ST. PETERSBURG — The most popular girl in school. What was it about her? Her looks had something to do with it, but not everything. She was popular because she believed in her popularity.
The brand new 400 Beach Seafood & Tap House is like that. It's got good looks but, one month out of the gate, its place-to-be-seen status feels inevitable. The large-scale Beach Drive restaurant — 9,000 square feet, 300 seats, private dining room for 32, banquet room for 64 — is a collaboration of a number of savvy restaurant people. Steve Westphal and Tyson Grant of Parkshore Grill, chef Sean Squires of Island Way Grill in Clearwater, general manager Rick Steavpack and banquet coordinator Robin Vela make a dense enough concentration of pros to assure that things run smoothly even when the crowd is three-deep at the bar.
I wish the food surprised and charmed me more.
It's affordable, it's accessible and much of it will seem familiar. Maybe in these difficult times, that's the key to success. But on a couple of visits, nothing knocked my socks off. Squires and Grant have put their heads together for a menu that comes at seafood from lots of directions. There's sushi, fried baskets, lots of steamed king crab and lobster, plenty of dishes hovering around $20.
It's a strategy that aims to provide something for everyone (same with the breadth of draft beers, from good ol' boy Pabst Blue Ribbon, $3, to fancy Unibroue strong red ale, $5.75). Looking around the contented dining room, it seems to be hitting its mark. Still, with a number of dishes, I can't help but feel that the emperor is scantily clad.
A New England lobster bake ($29.95) and a similar shellfish steamer ($29.95) were generous portions, but the details were slack, from the mushy corn to the undercooked red bliss potatoes and rubbery-salty chorizo (on the New England). The seafood involved, from the Key West pink shrimp to the middleneck clams and Maine lobster, was pleasant enough, but nothing really sang in the slightly inelegant presentations.
There are good things: The celery root slaw that comes with the beach baskets is a welcome and sophisticated alternative to common cabbage. A grilled skirt steak ($15.95) is a juicy, gutsy, flavorful fan of meat with a punchy garlic-lime treatment and a scoop of tasty corn and black bean salad. The coriander yogurt dipping sauce on a tandoori beef satay ($6.95) was exotic and novel, although the beef itself was ho-hum.
Entrees come with a nice-sized house salad with Caesar dressing or a nostalgic Green Goddess and warm, crumbly cheese biscuits. Both carefully done and generous on entrees priced as low as $12.95 (vegetable stir-fry). Still, I'd like to see more attention on other dishes. Rock shrimp lettuce wraps ($8.95) are a good idea, but too much red onion swamps the delicate flavors of shrimp and avocado. One of my favorite dishes in theory, the San Francisco cioppino ($23.95) is a hearty, lavish bowl of seafood (clams, scallops, grouper, crab claws and mussels) with a rustic grilled bread — if only the one-note tomatoey broth had the spunk that makes the West Coast's fish stew more memorable than a persnickety bouillabaisse or burrida.
Truth is, Westphal's new project has the earmarks of a success. It's glamorous but not stuffy, a lively place to run into a who's who of St. Petersburg. Kitty-corner from the Vinoy, in the space that was once slated to be Robert Irvine's Ooze and Schmooze, 400 Beach has gorgeous nighttime views of lighted trees in North Straub Park and the Pier beyond, plus great sidewalk dining space. It boasts a huge staff of servers, each serving tiny sections in the dining room thus far (meaning more personal attention at each table). Everything on the wine list is offered by the glass at an unmercenary markup. Most of all, it's convinced of its own worthiness, which goes a fair way toward persuading the dining public.
Right now the kitchen may be playing fast and loose to keep up with the volume of patrons, but in the long haul the details on the plate have to be nailed.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at www.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.