By LAURA REILEY
Times Food Critic
Robby's Pancake House was a Treasure Island gem for 33 years. You could count on fluffy short stacks in a comfortable setting. But the Coover family had to do some hard math when their tax rate shot up in 2004 and 2005. How many pancakes would it take to balance the books?
The answer: too many. So Dave Coover and his sons, Dan, Dave Jr. and Scott, retooled. The space was renovated, the concept rethought and the upscale Middle Grounds Grill was born. It is named for a 348-square-nautical-mile fishing area 75 miles west of Tarpon Springs. Yes, the name reflects the culinary focus of the menu, which showcases a lot of seafood, much of it local. Grouper, snapper, cobia — Scott Coover is in charge of inspecting and cutting all the fish.
But Florida's Middle Grounds may be metaphorical in other ways. Despite its distance from shore, it is a popular destination among anglers because of its bounty. The secret of its success is topographical variation — the depth ranges widely, with lots of ledges and limestone peaks. In essence, it is prized for its diversity of fish and their stalkers.
The same could be said of Middle Grounds Grill. There are preparations that hail from Italy (veal osso buco, portabello chicken bowties), from the Caribbean (jerk shrimp skewers, tuna steak with "berry inferno sauce"), Japan (tuna sashimi or a side order of sauteed edamame) and right here in Florida (Key West chowder, smoked fish spread). It's literally all over the map, but the quality of the seafood remains high.
I would urge chef Brian Drumheller to take a women's fashion tip to heart: When getting ready to go out for the night, just before walking out the door, remove one piece of jewelry. In other words, less is more. There's too much garnish going on here. In the country's top food cities right now you won't find plates rimmed with sauce squiggles and lots of chopped herbs. And I like when a plate is lent textural interest by something crunchy, but a crostini, plantain chip, whatever has to reflect a marriage of flavors. Garniture always needs to make sense.
I'm off my soapbox now. The dishes: Two spreads make solid and shareable appetizers. The house fish spread ($8) is less smoky than Ted Peters', but bright with onion and festooned with tasty crackers in a Stonehenge-like circle. A cheesy, gooey artichoke dip ($8) is granted distinction by its delicate smoked gouda flavor and warm grilled flatbread submersibles.
A blue crab cobb salad ($15) makes an unusual starter, the blue crab complemented nicely by chipotle-jazzed ranch and bacon bits. Or maybe this is better as a light entree — all entrees come with a pleasant house or Caesar salad, so you may be disinclined to get another salad as an appetizer.
Of the entrees, the most popular appears to be the nut-crusted grouper ($24) with mango beurre blanc and coconut basmati rice. A nice piece of fish, a straightforward and elegant presentation, and the same could be said of a shrimp linguini ($18) with tomato, shallot and white wine. Steaks are all certified angus, wet aged (this means the meat is vacuum sealed and aged, so not a lot of water weight is lost) and fair priced ($19-$30), offered with competent accessories (sauteed criminis, crisp onion rings).
Service can be a tad quirky and well drinks are pricey (your basic martini, $10), but in all, one of the nicer Treasure Island destinations. And if you're still missing Robby's, you can end with nostalgia: Robby's warm pancake berry stack ($6) with whipped cream.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at 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.