Thursday, April 19, 2018
Features and More

Reviews: Shrimp Boat Grill, Willie's the Place for Seafood, and Saladworks each bring something special to Brandon

BRANDON

Sunlight, soil and water. That's what it takes to grow something. But the devil's in the details. Some confluence of these three makes one setting conducive to growth and another, not so much. Brandon was in the right place at the right time to grow one of the area's healthiest crops of chain restaurants. • Why? • According to Rob Regan, general manager of Brandon's GrillSmith, conditions were ideal. • "When I was growing up, it was all cow pasture out here. Then, in the 1990s, people knew that you could build residential in Brandon for cheap. It coincided with lots of the big chains starting up, chains that did their research and knew where to build." • Still, a healthy restaurant culture depends on a delicate mix of those dependable chains (Olive Garden, Chili's, etc.), independent restaurants and new concepts. We took a peek at three Brandon spots that bring something essential to the table.

Shrimp just the start

Al Paone and his son, Albert, opened Shrimp Boat Grill eight years ago. It doesn't look like much, tucked in a strip mall with several other restaurants, its decor a comfortable stew that says "mid-priced seafood restaurant." But this place gets cranking, maybe in part due to its drink specials ($3 house wine! $1 drafts!) but more likely because the namesake crustacean dishes are excellent.

We started one evening with a shrimp duo ($8.99), wonton-wrapped and fried shrimp and not-overly-breaded coconut shrimp, both so tasty they hardly required their sweet dipping sauce. From there, either the grilled shrimp ($13.99), served simply with drawn butter and a choice of side (broccoli, cole slaw, etc., with a salad option for an additional $2.49), or a garlicky, buttery shrimp scampi ($14.99) served over spaghettini are welcome choices. This is honest, fairly straightforward American food, served at fair prices.

But if that's all you eat, you miss half the story. The junior Paone, with a master's degree in statistics and no early intention to get in the restaurant business, is something of a daredevil. He pays attention to what's happening around the country — molecular gastronomy and ethnic flavor mash-ups — and on Saturday nights he pulls out all the stops. You can order off the regular menu, or for a very reasonable $25, you can opt for his four-course tasting menu, which recently started with a pickled jumbo oyster with cucumber "cappellini," then segued into a lettuce wrap of crispy braised pork belly and a Sriracha aioli, on to a paupiette of rainbow trout with a blue crab-rock shrimp stuffing and finished with a warm coconut tapioca. Each of these courses had fillips and doodads that would have been appropriate in many fancier restaurants.

Oh, and Paone's clear joy is making ice cream. Do not depart until you've sampled either the salted caramel, the chocolate malted or the Guinness ice cream.

Willie's no-fuss fare

Brandon longtimers won't need an introduction to Willie's, the Place for Seafood (formerly called Fat Willie's — no word on whether this coincided with a change at the scales). Sitting all by itself, the little 1915 building was once a general store, then a post office and finally a classic "fish camp" restaurant. It has gone through some ownership changes in recent years, but its essential character is the same: honest, down-home, faintly New Orleans-tinged, seafood-centric, rib-sticking fare that is unlikely to move anyone's cholesterol in the right direction.

Take a business card out of the hollowed-out alligator foot and slide into a seat at one of the no-fuss tables. If you're looking for a green vegetable you'll have to content yourself with the house salad (dressing choices: blue cheese, ranch or honey mustard, all of the fat-grams-be-damned category) before wading into the fried fish. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday are all-you-can-eat nights, a dangerous prospect when considering fried softshell crabs ($14.99) or catfish Ponchartrain ($15.99) with its crawfish Creole cream sauce. I opted for a fried combo of mahi mahi, catfish and shrimp ($18.99), a mammoth pile canoodling with fried hush puppies and serviceable french fries.

The kitchen knows the tricks: clean oil, hot enough to leave batter crisp and greaseless, and a little tangy tartar sauce and scoop of simple cole slaw to contrast all the crunchy lushness. No wonder this quirky bird has managed to weather rough restaurant times.

A new chop house

In many ways, Saladworks is the antithesis. A New Jersey chain that has been around for 26 years, the Brandon franchise, opened at the end of March, is the first in Florida. As I said, new concepts contribute to keeping a restaurant culture vital, and this qualifies: It's a fresh spin on the customizable craze. It's like Sweet Tomatoes meets Subway, salad "technicians" poised to construct your own point-and-pick salad scenario, or with a baker's dozen of salad recipes (Greek, "Nuevo" nicoise, fire-roasted Cabo jack) as a starting point.

What makes this different from, and better than, many other salad options is ingredients. Everything is chopped fresh daily in house, the spring mix springy, the bacon crunchy, the red onion with none of the second-day bitterness prechopping yields.

These are entree-sized salads (all between $7.99 and $8.29), certainly big enough for a dinner, with corresponding dressings you can have packed on the side for takeout orders, or tossed while you watch if you're eating in the small, spare dining room. As with many new restaurants, service is still figuring itself out, the salad constructers squinting at their cheat sheets as they put together the romaine, sliced chicken, grape tomatoes and banana peppers with blue cheese crumbles, tortilla strips and spicy Buffalo dressing for the "Buffalo bleu" salad. It's all packed into stylish black-and-clear plastic to-go containers, very spill-proof, with heavy plastic cutlery. In all, a concept certain to give other Brandon salad options a run for their money.

Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses.

Comments
Freefall flavors 2018-2019 season with comedies and a pair of musicals

Freefall flavors 2018-2019 season with comedies and a pair of musicals

ST. PETERSBURG — In the coming season, Freefall Theatre is rolling out a world premiere, a different take on Christmas, a sharp comedy and a recent work by Pulitzer winner Lynn Nottage. The theme for the 2018-2019 season, "A Brighter Tomorrow," color...
Published: 04/19/18
Persall: Upon retirement, a look back at a star-quality career

Persall: Upon retirement, a look back at a star-quality career

Do you see what I did there? The comma and extra "E" in my byline?One last pun, just for fun.It’s the end, fin in French, and something unfortunately ruder in Swedish.Time to retire, nearly 25 years to the day after starting work as the Times’ movie ...
Published: 04/19/18
Tampa’s 60-year-old Housewife Bake Shop may not be closing after all

Tampa’s 60-year-old Housewife Bake Shop may not be closing after all

For nearly 60 years it was breads, cakes and pastries, up before dawn for the Perrone family in Armenia Garden Estates. For a minute it looked like Tampa’s Housewife Bake Shop was going to close, but third-generation owner Tena Perrone said on Wednes...
Published: 04/18/18
Four new restaurants in Tampa Bay: Brazilian steakhouse, Chinese, juice bar and more

Four new restaurants in Tampa Bay: Brazilian steakhouse, Chinese, juice bar and more

TERRA GAUCHATerra Gaucha Brazilian Steakhouse, a classic churrascaria-style Brazilian meatery — you know, where the guys in South American cowboy attire walk around with the swords of meat until you capitulate in a carnivorous haze — has opened a loc...
Published: 04/18/18
This is a week to spring clean instead of hitting a movie theater.

This is a week to spring clean instead of hitting a movie theater.

It’s a spring cleaning weekend at multiplexes, with studios vacuuming every dollar from current releases before the Avengers and Amy Schumer drop in next week. If you’ve seen A Quiet Place, Ready Player One and Black Panther, this is probably a good ...
Published: 04/18/18
Desi Oakley savors pie making in ‘Waitress,’ orchestra does Verdi’s Requiem

Desi Oakley savors pie making in ‘Waitress,’ orchestra does Verdi’s Requiem

HEAD WAITRESS: DESI OAKLEYThe blue collar mother who drives the plot of Waitress never thought she could win a pie-making contest, let alone start a business."She doesn’t even have the capacity to understand that she could do this," said Desi Oakley,...
Published: 04/18/18
We critique the best and worst brands of sparkling water

We critique the best and worst brands of sparkling water

Sparkling water, much like when you shake it before opening, has exploded in the United States the past few years. The fervor for fizzy water has soft echoes of the meteoric rise of bottled water during the early 2000s, just with more pastels perfect...
Published: 04/18/18
How much water do I need? Plus, other H20 facts

How much water do I need? Plus, other H20 facts

Okay, really, how much water do we need? The Mayo Clinic says there’s no one-size-fits-all answer for this because of differences in exercise, environment, overall health and factors like pregnancy or breast-feeding. The National Academies of Science...
Published: 04/18/18
A taste test for drinking water? They can be surprisingly different

A taste test for drinking water? They can be surprisingly different

BROOKSVILLEThey brought it in glass carboys, in jars, in 2-liter bottles. It stacked up at the entrance to the auditorium, some of it just slightly murky but most of it crystal clear.Water. For more than 15 years the members of Region IV Florida Sect...
Published: 04/18/18
Five ideas for travel-friendly snacks

Five ideas for travel-friendly snacks

Whenever I fly, I pay way too much for food. I’ve stumbled jet-lagged into fancy wine booths and nearly bankrupted myself with cheese plates. I’ve purchased granola bars that cost more than my plane ticket (okay, maybe it just felt that way). If you’...
Published: 04/18/18