Not too long ago, finding plump oysters or a grouper sandwich along scenic State Road 30A through Florida’s Walton County was as sure a bet as Panhandle beaches being covered in white sand, but a more eclectic menu was a spottier proposition.
These days, the culinary scene has been much elevated, with some of the heaviest lifting done by chef Nikhil Abuvala’s Roux 30a, an intimate tasting-menu restaurant that brings globe-spanning flavors to the area’s local bounty. How about a salad featuring charred blood oranges and dates, or soft-shell crab with black beans and mango?
“We make beautiful food but don’t make it overly complex,” Abuvala says. “We’re very ingredient-forward, using whatever is fresh, whether from a local farm or the Gulf. We just had barrel fish, which frankly I’d never heard of but was great, so I put it on the menu.”
Abuvala, born in Atlanta to a dad from India and a mom of German-Irish ancestry, exhibited a precocious flair for food, working behind a sushi restaurant counter at thirteen years old, shortly after moving to Florida. Even so, he followed a talent for clarinet to music school and contemplated a business degree. “Then my mentor, the chef at a diner where I was working, basically hit me upside the head and told me I was as good a cook as anyone working for him,” Abuvala says. “He got me moving.”
During and after culinary school, Abuvala bolstered his inherited influences with food-focused travels through France, Italy, Greece, Brazil, Peru, Argentina, Thailand, Vietnam, and some twenty other countries. “I’d just knock on the back door of a restaurant, sometimes just a mom-and-pop place, and talk my way into a job,” he says. “That’s a great way to broaden your perspective.”
Back home, that perspective led to opening Roux 30a in Grayton Beach in 2013. When the pandemic limited capacity in an already cozy space, Abuvala pivoted to the tasting-menu format that takes customers on a leisurely, six-course culinary journey. He’s also opened Nanbu Noodle Bar, a ramen-and-rice-bowls-centric spot with a decidedly different vibe. “It’s a brightly colored, loud place playing 1990s hip-hop,” he says. “Nanbu is the Japanese word for Southerner. There’s not much Asian food in the area, so really I did it selfishly so I’d have a place to eat more of what I love.”
In the next few months, he also plans to launch Daytrader, a tiki-themed hangout on the beach in Seaside. And tonight he’s celebrating Diwali, the Indian festival of lights, with a special Roux 30a menu that melds South Asia and Southeastern America. Among the courses, guests can expect a dish of dry-rubbed prawns with delicately curried grits, the recipe for which is shared below. “Basically, I’m taking some strong Southern dishes and Indian-ing them up,” he says with a laugh.