While the waiter walked us through the long menu, I looked around and thought, "It's slick." But then I had to second-guess my word choice. Fish Tail Willy's — slick Willy's.
But it was.
It's kitted out with gleaming concrete floors, shiny wood tables with woven bamboo inset in polyurethane like bugs in amber, a wide pass-through that hints at open kitchen along an acid-washed curving metal wall. And then there are the fish tails, hundreds of caudal fins of all species — gorgeous and rainbow-hued trophy butts (let's be glad it's not a wild game restaurant).
Fish Tail Willy's, which opened softly at the beginning of April at the back of the Countryside Centre, just at the junction of U.S. 19 and Countryside Boulevard, is an independent, largely seafood restaurant that takes over the space vacated by Catch 23. The location is challenging, at the back of a shopping center (Grillsmith gets front and center; Starbucks and Moe's also have more propitious placement), but owners are aiming high. They have a suave logo, a just-finished deck that smells sweetly of fresh wood, a spiral-bound menu reminiscent of the Cheesecake Factory or another successful chain. In fact, it seems like the first of a chain.
But I had a bad first date with Willy. The restaurant's signature dish is Himalayan salt rock seared "Ishiyaki," which means sea scallops, ahi tuna, salmon or New York strip sliced thin and delivered raw to the table next to a 500-degree Himalayan salt rock. I ordered the tuna ($19.90).
Problem was, the rectangular slab (imagine a wedge of granite loaned out from a fancy kitchen remodeling store) was not 500 degrees. It cooled too quickly, not searing much along the way. Second, the raw pieces of fish came on the same plate with pedestrian peanut rice, cucumber-carrot salad and a couple of sauces.
The idea is, you take the raw meat from that plate, sear it, then put it back on that same plate to eat — the bloody remnants from the raw meat unappetizing and possibly a health hazard (work in any kitchen and cross-contamination becomes a buzzword).
Fine, bring the raw food on a separate plate. But still, the sauces and concept need retooling.
On that same first visit, crab Rangoon ($6.90) meant crisp wontons cradling molten cream cheese with a mere glimmer of crab flavor. Its tomato honey sauce didn't add much, but the accompanying sweet/gingery dressed greens were deelish. Same visit: very tough rib eye ($16.90), not a lot of flavor; nearly raw zucchini and yellow squash; and fried onion straws that only vaguely remembered when they'd seen the fryolater. The capper was a big, blousy vanilla bread pudding ($5.90) that was not worth the zillion calories.
Willy redeemed himself on date two. Starting backward from dessert: Housemade and sophisticated, an individual cheesecake ($5.50) is lemony and smooth, reading more like an unbaked French coeur a la creme, topped with crunchy wedges of lemon zest-tinged graham cookies.
That was preceded by a very competently executed napa cabbage and spinach salad ($7.90, add shrimp, chicken or fish for a few extra bucks), crisp wonton strips and a miso-ginger dressing giving it oomph. Another signature dish, a "grouperita" ($18.90; $14.90 at lunch) made pan-fried grouper and softly cooked banana unlikely bedfellows. A sweet-tart sauce of lime and triple sec managed to link the two, and the side zucchini and yellow squash (this time with roasted red pepper) exhibited more care.
In all its finned finery, Fish Tail Willy's is a fun summer outpost for frozen Blue Hawaiians and Bushwackers, its servers chummy and versed in the offerings. Still, the kitchen needs to focus on consistency and attention to detail before Willy is going to swim with the big fishes.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, can be found at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.