ST. PETERSBURG — Moving is so much easier when you have a bunch of friends to help.
Max & Sam's Bar & Grille was in St. Pete Beach for three years when it occurred to owners that more space was needed if all these friends were going to keep showing up. Other locations on the beach were considered, but parking was going to be an issue anywhere on the beach. Ultimately, a new home was found in the Tyrone-Jungle neighborhood, in a historic building that was Saffron's for years, but before that, as legend has it, a speakeasy of some notoriety. Photos of what the building looked like in the days of Capone were found on the Internet, and a restoration effort began.
Though moving 5 miles might not seem like a big deal, for a neighborhood joint, changing neighborhoods can be dangerous. But indications are that the regulars who made the move necessary have found their way across the bridge. And they've brought more friends.
They might have made the trip because of the staff, which seems able to predict the drink orders of the customers they know by name.
Or maybe it was because of the piano bar in back, where live music means a jam-packed dance floor several nights a week.
Or maybe it's the food. There is certainly evidence that points to that.
Let's start with the pork osso buco ($24). I heard a diner at another table protesting — loudly — to his companions that osso buco had to be veal shank, because that's the way it is back in Italy. Technically, he was right. But it's semantics. Pigs have legs, too, and benefit from the same long cooking.
And it was clear that the customers at large were not upset with any liberties being taken with the name. On one visit, the volcano-looking dish seemed to be headed to every table in the packed house. So much so that when I ordered it, they were out. So we made a point of getting it next trip, and it was easy to see why it's so popular. The bone-in shank comes to the table standing upright on the platter, and the meltingly tender meat easily peels away at the touch of the fork.
You can get it on top of pasta or potatoes, but take the rice option. That's the best medium to soak up the sweetly spiced tomato braising liquid that sauces the shank. Plus, that's how they do it in Italy.
The bulk of the menu is built around steaks. The top sirloin ($25) comes in a 14-ounce "baseball cut." It was an impressive piece of meat well cooked by the kitchen — nice sear, medium rare all the way through — but underseasoned. It was a problem easily fixed with the shaker on the table, but a surprise. Another night, the 8-ounce filet (I had that as part of the surf and turf with lobster, $38) had no such seasoning issue. The lobster tail came with two butters: a roasted garlic chipotle lime butter, and plain drawn. There is probably a good application for roasted garlic chipotle lime butter, but lobster isn't it. You order lobster to taste lobster.
I had less luck with shrimp scampi. The shrimp were big, fresh and tender, but if the white wine sauce had wine in it, it had gone bad. A bite of the pasta tasted like it was sauced in vinegar. A bite from the other side of the bowl tasted of butter. Had the sauce broken? I mixed it up a little to see if I could bring it back together, and it was better, but I could not reset my taste buds from the initial vinegary shot.
Desserts are not listed, but the favorite of our visits was the Kahlua cheesecake. It was a dense, rich cake, with the boozy element in the sauce. I bet that cheesecake would be good under any sauce.
Jim Webster can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8746. Webster dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.