ST. PETE BEACH — Management from the Don CeSar sat at a table in the middle of the dining room. The owner of the Wine Cellar had a spot at the bar. In general, it's a good sign when a new restaurant is patronized by fellow industry folks. Mulligan's, the previous business residing on the northern tip of St. Pete Beach right before you head over the pass into Treasure Island, probably didn't have that kind of cachet. It was, as new chef Rich Hall puts it bluntly, "a big boobies and $2 beer beach bar." Tricky alliteration aside, there's lots of room for such places along the Gulf of Mexico, but the new Ocean Breeze is aiming higher.
Owner Hans Koller and crew spent December repainting, redoing bathrooms and moving in new furniture, the overall effect indeed a breezy, seaside chic. Koller was taken with the culinary vision of Hall: an international approach to tapas that keeps affordability firmly in mind. Hall comes most recently from his own restaurant in North Carolina, but at one time was the chef at the Florida Aquarium cafe.
This is not a quiet restaurant. You will have to raise your voice and you may have to be assertive in flagging down a server. Ankle-deep into peak season, Ocean Breeze may be riding in on the winds of change. Sit a spell and 2010 seems positively promising: Locals, tourists and snowbirds are flocking, drawn by dancing, live music and a range of fruity tropical cocktails.
I'd say the wine list is priced high relative to the food, and a number of hot dishes were cold by the time they reached the table. But in general, this newcomer adopts a casual, pleasant, something-for-everyone approach.
Flatbreads (all $8) bring quartets of easily shared finger foods, one topped with artichoke, sliced chicken breast, baby spinach and fontina; another with sliced steak, bacon and blue cheese. Savvy combinations of flavors, good ratios, nice balance of textures. Toni Kola ribs ($8) are tender, fall-off-the-bone little treats glazed with a sweet, sticky sauce that prompts surreptitious or outright finger-licking. Broiled pesto mussels ($8) were one of the most generous portions, the bivalves fat and plentiful in a buttery broth tinged with basic, garlic and Parmesan, and a mango crab cocktail ($8) was a heaping serving of jumbo lump crab in a martini glass, its accompanying mango and pico de gallo needing some oomph to lift this dish toward memorability.
Salads are huge (a case in point the Thai version — $8 — that contains a pillowcase-worth of mesclun mix), but I'd like to see a little more care: Dressings are drizzled on, not tossed, so coverage is spotty, and avocado was not ripe on a Cobb ($8) while the mandarin slices were droopy on the Thai. Vegetarians, however, will be happy to see a vegetarian chili ($5), a beans-and-tomato concoction lent grace and panache with some house-smoked jalapeno.
Koller's Austrian heritage gets a few menu nods — the best of which is the Viennese Kaiserschmarrn ($4), a fluffy dessert pancake dusted with a flurry of powdered sugar and served with warm applesauce.
The Koller family recipe is also used for a rich and classic chocolate mousse ($5), although the plate presentation in quenelles surrounded by a Jackson Pollock explosion of strawberry sauce is fussy for this casual a place.
Service is still getting its bearings, management trying to gauge proper staffing as we ramp up to high season on the beaches. But Koller and Hall have transformed the old Mulligan's space into a breath of fresh air.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog 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.