South­ern, seafood and Ca­jun on the menu in Punta Rassa

South­ern, seafood and Ca­jun on the menu in Punta Rassa

RSWLiving - - Features - BY GINA BIRCH

It’s easy to have tun­nel—or should we say cause­way—vi­sion when ap­proach­ing Sani­bel from Fort My­ers and breeze right by SS Hookers, the three-story restau­rant at the en­trance to Punta Rassa. But when cross­ing the cause­way from Sani­bel, you can’t help but no­tice the stately struc­ture, es­pe­cially at night with its tiki torches, lighted land­scape and oc­ca­sional glow from heat lamps on the deck—warm and invit­ing.

Cel­e­brat­ing its one- year an­niver­sary last Oc­to­ber, the south­ern, seafood and Ca­jun-based restau­rant is run­ning full steam through sea­son.

It took South­west Florida en­tre­pre­neur Sandy Still­well three years from the time of in­cep­tion to get the doors open. It’s her eighth South­west Florida restau­rant but the first one she built from the ground up. “It was the riski­est as a re­sult,” she says, “but I think it has the great­est po­ten­tial, so I’m re­ally ex­cited about it.”

Imag­ine driving by the pre­con­struc­tion site and see­ing a well­heeled blonde in the bucket of a cherry picker tak­ing pho­tos. That’s ex­actly what Still­well did dur­ing the de­sign phase, ex­plain­ing, “I went up and looked all around the prop­erty to find the best view.”

The prop­erty is very nar­row and Still­well wanted pa­trons to see more of Fort My­ers Beach and Sani­bel, and as lit­tle as pos­si­ble of the toll­booth. The build­ing was re­designed three times.

Get­ting the build­ing per­mits was dif­fi­cult, but not Still­well’s only challenge. Once the per­mits were in hand, she had trou­ble find­ing la­bor, as the area had been in a build­ing slump. Con­struc­tion “took for­ever,” ac­cord­ing to the busi­ness­woman, who adds, “We had planned to open a year be­fore.”

Part­ner­ing with power­boat racer Steve Page, the two set their sights on this pre­mium prop­erty for a num­ber of rea­sons, in­clud­ing its his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance. The restau­rant over­looks the area where in 1885 the first tar­pon ever to be caught on a rod and reel was re­port­edly hooked: a 93-pound fish on a bam­boo pole.

The restau­rant name, while sound­ing slightly sug­ges­tive, pays homage to the area’s well-es­tab­lished his­tory of boat­ing (SS) and fish­ing (Hookers). The his­tory continues inside with old pho­tos lin­ing the tall walls of the cupola above the bar.

Another high­light is the hand­made boat sus­pended over the bar, where you can sip on cre­ative cock­tails with names like Bronzed Red­fish, The Big Easy, Snapped Rod and Lake Okee­chobee Wa­ter Re­lease.

When SS Hookers first opened, the menu had many Ca­jun-in­spired dishes. While sev­eral still ex­ist, ex­ec­u­tive chef and gen­eral man­ager John Fea­gans says, “We had to tame down a lot of the true Ca­jun meals; a lot of cus­tomers didn’t like the spice, so I had to re­fine what I was do­ing.”

One ex­am­ple, ac­cord­ing to Still­well: “We were hav­ing the muf­fuletta breads flown in from New Or­leans, but peo­ple were com­plain­ing they were ‘too bready,’ so we changed it.” The menu is still full of NOLA-in­spired fa­vorites such as po’boys, gumbo, etouf­fee and jam­bal­aya.

Fea­gans continues, “We have a lot of tra­di­tional dishes but with my own twist; I think it’s some­thing ev­ery chef does.”

One of his fa­vorites is the Snap­per Bienville. “It’s fun to eat and fun to make,” he says. “It presents it­self well.” The sautéed fish is topped with a creamy sauce of ba­con, onion, shrimp, gar­lic and mush­room, then served over rice.

Still­well’s fa­vorite is the Tuna Mar­tini, an ap­pe­tizer that is the chef’s ver­sion of a Hawai­ian tuna poke. The sushi-grade yel­lowfin is diced and tossed with teriyaki, sriracha, scal­lions and sesame seeds, and served with wakame. Ev­ery­thing, in­clud­ing dress­ings and sauces, is made in-house.

South­ern fa­vorites in­clude squash casse­role, shrimp and grits, and pot roast. The menu al­ways in­cludes a fresh catch, as well as a good se­lec­tion of beef dishes, since fish­ing isn’t the only his­tory tied to the restau­rant’s lo­ca­tion. Cat­tle barons also fre­quented Punta Rassa back in the day, load­ing their herds on boats bound for Cuba.

When Hookers first opened, the restau­rant’s man­agers threw ev­ery­thing at the wall to see what would stick—break­fast, lunch, din­ner and late night. Now, break­fast is served only on week­ends, with a killer Bloody Mary bar on Sun­days.

It’s not all deca­dence here; a di­eti­cian was brought in to help with health­ful din­ing op­tions as well. Icons on the menu des­ig­nate not only gluten-free items but also in­dul­gence-re­de­fined selections for those on plant-based di­ets.

As is the case for many busi­nesses, SS Hookers is a work in progress. A chic­kee hut has been added for anglers to get bait and sup­plies, dé­cor is be­ing added to the ground floor, there is live mu­sic ev­ery night and lots of spe­cial pro­mo­tions such as ladies night. Check the web­site for up­dates.

And check the bar for Still­well. You can of­ten catch her din­ing there, strik­ing up friendly con­ver­sa­tion with reg­u­lars and vis­i­tors. “Peo­ple are on va­ca­tion and hav­ing a good time,” she says. “It’s al­ways fun and makes me re­al­ize we’re so blessed to live here.”

The restau­rant over­looks the area where in 1885 the first tar­pon ever to be caught on a rod and reel was re­port­edly hooked: a 93-pound fish on a bam­boo pole.

At SS Hookers, the last stop be­fore the Sani­bel Cause­way, Ca­jun Crab Cakes and the Tuna Mar­tini are menu fa­vorites.

En­joy the sun­set from the restau­rant’s bal­cony while in­dulging in col­or­ful cock­tails or the chef’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion of clas­sic dishes, like this pimiento cheese sand­wich with fried green toma­toes and ba­con.

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