Take one part Costco, two parts Great Wolf Lodge, a splash of Cracker Barrel and a heavy dollop of Disney, whirl it up in a blender — creating a yummy beach-chair cocktail — and you have the sheepish pleasure of dining in the Islamorada Fish Company restaurant at Bass Pro Shops in Hanover County.
But before you get there, prepare yourself for sensory overload. There are dozens of mounted animals, namely deer, but also a grizzly bear and some bald eagles. Think full-body, in all manner of simulated I'm-hiding-in-the-woods poses. There's an indoor pond filled with bored trout, a freshwater aquarium bigger than the one at Maymont and an outside moat. At least two dozen powerboats and assorted four-wheelers litter the showroom floor. Where else could you find a girly pink shotgun or an entire set of overstuffed living room furniture covered in camo upholstery?
Stock up on instructional DVDs, such as Verminators III: Predator or Prey, and then treat yourself to a little break at the fudge shop. You think I jest? But it gets better. I know, what could be better than a laser arcade, a NASCAR simulator and an archery range all in the same place? Well, you can spend all day shopping and playing (which I gather is the point) and then actually have a decent meal to top it off at the Islamadora restaurant inside. (Islamorada, meaning "purple isle," is named for the Florida Keys village where the restaurant chain began.)
Sidle up to the 30-seat bar, where a 12,000-gallon saltwater aquarium makes a statement that couldn't be any more obvious: Bigger is better. Besides allowing you to watch the impressive sea creatures gliding past, eating at the bar provides a superior vantage point for observing other wildlife. Who knew this was the place to hang out on a weekend night, when there could be 100 people in the bar area alone?
On a recent visit, I enjoyed the seared slices of ahi tuna with baby greens as an appetizer, cooked perfectly rare with a syrupy, Asian-style sesame sauce that worked well as a counter to the fiery wasabi. An entrée of succulent extra-large shrimp with penne in a dreamy lobster cream sauce was rich and filling. Yes, it was a little surreal to be dining under a school of taxidermied swordfish. Yes, the raccoons and assorted other forest creatures wired to full-size trees at every nook and cranny were a little freaky, but this is the zany charm of the place.
As it turns out, the restaurant was a pleasant surprise. A tub of butter and a small loaf of house-specialty Bimini bread, warm and encrusted with sugar, is the first treat your friendly server will bring.
My girlfriend Stacey and I opted for the Florida sampler as our starter. The velvety smoked-wahoo spread was pleasant but not very smoky. The fried, wild-caught alligator was so heavily breaded it was hard to enjoy much more than the overly spicy, crunchy coating, but the coconut shrimp with a house-made citrusy horseradish sauce were extremely tasty, if predictable. Stacey's macadamia-nut-encrusted mahi mahi was slightly dry and unremarkable, served with a side of gussied-up wild rice and steamed broccoli, but the portions were ample. My beer-battered, fried fish and chips (cod that night) were certainly passable, but the seafood once again suffered from too much goopy batter, though the accompanying Old Bay-seasoned, thick-cut potato chips were great.
The key-lime dessert Stacey and I shared afterward was not the traditional pie preparation, but more of a firm custard served in a sugary cashew-and-graham-cracker-lined bowl. It could have been tangier, but we scarfed it up nevertheless. The Bimini bread reappeared on another visit, this time as the key ingredient of a scrumptious bread pudding, which I sampled with my friend Russ. Served warm with vanilla ice cream, this cinnamon-infused comfort dessert ladled with a dark rum sauce was super-moist and soul-satisfying.
The food was better than I expected. Some dishes were standouts, but several were quite mediocre. That doesn't really matter, though. Eating at Islamorada completed the surreal experience of visiting this hunter's spectacle.