In all its simplicity, boiled fish, a Bahamian breakfast staple that is simply a handful of three major ingredients – grouper meat, onions and potatoes (I won’t count the water, lime and pepper, because those can be a given) – can be a disaster if not cooked properly. It can turn into tough, rubbery fish and a broth that never quite comes together because the seasoning just isn’t right. But when it’s done right, in all its simplicity, a great boiled fish can be the most exquisite, heart-warming experience.
At the rebranded Shoal Bistro, under the proprietorship of Bobby Lightbourn, they do this island favorite with Nassau grouper in its clear broth, not just right – it’s actually perfect. And according to Lightbourn himself, the “magic” is in their spices.
On a lazy Sunday morning I visited the rebranded restaurant that two decades ago was one of the more popular places to get your boiled fish and stew fish fix. When I sat down, there were just maybe about six other people dining, but by the time I was packing up to leave the restaurant it was filled to the gills, and I swear every dish that came out of the kitchen had to have been hearty bowls of either boiled fish, stew fish or this ubiquitous stew boil – a combination of boiled fish in stew fish broth that became a popular request maybe two decades ago, as people started requesting a mix of both dishes.
According to Lightbourn, the stew-boil combination really took off among the people that loved both options and wanted a taste of both in one meal. People who request the stew boil, he said, don’t want their fish fried before being added to the brown stew mixture, and opted to add the meat from the boiled fish into their stew broth and it became a hit. At the Shoal Bistro, they are making this dish with grouper as well.
The Shoal Bistro also ensures it caters to its patrons’ likes, and in an ode to people who like their boils and stews very specifically, they break down the offerings. You can have fish head only – if that’s your thing – for $12.50, which many people do; you can opt to have it mixed – a combination of head and meat pieces – for $18; or you can go with just all meat at $22.
And here I have to add that with Lightbourn’s rebranding, there is a strong focus on presentation, which he’s gone upscale with. The serving vessels are cool to look at, and the kind that you would find in a fancy restaurant, but they also allow for the food that is presented in or on to take center stage. Even though the boiled fish broth is clear, against the white of the bowl the boiled fish shines, as does the brown stew broth.
And who could forget the fact that the Shoal was famous for its Johnny cake, which was known as the best on the island, under the proprietorship of former owner Ruth Sands-Glinton. With Lightbourn at the helm, the recipes for these popular offerings have been improved upon.
Chicken as well as sheep tongue souses, and stew conch, also factor among the breakfast offerings. And while, typically, boiled fish and souses are considered breakfast fare, at the Shoal Bistro, they pride themselves on serving breakfast when you want it, and just how you like it, so if you get a “jones” for boiled fish later in the day, they will have it, because they do breakfast all day.
Going back to the basics, yellow grits is a menu staple, and is served with “fire engine” – corned beef steamed with onions, tomato puree, green cabbage and diced potatoes – as well as their tuna salad. Both also come with a side of their famous Johnny cake.
To satisfy all taste buds there are also omelettes; flapjacks and eggs; and steak and eggs.
The Shoal Bistro, as it is known today, first opened its doors in 1975 as the Shoal Restaurant and Lounge under the proprietorship of the late Carl Glinton and his wife Ruth Sands-Glinton. When the restaurant opened, according to the restaurant’s history, the price of fish was only $2.50 a pound and was purchased fresh out of the well from fishing boats on Potter’s Cay Dock.
Oh my, how times have changed!
Sands-Glinton put her signature on many of the native dishes, especially the boiled fish served with the Nassau grouper and the stewed conch, which became the restaurant’s signature dishes when it opened approximately 44 years ago.
While the recipe for Johnny cake varies according to who makes it, the Shoal’s Johnny cake recipe was Sands-Glinton’s own and became known as the best on the island, and with his improvements to the recipe, Lightbourn is ensuring that the Johnny cake that’s offered continues to be the best.
Customers loved the Shoal’s food and the restaurant thrived. Patrons and visitors to the island thronged to the Shoal. According to the restaurant’s history, celebrities like Sir Sidney Poitier, Billy Dee Williams, Cathy Lee Crosby and Shirley Caesar were known to visit the renowned restaurant to indulge in Bahamian delicacies.
Then there were Bahamian celebrities like the late Ronnie Butler, K.B. and Isaiah Taylor of Baha Men fame who have been known to embrace the Shoal experience.
In 2004, Sands-Glinton converted to the Seventh-day Adventist faith, which meant the restaurant closed on Saturdays to observe her Sabbath, but she also revamped the menu to eliminate all biblically unclean meat in accordance with her beliefs. She made it work for 12 years after the change.
On December 5, 2016, Sands-Glinton retired and entrusted the legacy of the brand to a non-biological son in Lightbourn, a retired police officer, who since then has added his personal signature to the environment, menu and customer service.
Those ‘in the know’ know of the quality and delicious food that the Shoal Bistro is continuing to offer and continue to frequent the Nassau Street location. The restaurant that began as the Shoal was relaunched as the Shoal Bistro in December 2016… and the legacy continues.
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