Many of us live within sight of the Gulf of Mexico, the source of so many delicious things to eat. But when was the last time you had a memorable seafood meal around here, a real celebration of the briny deep? The truth is, vibrantly fresh fish and shellfish are sometimes hard to come by, even steps from the sand. Here are three long-timers where seafood deftly takes center stage.
Matoi was serving tekka maki to intrepid Tampa diners before most of us knew wasabi from our wazoo. A stalwart for more than two decades, luck ran out one night just before the 2009 Super Bowl in Tampa. Stocked to capacity with raw fish and other ephemeral sushi ingredients for hungry sports fans, an electrical fire broke out in the comfortable independent restaurant, causing massive damage.
The Lim family rebuilt, most of the longtime employees coming back to work. And while the Tampa Bay area has swelled with sushi bars in recent years, Matoi still makes most people's "tops" lists. There are a few reasons for this: breadth of menu, affordable price point, veteran servers who have all the details dialed — but the No. 1 reason is fresh fish.
Korean cuisine is a sideline at Matoi (bulgogi, bibimbap, fiery kimchi), something Tampa has precious little of. But I still tend to bypass this, as well as the excellent tempura veggies ($4.99) or green beans ($4.99), in favor of straight-up sushi. Sam and Steve Lim staff the bar, a charming place to sit and watch feats of sushi craft.
The jewel-colored swaths of fish are treated reverently, sliced expertly and then arrayed atop rice fingers (nigiri), over a bowl of rice (chirashi) or tucked inside rice (maki, offered with white or brown rice) with accessories. The fat futomaki ($5.99) is packed with egg, cuke, imitation crab, avocado and tangy Japanese pickle; the rainbow ($12.99) is a party pleaser with a long row of California roll draped with vibrant lengths of salmon, tuna and other fish. I'd take these simpler rolls over the busier ones (Mt. Fuji, Firecracker), where the briny lushness of fresh fish gets lost in the shuffle of spicy mayos and fried crunchy batter.
Snapper's Sea Grill
Dan Casey opened Snapper's in 1997 after years of serving up Vienna dogs at Dan's Beachside Grill and running a grouper sandwich joint. Snapper's was something different, something upscale with fresh-off-the-boat fish and a wine list more sophisticated than nearly all the others on St. Pete Beach.
And now it's closing.
That got your attention. Actually, Snapper's will close just after Thanksgiving for a major renovation, to reopen around Christmas with new ADA-compliant bathrooms, a new wine room and butchering area, and an expanded dining room. Meanwhile, Casey will open restaurant No. 3 (his second is nearby MadFish), a steakhouse he is fairly sure he's calling Seared 1200, set to open in the space vacated by Patrick's.
Luckily, there's still time to visit Snapper's before the doors close. The restaurant does more than $1,000 in wine business daily due to a striking and well-priced list as much as to a strikingly well-versed waitstaff. These guys love wine and ably pair menu items with the most appropriate quaff.
The restaurant has built its reputation on dishes like Blue Tuna ($9.95), an appetizer of cracked pepper crusted seared tuna with wasabi and pickled ginger and a little slick of blueberry teriyaki. Delicious, but in the past year or two, as grouper and similarly prized fish have been harder to come by, Snapper's has carved out a niche for itself selling the kinds of species anglers tend to keep for themselves: reef fish like mango snapper, hogfish and triggerfish.
Chef Chris Burghart (who is also chef at MadFish) tends to keep things simple to showcase freshness, broiling a grouper fillet ($23.95) and pairing it with a rotating lineup of salsas and a little veg and coconut basmati rice, or pairing a nice piece of snapper with garlicky scampi shrimp and roasted asparagus ($25.95). And for early diners, the 4-5:30 p.m. deal includes entree, salad, coffee or tea, and a little slice of key lime pie for between $8.95 and $11.95.
I'm not saying it's not a dump. It's dark, and the exterior is a little sketchy. But the drinks are stiff. The staff is warm, and Mike Calzone rips it up on guitar, sax, whatever every Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday night. And while you're listening to Calzone, you're doing this: gorging on snow crabs. That's on Tuesday and Thursday night ($26.95). On Mondays it's all-you-can-eat peel-n-eat shrimp ($11.95), on Wednesdays and Fridays it's barbecued ribs ($10.95), Fridays and Saturdays you go for catfish, and on Sundays and Mondays it's fried chicken ($9.95). I can't speak to the chicken, ribs, etc., but on a recent evening I went to town on snow crabs.
Their attributes: hot, tender, sweet and readily replenished. The dining room of this decades-old bar is festooned with cheery tropical murals, and the vinyl-seated chairs are reminiscent of a motel banquet room. But add in very competent 40-cent wings and $1.50 drafts and the R in R Bar stands for "Repeat business."
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow her on Twitter, @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.