By LAURA REILEY
Times Food Critic
CLEARWATER BEACH — Just look at the footwear: Those Florsheims and black socks over there are strictly business, the dyed-pink satin sandals have got to be bridesmaid material (yes, there go two more pairs the same color). And the flip-flops? Pure summer vacation. Hotels on the beach have big shoes to fill. Scratch that — many shoes to fill.
Rusty's Bistro at the Sheraton Sand Key Resort has had a steady hand at the helm since 1989. John Harris, a longtime local fixture who gives back to the community in so many ways, knows he has to appeal to a range of customers with a variety of agendas.
He has managed to hit upon a menu that seems fresh and contemporary without being likely to spook anyone. He showcases local ingredients when possible, and keeps an eye on seasonality.
It's a shame more locals don't find their way there for dinner, but the lack of view (a hotel restaurant on the beach without a single water view? What were they thinking?) and a somewhat sterile dining room don't exert a lot of magnetism.
Harris and staff have compensated with some appealing allures. A nightly prime rib buffet is on offer for $19.95, $6.95 for children ages 6 to 12. It's a good deal, with several other hot entrees and side veggies, a small but appealing salad bar, and butter-tender prime rib carved with care and plated with fetching horseradish cream.
It's the a la carte menu where Harris and his chef de cuisine, Jeffrey Hiott, get more creative. One evening's grilled halibut summer salad ($24) hit lots of nice notes, a trio of lush Ugly Ripe slices and a fan of ripe avocado playing off the simple, meaty grilled fish quite nicely, niblets of roasted corn giving it a summery essence. I would have dressed the accompanying greens, and the deluge of deep-fried flour tortilla pinwheels could have been toned down a little, but overall a nice dish with good instincts (keep it simple and vibrant).
Shrimp cocktail ($11) brings a quartet of fat beauties curled into a pretty glass, its cocktail sauce assertive and piquant. Still, the blue crab cake ($10) drew our full attention with its lack of filler and haunting smoked tomato aioli and swirl of tomato-carrot-ginger jus. Without too much unnecessary fat, it was fresh and bright.
In the name of something-for-everyone, a messy Kobe burger ($13) coexists with a fancy seafood sampler ($25) paired with basmati quinoa pilaf. Both are executed carefully — the burger offered with bacon, sauteed mushrooms, onions or cheese — and presented appealingly, with a great big wines-by-the-glass program to find something suitable. It's a list of mostly familiar names, the prices not mercenary.
Desserts aren't pushing any envelopes, but the biggest crowd-pleaser is the Bananas Foster ($7), and a gooey-centered individual chocolate cake with a scoop of vanilla Haagen-Dazs ($7) nipping at its heels.
On one night's chocolate trilogy cake ($8), a three-tiered mousse concoction, the massive quantity of creme anglaise seemed unnecessary, but the mousses were luscious and deeply chocolate.
A live keyboardist gets things jumping on Wednesday nights, but despite that, service can be a bit stiff and hotel-formal. Looking around the dining room, though, from flip-flips to Florsheims, everyone seemed to be having a lovely evening.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org 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.