TERRY’S PICKY PALATE / Eating with Chef John Correa at Cafe Sole on Southard Street

Q: What could be better than being paid to review the food at Cafe Sole, one of Key West’s top-rated restaurants?
A: Being paid to dine at said eatery, as a personal guest of owner/chef John Correa, and getting the skinny on what goes into some of his most popular dishes – and even on how to eat them properly.
Sorry I’m late,” Correa said, sliding into the seat next to mine. “I had to help a friend of mine pack for Burning Man!”
Correa is one of Key West’s culinary treasures; A larger-than-life lover of food; a boulevardier who greets each guest personally, shares a laugh or two with them during their meal, and always makes sure to see them off afterward, like they’re old friends (which many of them are) who have just been guests in his own home.
He’s lived all over the world, and developed his love for the cuisine of the South of France while living and studying there in the late ’80s-early ’90s.
We hadn’t spoken in a while and it was great to break bread with him once again – or in this case, pita points. The dish in question was the Saganaki appetizer, the famed “flaming cheese,” ignited with Cognac.
First of all, squeeze some lime on it,” Correa urged me. “Then, what I like to do is get lots of olive oil on the pita, then add a piece of the Halloumi (imported Greek cheese,) and afterward, take a bite of the caper . . . Good, huh?”
Delicious, actually. The cheese was delightfully salty, and the quality of the appetizer’s other ingredients came right through.
Next came the Tuna Tartare, with local yellowfin tuna, homemade soy, Sriracha, and avocado slices, which Correa deftly blended together on the plate.
It’s got that full flavor that I like,” he said. “Big and bold.”
And, for the piece de resistance, there was Conch Carpaccio, Correa’s signature appetizer. This was a scintillating blend of sweet Bahamian conch, thinly sliced, and sprinkled with Asiago cheese, finely diced red bell peppers and red onion, served with virgin olive oil, and Key lime juice.
I’ve never had conch quite like it before, and apparently it’s pretty popular with people who remember the heyday of this giant sea mollusk in the Keys.
This is the way people used to eat it here,” Correa said. “We get a lot of old Key Westers in here who remember what it was like back then.
“It’s very fresh, delicate and tender,” he added, “what you always thought Conch should taste like. Good, fresh food, and we make everything we can ourselves, our sauces, desserts, everything.”
I drank sparkling water with my meal, but for those who imbibe, Cafe Sole has a great selection of beer and wine to suit any of of the gourmet offerings on the menu.
As our meal was winding down, several late-night customers were making their way to the door, when Correa intercepted them. After inquiring about the quality of their meal, he shared jokes and anecdotes with them, and made it plain how much he’d enjoy seeing them again at his restaurant.
It’s John Correa’s way, at Cafe Sole . . . pop in for a bite, or a full meal; it’ll make your day!
Cafe Sole is located at 1029 Southard St., and is open from 5 to 10 p.m. seven days.
Credit cards are accepted.
For reservations, or more information, call 305-294-0230, or visit www.cafesole.com