school and on week-ends, are responsible for the success. Ed has a captivating, offbeat sense of humor and a down-to-earth, friendly Southern manner. He greets patrons with obvious enjoyment and warmth from an open window in the kitchen, as they enter his establishment and are seated by Serena. Andrea spends most of the evening circling the kitchen, explaining the specials to waiters, cooking and baking luscious desserts.

Although limited to a beer and wine license, offerings of wine by the glass were consistently satisfying and 95percent of the large cellar collection is courteously opened to serve by the glass if requested. The selections of eight imported beers are all on tap, icy cold and run from pilsners through lagers. Service is routinely gracious. Each meal began with a variety of nibbles almost as soon as we were seated. This unusual presentation is presumably inspired by the French crudités, a variety of vegetable salads - generally raw, but not always. One night we had red cabbage in a spicy vinaigrette, which was a nice balance of natural sweetness and mild heat; crisp, fresh-tasting slivered green cabbage that had just enough spunk to play nicely with the bread; a pile of pitted black olives and sweetish pickles flavored with garlic. The excellent warm garlic bread soaking in butter and melting parmesan cheese is special enough even for those swearing off carbohydrates.

The menu hops from Asia to the Mediterranean, but the chefs show themselves citizens of this country, usually slipping back into an American idiom. The results dazzle. The trick here is ordering just enough to start and save room for the colossal entrees. You don’t want to miss that opportunity! A plan of attack may be to order salads to share. All salads are offered as a small plate or a large portion for two or more to share. This way you can taste more salads and still order a couple appetizers, which should not be missed. Of five salads, the spinach with goat cheese stood out, with sweet dried cranberries, dates and sugared pecans strewn over crisp, fresh spinach leaves and then sprinkled with a white balsamic vinaigrette. We also were delighted at the huge bowl of Shao Mei Chinese dumplings that were tender enough to cut with chop sticks. Spicy and aromatic, the pork and shrimp dumplings were served on shredded lettuce with chunks of tomato dressed in a Dijon vinaigrette with a wispy soy - spiked dipping sauce.

When it comes to entrees, soft-shell crabs are hard to pass up. Stuffed with scallop and crab and lightly wrapped in an herb-seasoned breadcrumbs, sautéed brown and served in a tangy sauce of roasted peppers and butter, they were as tasty as they were pretty. Seafood never fell into the bland category that’s often encountered elsewhere. Strips of sushi-rare ahi tuna steak were pepper-crusted and escorted by chili butter that added still more whack or order the tuna coated with peanuts and served with an Asian peanut sauce. Stuffed salmon may not sound special, but this version featured a filet bursting with an abundance of fresh blue crabmeat and shrimp lolling in a velvety sauce that combined butter and cream. Superb! The vegetable pasta "Layla" was a winner with our vegetarian companion, though it would have pleased anyone, with its wholesome medley of fresh portabella mushrooms, scallions and blend of cheeses in a rich creamy sauce. The velvety-inside, crusty-outside filet mignon came perfectly cooked to order and arrived with a gentle green peppercorn sauce of cream and butter. It was everything it should be; juicy, flavorful and tender enough to impress a guest who typically eschews beef. All entrees are accompanied with fresh vegetables and a potato. Yet another reason to ignore Atkins.

Portions are generous to a fault. Considering all our dishes and the addictively chewy – crunchy bread, we didn’t crave dessert. But duty called, so we ordered. It is difficult to save room for it, but you should. It would be a shame to miss the best peanut butter pie in the South. It is sliced into a thick fluffy wedge of peanuttieness, and looms over a layer of bittersweet ganache and a crunchy crust of chocolate graham cracker so thick I had to bash it with my fork to get a chunk with every bite. This is but one of the ambitious list of nightly choices that is presented in a silver frame (it changes every night, as does the specials menu). Those with a taste for rich desserts might also enjoy chocolate walnut pie, which is served warm with a scoop of fresh whipped cream that melts, loosens and spreads over its surface. Divine is the only fitting description for the date, almond, walnut bread pudding with warm caramel sauce and a scoop of whipped cream. In fact, whipped cream – and lots of it – frothed most desserts that were so saturated with flavor that we tried them and thought we couldn’t eat another bite.

And then we did!

Sign of the Mermaid’s date, almond, walnut bread pudding

Ingredients:
1 loaf Martin’s wheat or white potato bread
2 cups heavy whipping cream
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
2 egg yolks
1 whole egg
1 tsp. cinnamon
2 tsp. vanilla extract
3/4 cup chopped sugared dates
1/2 cup copped almond
1/2 cup chopped walnuts

Method:
Tear the bread into large pieces and let dry for a few hours. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix together cream, sugars, eggs, cinnamon and vanilla. Blend well. With your hands, mix cream mixture into the torn bread pieces until the bread is saturated. Add dates, almonds and walnuts, mixing well. Place mixture in a greased 9x9 pan and bake for 25 minutes. Check center to see if it is done. If it is very hot, remove from the oven immediately and let it cool a bit. If the center is not very hot leave to cook another 10 minutes and then check again. Serve pudding with warm caramel sauce and fresh whipped cream. Garnish with a few chopped dates and powdered sugar.

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