It’s hard to believe that Big Fin Seafood Kitchen is coming up on its third anniversary. Since it opened in the fall of 2009, it has undergone some subtle changes (and will undergo some more soon; more about that in a moment). Most notably, the menu has become more focused, reflecting more of chef James Slattery’s expertise and skill. But still concentrating on serving some of the best seafood in the area.
Big Fin has become renowned for its Monday Night Lobster dinners, which feature a whole one and a half pound Maine lobster, steamed and served alone or with new potatoes and corn on the cob. When the promotion was started, the lobster was offered at $13.95. But several months ago, without much warning, the cost of lobsters skyrocketed. Big Fin tried to keep the cost down, but eventually had to raise the price to $19.95 to barely break even. Still, under 20 bucks for a whole lobster was also pretty good.
But recently the cost of lobsters has plummeted, and Big Fin is passing the savings on to you: it’s going back to the $13.95 promotion. Mondays only, and reservations are encouraged.
But if you go only for lobster, you’ll be missing out on some other really good seafood from one of the area’s more interesting and innovative chefs.
Slattery’s is one of my favorite chef success stories. He started out with a degree in chemistry, and got a job as an analytical chemist. But he really loved cooking. And eventually decided to make the leap from the lab to the kitchen, eventually landing an entry level position with Emeril’s Orlando. He worked his way up from butcher to sautee cook to saucier to kitchen manager at Tchoup Chop. From there it was sous chef and, finally, executive chef at the then-new A Land Remembered.
Slattery still uses the skills and discipline he learned as a chemist -- sometimes beyond the basic weights and measurements that you’d expect to translate from a chemistry project to recipe creation. And sometimes to the disdain of his purveyors.
For example, in the fall, when it’s close to molting season for the lobsters, the “freshness” of the lobster meat can be questionable, even though the lobsters arrive alive at the Sand Lake Road restaurant. Those lobsters will have a mushy textures when cooked.
So when a purveyor shows up with a shipment of lobsters, Slattery hauls out a refractometer, extracts some liquid from a lobster chosen at random, and analyzes the protein level. If it doesn’t reach seven or better, he doesn’t accept the shipment.
But a lobster is a lobster is a lobster, and chefs, whether they have a chemistry background or not, like to be creative. Slattery is no exception.
I don’t think of Big Fin when I want sushi, but I was very impressed with the Hawaiian Sunset Roll, an inside-out roll that has cream cheese, avocado and albacore tuna in the center and mango and orange nairagi on top. Did you just wince when I mentioned mango? I did, too, when it was first described to me. But it was neither sweet nor fruity, and it went perfectly with the sliver of day-boat nairagi, a type of marlin, which took on a lemony note when seared. Topping it all off was a trio of tobikos, the red, orange and green flying fish roes resembling the sunset in the roll’s name. Delicious.
Thai soup is Slattery’s version of a she-crab bisque, with a chicken curry broth seasoned with lemon grass and coconut milk, filled with fresh, crunchy corn and sweet crab meat.
Big Fin also specializes in oysters, and I really appreciate that they offer a menu of their offerings with flavor profiles. Most people just think all oysters taste alike. But they actually have distinct tastes depending on the type and the origination. It’s a great way to learn about the differences. Also, if you’re an oyster lover but don’t like them raw, try the grilled oysters, big plumpers served in a pan drizzled with lemon garlic butter and sprinkled with parmesan cheese.
Another of Slattery’s specialties is the shrimp or scallops Orleans. It doesn’t really matter which you have -- in fact, the dish is sometimes featured with grouper or mahi mahi. The key to the dish is the platform, the stage, which is constructed crawfish grits loaded with parmesan cheese, and a saute of sun-dried tomatoes marinated in rosemary, spinach, mushrooms and not an insignificant amount of garlic. Upon this bed you may have blackened shrimp, scallops or whatever. I tried both scallops and shrimp and I liked both equally -- and I loved that the shrimp had the tails removed.
I tried to beg off dessert, but Slattery insisted I try his Key lime pie and something called a gooey butter cake. The pie was a perfect yellow hue (Slattery says tourists still ask why it isn’t green) and had a sweet-tart tang. The gooey butter cake was aptly named. It was a mashup of a traditional flour cake topped with a cheesecake, the two melding together to give it its goo. If I had less restraint I may have smeared it all over myself.
Service was friendly and helpful. While I was cracking open my lobster, a waiter who had not been assigned to my table stopped to ask if I wanted him to handle the extraction. I declined, but I appreciated the offer. (And if you prefer not to tackle the task yourself, you may make the request to have the lobster shelled in the kitchen or tableside. Also, you may request the lobster with or without the tomalley, the green stuff that serves as the crustacean’s liver and pancreas. Some people consider it a delicacy; I’m not one of them.)
Big Fin is big and bustling, especially on lobster night. The main dining room features a high ceiling from which a massive sphere hangs. Walls are painted with colorful murals of sea creatures. One of the changes that is coming is a switch from the red and white checkered tablecloths to white table coverings. They’ll still be topped with white butcher paper, but the solid white is meant to give a slightly more upscale air.
Speaking of air, there’s a big outdoor bar and patio overlooking Sand Lake Road below. There are a couple of large private dining rooms, as well. Unless you can book one of those rooms, Big Fin probably isn’t the place you want to come to for a business meeting or a quiet tete a tete. This is where you come to celebrate the business deal or to just have a good time with friends and enjoy some seriously good seafood.
Big Fin Seafood Kitchen is at Dellagio Town Center, 8046 W. Sand Lake Road, Orlando. It’s open for dinner daily, but the lobster special is Mondays only. Here’s a link to bigfinseafood.com. The phone number is 407-615-8888.