Review: Message in a Bottle brings Florida’s 30A to Dunwoody

Message in a Bottle serves a very generous portion of blue crab claws in a pool of Creole butter. Henri Hollis/henri.hollis@ajc.com

Credit: Henri Hollis

Credit: Henri Hollis

Message in a Bottle serves a very generous portion of blue crab claws in a pool of Creole butter. Henri Hollis/henri.hollis@ajc.com

Are you a fan of 30A? If so, you might like Message in a Bottle, a new seafood restaurant in Dunwoody.

For those who aren’t familiar with 30A, its full name is Florida Scenic Highway 30A, and it’s a stretch of state road in the panhandle, between Destin and Panama City Beach. The area is known for its white sand beaches, white picket fences and pricey planned communities.

Message in a Bottle evokes the area’s style with its shiplap walls and nautical decor. A neon sign on the wall says “just a castaway,” a line from the Police’s song, “Message in a Bottle.”

The restaurant is part of Dash Hospitality’s Dunwoody Village, which has transformed a shopping center in the heart of the city into a major neighborhood hangout spot. Dash’s other restaurants include Bar{n} and Morty’s Meat & Supply.

Here are some of the entrees at Message in a Bottle, a new seafood restaurant in Dunwoody Village. Courtesy of Message in a Bottle

Credit: Message in a Bottle

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Credit: Message in a Bottle

The link to the Florida panhandle is personal, according to the company’s owner, David Abes. “I just wanted a casual seafood restaurant that you feel like you’re down on 30A, or any other beach you love going to,” he said, adding: “fresh, quality seafood in a fun atmosphere.”

Message in a Bottle is the group’s most ambitious restaurant so far, and it already is popular. On our visits before Christmas, the crowd happily spilled onto the covered, heated patio — even on chilly nights — and the din inside could be quite loud.

As for the food at Message in a Bottle, it’s a bit of a mixed bag, but the kitchen, helmed by Dash Executive Chef Camron Woods, does well with the simpler items. The smoked fish dip, which changes depending on what’s fresh, uses such meaty varieties as swordfish, which is smoked whole or in primal cuts at sister restaurant Morty’s.

Message in a Bottle serves a small seafood tower that features jumbo shrimp cocktail, smoked fish dip and ceviche. Courtesy of Message in a Bottle

Credit: Message in a Bottle

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Credit: Message in a Bottle

The blue crab claws, served in a pool of Creole garlic butter, already cracked and ready to eat, came in an impressively large portion. Each order had at least 20 crab claws, and the dish felt like good value at $24. Also, the jumbo shrimp cocktail included firm but tender shrimp that tasted clean and fresh.

The sweet corn hush puppies were another crowd-pleaser, fresh from the fryer and served with honey butter and zesty remoulade. The excellent mariner’s Caesar salad achieved a balance of richness and tang, with anchovies and grouper added to make it an entree. A shrimp po’boy, stuffed with a generous portion of fried shrimp, was the real deal, made with Leidenheimer bread from New Orleans that had a soft, springy crumb that soaked up sauce like no other.

Unfortunately, the menu also is peppered with missed opportunities, particularly in the central Catch Me If You Can section, which features fresh fish prepared in three ways. We tried the Ibiza-style grouper served with a “lime-chili broth,” which I imagined as a light, elegant dressing with a balance of tartness and spice. Instead, the sticky, bright-red concoction was more like Chinese-American sweet-and-sour sauce and seemed wholly unrelated to a broth. Meanwhile, the Nice-style mahi-mahi, served with a warm herb vinaigrette, was disappointingly bland.

The po'boys at Message in a Bottle are served on Leidenheimer French bread from New Orleans. Courtesy of Message in a Bottle

Credit: Message in a Bottle

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Credit: Message in a Bottle

Other dishes could have used more seasoning as well, including the Maine lobster pot pie, which looks great with its towering puff pastry shell but didn’t have much oomph. The kitchen curiously also was restrained with the namesake spice mixture on its Old Bay fries.

You get the sense that Message in a Bottle is a work in progress. Abes and Woods already have announced that brunch will begin on weekends later this month.

And their burgeoning restaurant empire in central Dunwoody is a welcome development for an area that lacks a historic downtown, such as those in Marietta or Roswell.

At this point, Message in a Bottle is a fun joint that likely will continue to improve. With a little more consistency and refinement, it could become a destination, like 30A — but it’s not there yet.

Behind this seafood tower you can see the "just a castaway" neon sign in the dining room at Message in a Bottle. Courtesy of Message in a Bottle

Credit: Message in a Bottle

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Credit: Message in a Bottle

MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE

1 out of 4 stars (good)

Food: American seafood

Service: good, overall; servers have a variety of personalities

Noise level: very loud

Recommended dishes: sweet corn hush puppies, 30A smoked fish dip, chilled jumbo shrimp cocktail, blue crab claws, mariner’s Caesar salad, crispy shrimp po’boy, bananas Foster butter cake

Vegetarian dishes: sweet corn hush puppies, mariner’s Caesar, roasted beet salad, Pacific rim chopped salad, Old Bay fries, creamed spinach Rockefeller, grilled asparagus, creme fraiche smashed potatoes

Alcohol: full bar

Price range: $$$$ ($100 or less per person, excluding drinks)

Hours: 4-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 4-11 p.m. Fridays, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 4-11 p.m. Saturdays, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 4-9 p.m. Sundays

Parking: free lot

MARTA: no

Reservations: recommended

Outdoor dining: covered, heated patio

Takeout: no

Address, phone: 5515 Chamblee Dunwoody Road, Dunwoody. 770-670-6635

Website: messageinabottledunwoody.com

About the AJC’s restaurant review process: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s dining critics conduct reviews anonymously. Reservations never are made in their name nor do they provide restaurants with advance notice about their visits. Our critics always make multiple visits, sample the full range of the menu and pay for all of their meals. When reviewing new restaurants, AJC dining critics wait at least one month after the restaurant has opened before visiting.

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