ANNA MARIA ISLAND — The sign out front says that the restaurant in the nondescript strip mall has "the second-best food on the island."
But dollar for dollar, it may be the best.
The claim by Eat Here — yes, that's the name of the restaurant — sounds deferential, but it is deferring to Beach Bistro, which is a mile up the road, has a drawer full of Golden Spoon awards as one of the state's best restaurants . . . and is Eat Here's big sister.
For all of Beach Bistro's accolades, spectacular views and high-end food, the price tag makes it a special-occasion splurge. So owner Sean Murphy found the spot down the road on Holmes Beach to do something a little more approachable.
"We're just trying to demystify things a little," Murphy said.
There is no spectacular panoramic postcard ocean view. In fact, there is no view at all unless you're sitting outside. And at that, it's of a parking lot.
On the menu, there is less of a downgrade.
At Beach Bistro, there is a bouillabaisse that has earned the place a bit of fame. It's French soup packed with premium lobster tail, shrimp, calamari and the best fish and shellfish they can find that day. An entree-sized portion costs $56.
At Eat Here, there is the Gulf Coast Seafood Stew. Substitute sausage for the lobster, keep the other seafood and make a couple of other modifications, and the price comes in at $15.
A signature at Beach is the lobstercargot, which are cooked with spinach and butter and served like escargot for $23. Eat Here makes it shrimpcargot, and uses collards and bacon. For $9.
The menu takes the same casual, smirky approach as at Beach. The food, if a bit more modest, is just as serious.
The goofy headings on the various sections can be a bit confusing, but to simplify: Go with friends, order an array and share.
A basket of housemade potato chips ($5) are waffle-cut, tossed in garlic butter and served with blue cheese dip. Sound dangerously delicious? It doesn't have anything on the Heart Attack Hot Dog ($8), a recent addition to the menu. No ballpark frank, it is a kosher dog, wrapped in bacon, deep fried and served on a roll with more of that garlic butter. Then it gets a side of bearnaise, a rich, herby sauce of butter and egg yolks.
"I'm loving that one right now," Murphy said.
So did we, but we also split it four ways, just to mitigate any coronary impact.
The tempura'd beets ($6) were a favorite, baby beets roasted to candylike sweetness, then lightly battered and fried. They come in a paper cone, with a tangy dipping sauce of goat cheese and creme fraiche. It was a real surprise. Also surprising: that no one thought to call them "beet frites" on the menu. (They're welcome to steal that. It's on me.)
Less exciting was the poutine ($7), which fell victim to being less than the sum of its parts. Great herby french fries in a paper cone with a sidecar of meaty gravy, and another side with shredded Parmesan. The beauty of poutine is the hot mess of it all, pulling gravy-drenched fries apart from melty curds of cheese. Having the deconstruction, even of high-quality elements, was too . . . civilized. It's a dish that should require a trip to the dry cleaner afterward.
Entrees, under the headings of "grassland" and "surfers," are all worthwhile. Bangers and mash ($12) is a housemade sausage of lamb and tenderloin stuffed in a Thai wrap and fried, like some fantastic British egg roll. The mashed potatoes are laced with just enough horseradish to make you take notice. And the veal meat loaf ($15) is a generous plate of comfort food with more of those potatoes.
The fish and chips ($14) and the ribs ($14) each came in baskets with more fries and slaw. The fish is whatever is fresh that day; we got mahi-mahi. The ribs are cooked tender, then flash fried to crisp up and glazed with a pepper-papaya jam. Sweet, spicy and a little exotic.
Criticism? Well, the Cedar Key Clams ($12) sit atop a wonderful broth of anise and curry. But the clams are on top of fries, which aren't the way to sop up that liquid. There was brief discussion about using a straw, but it really needed bread. And a flour tortilla seemed to be a missed opportunity with the lobster tacos ($14). There is corn on the taco; a corn tortilla would have punctuated it better. It's nitpicky in both cases.
We made it through the entire dessert list, and declare the Polynesian pineapple cake ($6) the favorite. It had an interesting bread-pudding-like character, and a punchy ginger glaze.
The drink list is centered around the fridge full of bottled craft beers. The by-the-glass wine list runs $5 to $16, mostly with familiar names.
The room is decorated with seaside charm, but it's a tight fit. It's first-come, first-served, and on weekends, there are lines that the room can't accommodate, so the waiting is done in a line of chairs on the sidewalk. If the sun hasn't set, and it's summer in Florida, that can be uncomfortable time to pass. Weeknights are easier, though not immune from waits. It isn't hard to foresee a day when more of the strip is annexed. And there already are plans for a second location to open in downtown Sarasota before the end of the year.
The question is inevitable: Is it worth driving to the Manatee beaches?
When can we leave?
Jim Webster can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8746. Times critics dine anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.