Before going to a restaurant I plan to review, I try to do a little homework. Find out a little bit about how it came to be, take a look at the menu and try to discern what might be the best dishes to judge. Find out what they are known for, or want to be, at least.
That can be pretty easy these days. Just sit at a computer and type the name of the restaurant into a search engine. I did just that in preparing to visit Harold Seltzer's Steakhouse.
I found that the Web address for the restaurant is bestprimerib.net. So my research was pretty much complete.
Harold Seltzer's Steakhouse is the reincarnation of the Sam Seltzer's brand, which had as many as six locations during a 15-year run that ended when it closed in May.
After the abrupt end, Harold Seltzer (grandson of the original namesake) went to work to regain the concept and reopen the restaurants. In October, about five months after the closing, he opened the St. Petersburg and Port Richey locations.
Both look mostly the same. The iconic sign has the same look, save the replacement of Sam's name with Harold's (a change necessitated by bankruptcy proceedings). The herd of faux steer is still out front. The interior motif is heavy on the dark wood, though it all got a good refinishing to freshen up the place. And for a little nostalgia, replicas of vintage postcards from the area are blown up and used as wall art.
"Customers ask me every night if Sam is here. He was 90 when we opened the first restaurant in 1995," says Harold, who sold his share of the business in 2004.
Enough with the history and the amenities. Let's get to that meat.
I tried the 1-pound cut of prime rib ($15.95), but there are half- and 2-pound options, depending on your appetite. I ordered medium rare, and while I probably got a cut that was closer to medium, the meat was tender and juicy. There was a large lobe of fat at the tail. I'm glad it was there during the roasting process, because that's a source of juiciness, but it has served its purpose by the time the meat is on the plate. The proprietary spice rub added good seasoning to the bites that included it, but because the rub is only on the outer edge of each slice of roast, a lot of the meat seemed underseasoned.
That problem could be addressed with the addition of horseradish sauce, and Seltzer's offers a regular and a creamy. The regular provided a nice pungent hit. Any horseradish that might have been in the creamy version got lost.
So, is it the "best prime rib"? I want restaurants to be proud of their product, so I appreciate expressions of confidence like that. But ultimately, those are personal decisions and don't really tell anyone anything. I think if the declaration was that the prime rib was a great value, I wouldn't take issue. It was a good chunk of meat, well prepared, and the price included bread, a salad and a side. At $15.95, that's a good value.
We had similar reactions to the filet (6 ounces for $14.95; 9 ounces for $19.95) and the ribeye (14 ounces for $18.95; 18 ounces for $19.95). Pork chops ($14.95) were well grilled, keeping thin-cut chops juicy. The surprise hit was a blackened mahimahi ($14.95). The 8-ounce fillet was a beautiful piece of fish, simply seasoned with a subtle lemon-butter sauce.
Subtlety played no role in the appetizers we tried. That was a good thing in the classic shrimp cocktail ($7.95) and its spicy house-made cocktail sauce, and the coconut shrimp ($7.95) with its orange marmalade-based sauce that gets much more interesting with the addition of hot mustard. Conversely, the fried onion blossom ($6.95) could have used a little subtlety. Aggressive seasoning made it hard to get too deep into it.
The wine list stays with the theme of simple and affordable. Only one bottle of bubbly stretches beyond $30. Service was very friendly but sometimes required some reminding.
Harold Seltzer worked for months to be able to bring back the business that originally bore his grandfather's name, and is still working to get back in other markets. He says he did it to be there for employees he thought were unceremoniously let go by previous management and to fill a niche with a dedicated customer base.
"Every night, I'm in the dining room and people tell me how glad they are we're back. It gets emotional. They remember birthday parties here, or this was their dad's favorite place, or they were engaged here. It has been a little overwhelming."
Jim Webster can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8746. He dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.