I drove by the Seven Seas strip club 100 times and thought, "Yeesh, if the ladies inside look like that drawing, I hope the customers get their money back." It was a crummy drawing of a nude woman on a crummy sign in front of a fairly crummy cinderblock building. In 2011, the exotic dancers got the heave-ho and the sign came down, to be replaced by a rough-hewn metal one with the word "FIRE" jigsawed out of it in a kind of Asian-inspired font.
What was it going to be? A pottery place? A hot sauce boutique? I had to wait nearly a year to find out. Opened at the beginning of August, Fire is the collaboration of South Tampa restaurant owner Ryan Quinn and Carey Maynell of WestCoast Construction. The two knew each other from coaching Plant High School football, Quinn having been a co-owner at the Bungalow as well as Deck Pizza & Pub, Maynell having been involved in the construction of local restaurants like Ciro's, Boca and Westshore Pizza parlors.
A restaurant review takes three things into consideration: food, service and ambience, the assessment of each a somewhat subjective endeavor. In the case of Fire, I'm an enthusiastic fan of the food and service — I have issues with ambience but am fully expecting to hear readers vocally defending the decor.
Quinn and Maynell built Fire without a designer or architect, relying on their combined experience to undertake what was clearly a massive renovation (leaving only three walls up, they even ripped up the foundation). They spent close to $1 million on the project, piling on design elements that are over-the-top, sometimes even clashing. There's a huge, lurid mural of flames (every bit as literal as the old Seven Seas sign), a colossal steel cage enclosing the liquor and massive mahogany double doors that are undermined by the placement of orange caution cones that seem to prevent people from tripping over the handicapped curb. There's red leather, burnt orange mosaic tile columns, gargantuan curved metalwork over the bar, a red chandelier made of bottles above the VIP booth — it's all custom made, and it's all too much.
The oddest thing is that the decor signals nothing about the cuisine (other than fire is implicated, which is probably the case for all but raw food restaurants). The owners have hired Ryan Kelly, a Culinary Institute of America grad and longtime alum of Roy's and most recently Tampa Bay Brewing Co. It was a wise choice because Kelly has a serious knack of bringing contemporary New American culinary fixations to a broad audience at a very reasonable price point.
You can grab a burger or some wings ($10.50, excellent, served naked with a tremendous habanero honey sauce) and watch the game on one of the flatscreens, but the reason it has become an overnight girls'-night-out spot (beyond the really good happy hour deals) is because Kelly knows hip food. He does a pork belly dish ($9) with a maple-miso cure and served over cheesy grits with a few crunchy chicharrons that rivals that at Edison or other hot spots.
He does a sly and humorous dessert called the King ($6.50) that features a baguette, spread on one side with peanut butter and caramelized banana and on the other with Nutella and candied bacon. Yup, again with the bacon fetish, but it's this great synergy of flavors.
Synergy is the word that describes another wonderful dish, a wood-planked salmon ($16.50) set atop shaved English cuke and topped with a limey-minty salad that is Vietnamese in tenor. And again in a duo of cornflake-crusted chicken breasts ($13.50) with a buttery sauce balanced between local honey and Buffalo hot sauce alongside a heap of smoky braised collards.
Kelly's sides might be the best things on the menu, most of them hovering around $4 and easily shared: roasted potato wedges with blue cheese, spicy broccolini with sweet shallots, Szechuan snap peas, curried creamed corn. I would happily make a meal of a trio of these zesty and dynamic flavors. Did you hear me — curried creamed corn!
Tampa at this point has a whole lot of pizza going on — Fire's versions are pleasant but not nearly the most exciting part of the menu, the crust a middling thickness, the sauce pleasantly piquant and the wood-fired oven adding a nice blistery smokiness. I had a mixed veggie pie ($10.50) that was enjoyable, but didn't ring my bell like that broccolini.
Despite being a scant 6 weeks old, Fire has done a great job training servers who seem to have thoughtful and exuberant feelings about the menu and well-priced, familiar wine list. They do frequent check-backs, get the bill to you promptly and are quick to kibitz about the food. In all, they seem "on fire" with what chef Kelly is doing, as well they should be.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses.