What do you do on a cold, drizzly Friday night on the Gulf Coast? Get some oysters at your favorite local joint. There’s a new kid in town and they’re serving up some wicked woodfired oysters on dishes crafted by the executive chef and owner. He’s a food ninja and creative potter all at once.
Down Island Seafood (DI) may be a new restaurant in Walton County, but the building and chef have a lot of history here. The circa 1900s tobacco barnwood bar, window-lined walls, and rustic floors once housed Dave’s Glas Haus, a legendary spot for procuring handcrafted stained glass, windows, and mirrors. In fact, an original sign hangs in the dining room.
Chef Brannon Janca is a familiar face as well. Raised on the coastal waters of Pascagoula, Mississippi, he moved to Walton County in the early 2000s. He plated his love of coastal cuisine alongside longtime friend, Chef Jim Richard at The Lake House, Stinky’s Fish Camp, and Redfish Taco. As he ascended into the corporate chef world opening concepts with Chef Richard around the Gulf, he realized he was getting away from what drew him to restaurants, cooking food.
One of his launches brought him back to New Orleans, the city where he went to culinary school and cut his teeth cooking. “They were rebuilding, and all these little neighborhood restaurants owned by families and chefs from New Orleans were popping up that had killer food and drinks. I’ve always wanted to do that here,” said Janca.
Burned out on traveling, he cashed out his investments with Chef Richard and started looking for a spot to open one of those neighborhood restaurants. “I’m so lucky to have worked with Jim for 17 years. He taught me more than anybody about life and business. But, I was at the point in my career where I didn’t cook anymore. I wanted to get back to that.” Searching for the right location, Janca developed a deep friendship with Dave Hillgenberg, “Mr. Dave” as Janca calls him, while apprenticing with him at Glas Haus for a year, found the right oven to cook his woodfired oysters, and dug back into his former life as an engineer to design his dream restaurant.
Pulling into Down Island off Highway 98, the first thing you notice is the 30A-style architecture and ample parking. The boisterous sound of children laughing, patrons singing along to the live music, and pop-up conversations around the bar spilled into the entryway as I opened the door. The hostess showed me around to see where I might want to sit, and a server, Danny, tapped my elbow and said don’t miss the blueberry pie — everybody’s friendly here.
I took a seat at the bar so I could ask about the books lining the shelves. Turns out they are bartender Justin’s personal cocktail book collection. He grabbed a ladder and got a few down to show me, including his favorite Spirits of Latin America by Ivy Mix. Amidst the busyness of a Friday night, this bartender who has worked everywhere from New Orleans to Brazil took time to share his love of what he does with a random customer.
The people Janca surrounds himself with care about creating the welcoming, unhurried, personalized experience he longed to bring to Walton County.
Chonky-sized, miso sake wood-fired oysters arrive quickly, still emanating heat from the enormous red pizza oven they exited moments before. The silken texture and umami burst slide down my throat a little too easily, but just in time as the next plate—Peruvian Ceviche—appears. Bright plantain strips, charred sweet potato, field peas, and a healthy mound of fresh snapper dusted with crunchy quinoa sit atop a rustic blue plate swiped with bright, tangy aji amarillo sauce.
Attention to detail and quality ingredients are non-negotiable for Janca. Mac Farms, a local producer committed to sustainable agriculture, grows custom fruit and vegetables for the restaurant. “Taylor [a Down Island chef] picked out all the seeds we wanted, and Mona planted them at the farm. They send us pictures of our seedlings growing.” And it’s not just produce. Taylor sources chicken from King’s Table Farms who produce poultry “beyond organic,” where “…you can taste the farmer’s hard work,” said Janca. King’s Table Farms also provides the eggs for Down Island’s indulgent pistachio creme brulee. The accompanying corn fritters offer a genius texture move that reminds me of Saturday morning breakfasts on my great-grandmother’s farm.
The serveware, crafted by Janca in his home pottery studio, will be available for purchase, along with the unique water mugs and small bowls dotting Down Island’s tables and shelves, soon.
Down Island occupies a space much-needed in this area, the neighborhood restaurant where you can grab a quick beer and a burger, or stay for 3 hours making new friends over braised pork cheeks and a glass of Felino Malbec on a drizzly, bone-cold Friday night without feeling rushed. “I’m so blessed by not only the staff we have, from the bar, to the front of the house, to the kitchen, but also the amazing turnout we’ve had from locals in the dead of January,” said Janca.
Lunch, an outdoor daiquiri bar, lawn games for waiting guests, and seven-days-a-week service are on the horizon. But right now there’s Janca’s homemade blueberry pie. The 4-person serving makes a tasty leftover breakfast…because pie for breakfast is never wrong.