After I've eaten at a restaurant-review prospect a couple of times anonymously, I call the restaurateur to set up a time for one of our photographers to go in and take pictures of the food. It's my opportunity to ask about the restaurant's history or clarify ingredients or preparations. Often, it's the only direct contact I have with the delicious spectrum of characters who make up Tampa Bay's restaurant scene.
I called Harold Russell last week, chef and owner of Backfin Blue Café, a Gulfport original. Having read through my predecessor Chris Sherman's many complimentary words (many of them about crab cakes and prime rib), I wanted to hear about the long life of this restaurant.
Russell obliged, taking me back to 1997 when Gulfport's little art village didn't have many dining options. Having had a project fall through near the then-new Tropicana Field, Russell found himself cooking at this little house-turned-restaurant, eventually buying it from the original owner.
In some ways, his story was one of making do. A 1920s cottage, Backfin Blue has always had a little house kitchen — that means no hood, thus no fryer, no grill, no open flame (think about it, that means no sauteing).
Way back when, Russell had to sit down with the fire marshal and sift through the menu to weed out anything that would cause grease-laden air. It has stayed that way.
The results are an idiosyncratic menu the Gulfport locals are devoted to. Russell's in-laws are from Maryland; to curry favor he learned to work magic with Maryland blue crab, seen stuffed into a fat portobello cap and paired with a roasted red pepper cream sauce ($18.50), as jumbo lump crab cakes ($18) with virtually no filler, or even as an evening's special seafood cocktail with roasted corn and guacamole, scooped out with tortilla chips ($12).
Prime rib ($14.50, $15.50 and $17.50, depending on size) is the other big draw, the super-friendly servers rushing plates of it to many of the folks crowding the screened-in porch (the premium seating). It's rosy, fatty, smoky, served if you like with a ramekin of fiery bottled horseradish.
The rest of the menu is not long, but contains highlights like a super-thick corn and crab chowder ($4); bacon-wrapped, basil-stuffed barbecue shrimp ($7; just a great mix of flavors) and a hearty grilled grouper sandwich (market price).
I do have a little tough love: Side veggies seem dated. Each plate gets a lettuce leaf filled with shredded carrots. No dressing, no seasoning, which makes it seem more like inedible garnish. And the house vegetable medley (yellow squash and zucchini, broccoli and those whittled carrot nubs) was unseasoned, unbuttered and undercooked, the kind of steam tray veggies I remember from my school days. And the artichoke heart and grape tomato salad one night suffered from deeply oxidized 'chokes, nearly black. I say rethink the veg to match the attention spent on the proteins.
Still, in the face of serious kitchen challenges, Russell has created an enduring concept that fits right in with Gulfport's bounty of good eats.
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.