PANAMA CITY — Since joining Buccaneer Bar & Grill two months ago, Chef Dominic DeMarco has taken everything guests have loved for the past 50 years — the waterfront setting and relaxed atmosphere — and elevated it with his cuisine.
“We’re so close to all the neighborhoods, so close to historic downtown. This is where the heart is all … the scenic drive, the only motel in Panama City on the bay,” said Debi Knight, when we met for an early dinner on a recent Thursday at the Buccaneer.
A resident of the beach, she enjoys Buccaneer’s relaxed setting and view of St. Andrew Bay from the cozy dining room. The restaurant has been undergoing a renovation during the past few months and now has a revamped menu to go with the new look. A flip through Buccaneer’s extensive dinner menu shows off Chef Dom’s versatility.
“I don’t think there’s anything on here they had before,” Chef Dom said.
The expanded deck allows groups to comfortably enjoy a meal outdoors, catch a game on one of the TVs and relax by the Tiki Bar.
“I walk around making sure everyone is happy,” said April DeMarco, Chef Dom’s wife.
The couple’s two children — Dominic Michael DeMarco IV, 6, and Adriana, 4 — enjoy playing on the pirate ship and swinging at the play area on the sand overlooking the water.
“We do have a lot of weddings here, and a lot of children’s birthdays with the pirate ship, deck and beach,” said Chef Dom, who customizes cuisine for events.
As general manager, Chef Dom has been furthering Buccaneer’s involvement in the community. On Sept. 25, he was part of the March of Dimes’ Signature Chefs Auction at Boardwalk Beach Resort, where he made his Italian cheesecake bread pudding. Beginning next month, Chef Dom will be featuring one of his dishes every five weeks on WMBB-TV Channel 13. Catch him preparing his Grouper Piccatta at 6 and 7:30 a.m. Nov. 7.
An Italian American from Philly, Chef Dom is a graduate from the Restaurant School of Philadelphia. But his hands-on training began much earlier.
“My dad always had a restaurant,” he said. “The guys would give me $5 to go make them a hoagie when I was 9 years old.”
It should come as no surprise Chef Dom’s favorite thing on the menu is the Philly Cheese Steak, also popular with customers. Ribeye beef is tossed with onion, mushroom, red pepper and smothered with beer cheese.
“I make a homemade beer cheese. I use Yuengling beer, a Pennsylvania-brewed beer,” Chef Dom said. “Real Philly cheese steak has Cheez Whiz.”
His Philadelphia-themed cheese creation also is made with Philadelphia Cream Cheese, Velveeta and garlic. Just don’t ask him to put green peppers on his Philly Cheese Steak, something he is ready to defend.
“A real one does not have bell peppers. It’s onion or nothing. I don’t use green bell peppers. I won’t do it. Green peppers are for sausages,” he said.
Chef Dom also caters to local tastes, getting his seafood from around the corner at Tarpon Dock Seafood Market.
“I do a lot of local flavors,” he said. “They like good, upscale comfort food.”
His Blackened Grouper Sliders are seasoned with Chef Paul’s Magic seasoning blends and served on French bread topped with salsa, cucumber, pepper jack cheese and zesty ranch.
“I use chipotle I got from Bobby Flay (in the ranch),” said Chef Dom, who worked with the star at the Borgata in Atlantic City, N.J. “I was the sous chef there for him. He loves poblano peppers and chiles. He influenced my technique.”
Chef Dom’s mastery of spices is evident in his refreshing Seared Ahi Tuna, pepper crusted and seared, then served over a melon salad topped with a wasabi honey drizzle.
The Crab Cake Garden Salad, served with his homemade strawberry balsamic vinaigrette made with fresh strawberries, puts a new spin on the crab cake. The moist middle was not only filled with lump crab, but also celery and bits of mango.
“That keeps it like it’s Florida — a Maryland style crab cake with a Florida twist,” Chef Dom said.
For heartier appetites, the 12-ounce Black Angus Ribeye is seasoned and grilled, then topped with thinly sliced onion crisps, and served with homemade steak sauce next to sides of garlic mashed potatoes and fresh vegetables. The vegetables are coated in a whipped butter with Creole seasoning, garlic, shallots, white wine, salt and pepper.
The homemade steak sauce has about 10 ingredients, including fresh shallots, garlic and parsley. A mix of spice, tang and smokiness, the sauce definitely enhanced the flavor of the juicy cut of meat and was a great dip for the crispy onions. Chef Dom marinates the Vidalia onions in milk before hand breading and frying them.
Weekend brunch takes relaxation a step further at the Buccaneer. The menu ranges from the Lump Crab Omelet with hash browns and toast to Homemade Quiche with salad and fruit and bacon filled pancakes. For something sweet, try French Toast, Texas-style bread dipped in a vanilla egg batter grilled and topped with crushed Frosted Corn Flakes and maple syrup. You can order mimosas from the menu or make your own drink at the Bloody Mary Bar.
BUCCANEER BAR & GRILL
What: Local seafood, steak, salads, sandwiches, pasta
Where: 711 W. Beach Drive, Panama City
Hours: 11 a.m. until Tuesday through Friday for lunch and dinner; 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday and Sunday for weekend brunch, followed by lunch and dinner (closed Mondays)
Details: (850) 640-1828