TAMPA — It may have been an unfair test. • Even going to Bailey's restaurant on Davis Islands without a strategy of ordering things I don't normally care for, we ended up with a table full of things like collards, broccoli, cauliflower and oysters. • But before I realized the irony of the collection in front of us, I realized something else: I liked it all.
The collards, a side dish, were tender from being cooked enough, but still had texture from not being cooked too much, and brightened with a little acidity. The broccoli and cauliflower, another side, come together in a mash with an unbilled cheese sauce that doesn't hide the vegetables, but gives them a nice boost. And an appetizer of fried oysters ($14.95) was a big basket of crispy, briny bites, with a horseradish cocktail sauce that bit back a little.
Bailey's is the venue of chef-proprietor Kim Bailey, who moved his operation into the Davis Islands spot vacated by Chez Bryce after spending about three years in a small space in Hyde Park. The theme is Southern comfort classics, and it is clear that Bailey comes by it honestly.
The hyperbole-filled menu touts the degrees of awesome dishes like shrimp and grits ($18.95), crab cakes ($18.95) and meatloaf ($16.95).
The menu says "everyone" is talking about how the crab cakes are the "best in the country, bar none." I haven't been privy to any of those conversations, but found the cakes very good, with a lot of large lumps of crab, barely held together, a good indication there wasn't much binder. The shrimp and grits are simply called "awesome" on the menu, and it is certainly a nice rendition, with a bowl of creamy white grits providing the bed for about a half-dozen large shrimp in a spicy sauce. I wasn't as enamored of the meatloaf — mom's recipe, which "everyone" calls the "best ever" — as many others reportedly are, but it is unique with its coat of bacon and sweet tomato sauce. The sauce masked the bacon, which only became apparent when it started to peel off the loaf.
Meanwhile, there is no mention of a groundswell of admiration for the corn fritter appetizer ($7.95), so I'll start it. They taste like a New Orleans beignet that came to Tampa by way of Zellwood and are appropriately dusted with powdered sugar. A side of honey for dipping accompanies. It would be totally appropriate for these to be on the dessert menu, and it is totally indulgent to have them as an appetizer.
Speaking of desserts, they change every week, and follow the simple and over-the-top theme. A strawberry upside-down cake uses Plant City berries three ways, in a cake, ice cream and sauce. A pecan pie comes as thick as advertised, and a decadent carrot cake is borne of an idea admittedly "stolen" from Bern's Steak House. If there was a bad dessert, we didn't find it.
A short wine list focuses on affordability, with about a half-dozen each red and white, topping out with bottles in the mid $20 range. Bailey recently started infusing vodka at the bar.
Bailey is quite conversant in all things food. He has a weekly radio show that he does on Saturdays from the bar area, and sends out his menu updates in the form of an e-mail blog with all sorts of news and notes about what's going on at his restaurant and others in the area.
That chattiness finds its way onto the menu, which is double-edged: The homespun nature of the descriptions adds to the flavor of the restaurant, but the long narratives can prove distracting when it comes to decisionmaking. And after reading about the fourth thing that is the "best ever," it gets hard to take seriously. Which is a shame, because the food is legitimately praise-worthy.
Service was friendly but wildly different on two visits. On a night the restaurant wasn't too busy, it was attentive and well timed. On a busy night, we felt forgotten at times.
But those corn fritters. Everyone should be talking about them.
Jim Webster can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8746. He dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.