Santa Rosa Beach Down Island restaurant offers raw bar, in-season seafood

Jacqueline Bostick
Northwest Florida Daily News

SANTA ROSA BEACH — Chef Brannon Janca at Down Island Gulf Seafood Restaurant is a committed believer in the concept of eating where you live.

Janca, a 20-year Santa Rosa Beach resident from Pascagoula, Mississippi, along with his wife Stefani and other business partners, marked the grand opening of Down Island with a ribbon-cutting ceremony held Jan. 11. The restaurant, located at 2780 U.S. Highway 98, serves modern-American cuisine over a modern-casual dining experience. 

"Our menu is driven by the products that we can get," Janca said. "I wanted it to be a Gulf seafood restaurant because all of the products we get here in our region, I know how fresh those ingredients are here."

Down Island Gulf Seafood Restaurant held a grand opening ribbon-cutting ceremony on Jan. 11. Pictured are the owners and staff. From left to right: Stefani Pall, Chef Brannon Janca, Trudi Dixon, Taylor Tucker, Lindsay Hedglin, and Tippy Flurry.

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The menu

At Down Island, freshness tastes like the cioppino (tomato and fennel stew, made with fish, shrimp, clams, mussels, Pernod butter, and served with grilled bread and rouille) and the grilled chicken breast that comes with homemade pasta alla Nerano, smoked tomato, hand-chopped pistachio pesto, and charred lemon. If you're craving even more freshness, try the apple and watercress salad which is peppered with Point Reyes bleu cheese, candied pecans, shallots, and sherry vinaigrette.

Always a big demand at any American restaurant: a burger. And while many eateries boast of their patties, the Down Island Drive-Thru Burger is made with housemade brown butter potato buns – something not even Janca had experienced prior to planning the menu for the restaurant's grand opening. Be sure to try it (it comes with American cheese, pickles, red onion, special sauce, and Belgian fries).

And perhaps the most locale, fresh caught fish-of-the-day join various raw bar selections as Down Island staples. Signature wood-fired oysters, such as the half-dozen creamed leek, shrimp, pork belly and garlic, butter, and herb create a special experience for the stalwart mollusk of the Gulf. 

The location

Janca said Down Island is the realization of a vision he had after witnessing a resurrection of locally-owned, family-owned, and chef-owned restaurants in the early moments following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, where he attended culinary school. 

"They were just little neighborhood restaurants with killer, world-class good food, and great service," he said. "Really unique restaurants popped up all over the city – and I just loved that."

Noting some Northwest Florida restaurants are equally drawn to offering locally caught seafood, Janca went on to say that Down Island will reflect more than just local food, but the residential ambiance and culture represented in the Santa Rosa Beach area. 

For that reason, the restaurant is not tucked away on 30A; it's located on the highway, he said. The Jancas purchased the building from a former stained glass maker who designed it after homes found in the then budding community of Seaside, Florida. 

Janca has kept the original design as much as possible, transforming the space for a two-car garage into the main dining room.

"It's an old beach home," he said, adding that the building was brought up to code and an elevator has also been added. "It adds a lot to the environment and adds to the culture of the restaurant." 

The diner

The fluidity of the menu and creativity of the build out makes way for connections to different types of diners. After a long day of work, one who finds themselves craving a beer and shucked oysters could find reprieve at Down Island as conveniently as a family of four looking to have their monthly dinner outing. 

Stefani Pall embraces her husband Chef Brannon Janca following the grand opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony held Jan. 11 for their restaurant Down Island Gulf Seafood Restaurant.

"And that's what I wanted to bring to Santa Rosa Beach – a family-owned, community or neighborhood restaurant for all people, for families, for single-party diners, and for tourists," Janca said. "I really wanted to bring something to our local community that I wanted, and that I wanted to go to eat and spent my money at."

Truly, there's no limit to who is a prospective Down Island diner. Stefani Janca, Brannon's wife, is a registered and certified dietitian, and takes an active role in creating the menu. A news release announcing the opening of the restaurant said the from-scratch cooking lends itself to easy modifications that will fit special diets. Stefani recommends guests with unique dietary restrictions to call ahead of time to speak with her so that the meal can be properly prepared.

The effort

And, if you're looking for dessert, your appetite is in Chef Janca's hands. That is, he makes all of the desserts in-house himself, though, he is looking for a sous chef and possibly a baker. 

Down Island Gulf Seafood Restaurant owner Chef Brannon Janca currently makes all of the housemade desserts at the restaurant. The desserts are made with fresh, in-season ingredients.

Some of the housemade desserts include: blueberry pie made with in-season blueberries is cooked in the wood-fire oven, key lime crepes are made fresh daily and served warm, and a chocolate mouse with poached pears served in a martini glass. Janca is also testing a pineapple upside down cake recipe for the spring, when pineapples come into season. 

All of the effort into the food at Down Island Gulf Seafood Restaurant is evidence of where the heart is. 

"I really wanted to do this for our community," he said. "We do have some great restaurants here like Stinky's Fish Camp and The Red Bar (Grayton Beach) and they have really great people working at them …. but we need more restaurants like those and like mine so we can start growing this area."

"I was extremely lucky to have a great group of people that came on board with us. It's truly a family-run business, an aspect people really like, to come in and see the same faces everyday," Janca concluded. "We had a great grand opening. I'm really proud of our team."

Down Island Gulf Seafood Restaurant, 2780 U.S. Highway 98, is open 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. For more information and to see a menu go to downislandsrb.com