Tanned fishermen dock their boats, ready for a cold brew and golden conch fritters; a guitarist covers Dave Matthews and Tom Petty tunes, and we feel transported. Who knew the Nauti Dawg Marina Cafe in Lighthouse Point would take us to Key West?
Don’t let the name fool you. It’s “nauti,” not “naughty,” a play on the nautical theme and co-owner Debbie Edwards’ frisky yellow lab, Tucker (his face is on the T-shirts sold here). Edwards and her siblings, Maureen Canada and Christian Spieker, also own the marina and the pastel Tillotson Square townhouses across the street.
They were raised in the marina business, taking over from their parents in 1997, but the cafe is a new venture. They expanded and refurbished the old restaurant space, reopening in October with a focus on local fish and fresh produce in a laid-back atmosphere. Another plus: Prices are reasonable, especially the three-course sunset menu for $12.
Though it’s hard to find ( the marina is in a residential neighborhood), the place was packed on a Sunday night and had a good crowd on a weekday. Patrons often bring their pooches, and there are plenty of water bowls around. The friendly staff makes newcomers feel welcome.
Just about everything here is house-made, from soups to scrumptious Key lime cheesecake. The menu changes often, with specials based on what looks good — or even the weather. Blue cheese seems to work on a rainy night, and bright salsa suits a sunny day. Stop early in the morning for Crab Cake Benedict, or end your night with a Sorry Charlie Tuna Salad.
Another draw is Nauti Dawg’s hook-and-cook service. Boaters can bring in their cleaned, fresh catch and, for $10, the kitchen will prepare it to order and serve it with two sides.
You could spend hours grazing on starters like delicious tuna wontons, four crispy squares topped with seaweed salad, tuna tartare, roasted pepper, wasabi aioli and a dab of sriracha hot sauce. Those conch fritters are delicious, made with lots of house-ground conch and served with a spicy Key lime sauce.
Blue Point oysters are available freshly shucked or sprinkled with blackened seasoning and blue cheese and popped in the oven to melt the cheese. We also loved a blue cultured mussel special that came with a delicate broth we sopped up with bread — easily enough for three or four to share.
The signature salad, made with Bibb lettuce and goat cheese atop croutons, has a wonderful poppy seed dressing with a hint of sweetness to balance the tart apple slices, spiced pecans and slivers of endive.
Casual fare includes fat burgers and a popular lobster roll with five ounces of Maine lobster served on a toasted and buttered long roll. Landlubber choices include skirt steak and chicken piccata, and we liked the Shrimp Capellini, a generous serving of large sautéed shrimp, tomatoes, garlic and fresh herbs tossed with angel hair pasta.
But you can’t beat the fresh catch, usually mahi mahi, hog tail snapper or grouper. On one visit, a huge portion of wahoo was topped with an olive tapenade that played well against the mild, meaty fish. A grilled grouper was also perfectly cooked, moist and flaky.
Entree accompaniments — roasted asparagus and quartered potatoes with one, rice pilaf and green beans with another — were flavorful without fussy sauces. And a la carte sides like cucumber salad, excellent onion rings and garlic spinach are just $3.
Most desserts are made by Lorena Adams, who was also our server one visit. We loved her Key lime cheesecake with Key lime glaze, and were even more delighted with a warm, bourbon-sauced bread pudding with white and dark chocolate. (Next time we’ll add a scoop of ice cream.)
It turns out that this Nauti Dawg is very nice indeed.