By Laura Reiley
Times Food Critic
LARGO — The restaurant logo is a martini glass from which jumps a smiling marlin, on which rides a nude, mermaid-ish woman, certain parts obscured by cleverly placed seahorses. In the background, a palm tree. It's most of what you need to know about the new Thirsty Marlin in Largo, sister restaurant to the successful one of the same name in Palm Harbor. It's a casual, island-time, salt-on-the-rim, Jimmy Buffett-inspired vibe, the kind of friendly, affordable place that is a comfort in tough times.
But as some thoughtful Parrotheads might caution, there's a fine line between casual and sloppy. In a couple of recent visits, I found a pleasant interior and breezy, congenial service, but a lot of messy plates and inattention on the part of the kitchen. If some of the little things were fixed, I'd welcome this newcomer as a fun addition to Largo's relaxed dining scene.
First, the good stuff. Owners Russ Latimer, Brian St. Arnold and Michael Flowers, all of whom are involved in the Palm Harbor restaurant, believe in good steaks and nice pieces of fresh fish. They are also deeply indebted to the deep fryer for inspiration. There are conch fritters ($8.59), fried green tomatoes ($8.59), fried shrimp several ways ($8.59 to $16.99), fried grouper cheeks, fish and chips — I could keep going. Generally, the kitchen has a steady hand in this arena, with fresh, hot oil rendering the goods tasty and greaseless. Only the seasoned flour coating on the fried calamari ($8.99) failed to please, its saltiness the dominant flavor.
Outside the fryer, the bacon-wrapped filet mignon, flavorful and perfectly cooked, was the star of surf and turf ($29.99), its pile of king crab legs having picked up nice smoky flavor on the grill, but tricky to excavate with only a normal fork. That entree's plate, however, is an example of where the kitchen needs to step back and take stock. It looked like a train wreck, bowls of barbecue sauce and sides of black beans and rice and sweet potatoes cramming the plate, which was liberally covered with a decorative confetti of chopped carrot and red cabbage. On many dishes, that red cabbage finds its way into bites, the flavor detracting from almost everything.
Most fried foods are bedded on lettuce and ornamental cabbage, leaves shriveled unattractively by the heat. Aforementioned calamari come under an avalanche of chopped tomato, the tomato immediately soaking all crisp batter it contacts. Lemon rounds garnish many dishes, but these seem invariably desiccated.
Cleaner, sparer plates would be more appetizing, with more space for diners to do the work of eating — a Greek salad ($8.99), undressed, comes crammed in a fried tortilla bowl, impossible to dress and toss without dumping it out onto a plate.
Thirsty Marlin does have allures: A game room for the kids is monitored by camera from the main dining room so parents can keep tabs while they relax. Although there's not a printed wine or cocktail list yet, the bar goods are well concocted and fairly priced. And the dessert list features a triple layer chocolate cake ($6.99) and peanut butter pie ($4.99) that end a meal at this newcomer with luscious indulgence.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org 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.