We keep hearing about how bad the economy still is, and that any sign that it is improving is to be questioned sternly or completely ignored.
Enter, Tampa's Chart House restaurant.
Until recently, this prime piece of real estate, bordered on one side by Tampa Bay and the other by hotels full of tourists and business travelers, was the home of the local outpost of Landry's Seafood House, a mid price point restaurant with a Gulf Coast theme and menu. But corporate decisionmakers decided it was time to change over to one of its other concept brands — the Landry's empire has more than two dozen — and switched to its luxe seafood marquee, Chart House, in early September.
The decor got classier, the view of the bay remained exactly as stunning, the menu became more refined and the prices went up to match. Despite the doldrums, that equation added up to big crowds on the nights we visited. Maybe the expense account is making a comeback?
There are several ways that the bar is set for a restaurant, but a key determinant is prices. Every plate we got at Chart House was good, attractively presented food. But its prices dictate that they better be.
The menu is extensive and seafood-centric, though many of the options seem variations of a theme. Among the signature dishes, there are eight fish, and four of them are served topped with crab. We tried the dynamite grouper ($35.99), which has the star fish encrusted with crab, then baked under a glacage, or glaze, of egg white, cream cheese and the Thai hot sauce called sriracha. The sriracha gives it the "dynamite" kick. The cream cheese surprised me — I asked the waiter to repeat it three times — but it was just there for the body of the sauce. The sriracha was the defining component.
Move on to the snapper Hemingway ($32.99) and you get the fish crusted in Parmesan and topped with crab. Both are perfectly fine dishes. But there are also sea bass and swordfish dishes topped with crab. Just seems curious.
The best of our entrees was the pan-seared scallops ($29.99). Four nicely browned scallops, each on its own perch of saffron risotto and sauces with ginger soy and wasabi cream. The shellfish were plump, soft and moist, and the risotto a perfect accompaniment. And the short ribs ($22.99) carried the flavors of their braise and the cabernet demi glace very well.
The entree prices are steep, but the appetizers come in substantial serving sizes, so a reasonable plan of attack might be to get a table out on the deck — there were manatee sightings on one visit — order a cocktail and share a couple of starters. The East Meets West tuna ($15.99) included the fish as a spicy tartare and seared slices. Plantain strips are there to scoop up the tartare, which is seasoned with wasabi cream, and the slices are garnished with avocado and a spicy kimchee slaw, so each half of the plate has its own East-West theme. Pair that with a chopped salad ($6.99), and you would have a reasonable dinner.
The lobster and shrimp spring rolls ($12.99) had some structural problems, with the rice paper wrapper loosely holding the meat and vegetables together. Adding lobster to the shrimp made for a decadent roll, but the citrus-chili dipping sauce had to be spooned on. Dipping would have caused complete fallout.
When we get to soup weather, the clam chowder ($6.99) and the lobster bisque ($8.99) are each large servings, rich and full of meat. Each is heavy for a starter, so plan to share.
The bar features a long list of martinis and other cocktails. The pomegranate mojito ($8) was vibrant with fruit and mint, while a strawberry-basil caipirinha ($10) was much more subtle, the cachaca, the Brazilian spirit, the clear star.
The menu says the mud pie ($7.99) is "famous" and hot chocolate lava cake ($10.99) is a "signature." Both were fine, but you've had them or something very similar before. Try the apple-dried cherry crisp ($6.99) instead.
Jim Webster can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8746. He dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.