By LAURA Reiley
Times Food Critic
It was the first really nice night of spring after such a long chilly spell. It shouldn't have surprised me that everyone wanted to warm their pasty flesh at the water's edge. But I pulled up to Ozona Blue in the crook of Smith Bayou at Home Port Marina and my brow furrowed. Cars circled and the valet parkers were sprinting full tilt to keep up with the long line of cars discharging would-be diners.
In the bar, I struggled to be heard. Is this normal? I asked someone. I can't be sure, but I think the answer was: it's always like this. It opened in November 2006, with a swimming pool and hot tub to entertain diners tired of watching boats bob in the marina. There is live music and a wide, tented terrace that seems to get some heavy wedding reception traffic.
The original owners of Ballyhoo Grill in Tarpon Springs, owners Debbie and Chris Fragale, are seasoned restaurant pros, also overseeing City Fish in Oldsmar. In fact, Ozona Blue bears a family resemblance to City Fish: There's an indoor thatched-roof tiki hut, a meat case at the front in which to ogle steaks and a menu that covers vast ground. In fact, I think some of the dishes are nearly identical to those at City Fish, but overall Ozona Blue is a more satisfying experience.
She crab soup ($3.90, $4.90) was overly thick and glutinous — much better were starters like firecracker shrimp ($8.50), a nearly ubiquitous dish these days that swaddles fried shrimp in a sweet-spicy chili mayo, or a crisp smoked salmon flatbread ($10.90) with red onion, capers and cream cheese in addition to the swaths of North Atlantic salmon.
Not to overdo it with the salmon, but the most successful entree may be the cedar-planked salmon ($18.90), the sweet smokiness of the length of wood permeating the still-pink-centered fillet. A nice dish, especially when paired with a side of tomato-stewed zucchini and preceded by a small Caesar salad (a salad and choice of sides is included with most entrees). Regulars speak most reverently about the Chilean sea bass ($24.90), a vast hunk of meaty white fish, grilled and given a mild, sweet Asian sauce, and I overheard several fellow diners waxing rhapsodic about the carrot cake ($6.90).
We ordered it, a huge portion blowsy with whipped topping, along with a similarly outsized and bedecked chocolate turtle brownie ($6.90). Neither were high art, both were generously portioned and casually presented. Which seems just about right for this high-volume water's-edge playground in Palm Harbor. And in this seasonal sweet spot, Ozona Blue added Sunday brunch earlier this month, with a full complement of Benedicts and omelets.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Read her dblog at tampabay.com/blogs/ dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or assessment.