By LAURA Reiley
Times Food Critic
I'm having an Andy Rooney moment, okay? Indulge me in a "the olden days were better" rant for a sec. Sure, Costco and Wal-Mart have revolutionized how we shop (cushy socks and lamb chops and the latest Stephen King book — oh, my. Now there's a special-me night all in one cart.). But remember when you went to the fish guy and he sold you fish? Not an exhaustive array, just a big handful of options you could rely on to be fresh because, after all, you knew this guy. Then you went to the green grocer and the produce guy sold you stuff. Etc.
This is simplifying, but shopping for food was about relationships. In many parts of the world it still is. I lived one summer not long ago in the Netherlands: You ritually bought a teeny bit at a number of purveyors and bakeries and it added up to a transcendent dinner. Let's call it Stations of the Crossbuns.
I think this is what Linda Schuch and Beth Moch had in mind when they opened Island Seafood in June. It's in the Grand Central District in a place that used to house art from the Dali Museum. Both avid anglers, they wanted to do a fish market and had been assured that the locals were poised to purchase. It was an elbow-grease effort, the duo painting and tiling and buying up Craigslist stainless steel restaurant baubles.
The result is a fish market trying to be a restaurant, or a seafood restaurant with a really fancy reach-in refrigerator. I like it. It still has the gawky self-doubt and knobby wrist bones of an adolescent (as in, it's hard to know whether to sit down or order at the counter, the specials need to be more prominently displayed, they are only open until 7, so dinner is an early affair).
On my first visit I picked up a little piece of grouper and a special of a tomatoey-coconutty sauteed shrimp dish over jasmine rice. Very homemade-tasting, perfectly seasoned, its shrimp a reminder of how many ho-hum shrimp I've eaten recently (these weren't). It had a little heat and verve, the shrimp themselves sweet with that bouncy-not-chewy quality, the signature of fresh shrimp not overcooked.
The dining room is a tight-set jumble of tables plus a long, high-top communal bar table. On my second visit, that long table went empty, as if awaiting a fish-boning demo or a hogfish-spearing lecture. We'll see if that's the best use of space.
A fish spread of smoked mahi is offered in two sizes ($4.50, $5.50), with a basket of cellophane-sleeved saltines on which to slather the flavorful, herbed, moist fish. A keeper, but the saltines were pretty darned salty in context. The house clam chowder ($5, $8) is the red Manhattan style, brightly tomatoey with carrots and other veggie flotsam, the clams themselves a little low-profile in the assemblage. Still, it seemed wholesome and sustaining in this fierce Florida winter.
A trio of sandwiches proves good eating: A crab pita ($8), a lobster roll ($14) and a Philly fish cheesesteak ($8) each showcases nice ingredients. This last was a head-scratcher, the peppers-onions-cheese strange theoretical bedfellows for a meaty plank of just-grilled mahi, but it worked, a lively chili saucelike condiment and a warm crusty roll bringing it together.
The lobster roll is the height of simplicity: warm roll, lobster hunks and your choice of mayo or butter. All elements tasty, but I think some diced celery, scallion or shredded lettuce might provide a flavor/texture contrast to accentuate the plush lobster meat. (My suggestion is more traditionally Maine style. Connecticut usually opts for the lobster-butter-roll purity.)
The crab pita swaddled fresh blue crab, spicy mayo, celery and onions in a pocket — a light lunch, all the better to finish up with a slice of peanut butter pie (desserts from the Pie Factory in Largo).
Whether Island Seafood ends up more store or more restaurant, the truth is, a shiny display case front and center demands that its contents be super-fresh, either way a boon to Grand Central.
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.