ST. PETE BEACH
Oscar's on 75th opened in June, and the buzz was about its ridiculously low prices. The prices were so low, in fact, it was a little suspicious. How can a sit-down, table-service kind of place survive charging $4.95 for entrees?
The menu was limited, and the prices so low, it seemed best to wait awhile before passing judgment.
Now, a couple of months later, the menu is bigger, and the prices have risen. Still very reasonable — nothing is more than $10 — but believable. If the pricing strategy was an effort to get people to come in and make Oscar's their hangout, it may be working. On our visits, there were decent crowds and live music. The dining rooms have a classy feel. In one there is a piano and big wooden bar; the other is a little quieter. The work of local artists hangs on the walls.
So in this genteel setting, what are the expectations for a pork chop with black beans and rice that now lists for $6.95? For that, it would be easy to accept something that was merely satisfactory. The problem is, it really wasn't. It was a decent enough looking piece of meat, but was so overly salted that it seemed inadvisable to finish it. And there was no relief in the beans, as they were too salty, too, and packed with raw garlic of which a little goes a long way.
It was easy to think that maybe there was someone with too heavy a hand on the salt in the kitchen, but that thought went away when we tasted the grilled chicken with yellow rice and vegetables ($6.95), which seemed to have absolutely no seasoning at all. Same with a seafood pasta special ($9.95). Even the brininess of the natural habitat of the seafood seemed removed.
Swings even happened within one dish. The shrimp scampi with angel hair ($7.95) had a half-dozen well-cooked shrimp. But they and the pasta were sitting on top of the oil-based sauce, which meant that the bottom layer of pasta soaked up the sauce, and the rest of the pile was left without flavor. Some of the shrimp had wild bursts of pepper, and some none.
The actual cooking of all the components seemed fine — except for some dry tilapia in the fish tacos ($6.95) — so there is reason to hope that straightening out seasoning issues could turn everything around here. And it's easy: Take half the salt on the pork chop and put it on the chicken, and two disappointments are transformed into two decent dishes.
The appetizers we tried from the all-seafood options were much better, and again, low priced. The best were a bowl of mussels steamed in white wine ($3.95) and two petite crab cakes ($4.95). The mussels were plump and packed a lot of flavor in the wine sauce. The crab cakes were full of big lumps of meat and paired with a bright fruit salsa. The lobster ravioli in light champagne sauce ($3.50) sounds luxe, and is fine as a small pasta appetizer, but neither of the two marquee ingredients was particularly obvious.
There are simple house and Caesar salad options ($2 each), but we tried the Oscar salad ($3.50). It looks a lot like a caprese, with a few roasted peppers joining the classic tomato, mozzarella and basil. And, notably, the tomatoes come perfectly salted.
The bar is limited to beer and wine, and there isn't any gouging going on there, either. House brand wines in seven varietals are $3 a glass, and a malbec checks in at $4.
Service was earnest enough that we are left rooting for the place. On a slow night, our server was always at the ready with refills and food came along at a good pace. Oscar himself visited our table with each course, making us feel like a guest in his home. On a busier night, though, our server seemed a bit harried and the pacing off. He seemed to have too much to do, which was weird because there were several staff members congregated at the bar much of the night.
Location will remain a challenge for Oscar's. It has decent frontage on the main thoroughfare from the mainland, but the parking situation is less than obvious, hidden in an alley behind the building and between two very different kinds of novelty stores. The sliding-glass entry gives the feeling of walking in the back door, into a narrow hallway. Less than ideal.
That is a difficult problem to solve, but ultimately it isn't as important as those on the plate. Those fixes seem fairly simple and would make the food match the atmosphere.
Jim Webster can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org 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.