Times Food Critic
YBOR CITY — I had to look up the reproductive habits of lizards. Iguanas, to be precise. Yep, it's just as I thought. Upon reaching maturity, the green iguana reproduces annually until death. That explains it.
The Green Iguana group is proliferating like mad. There are outposts of the G.I. in St. Petersburg, Brandon and Ybor City as well as on S West Shore Boulevard, N Dale Mabry Highway and Anderson Road near Carrollwood. They also have Hula Bay Club in the old Rattlefish location, and in March they opened Buddha Lounge in what was the lovely but short-lived Nest in Ybor City.
This Buddha Lounge is the only one at the moment, replacing one that until recently was running on N West Shore. This one is a fleshed-out version, with a broader pan-Asian menu that includes noodles, rice dishes and sushi.
According to manager Matthew Beilstein, a lot of changes were made in the tiny and unworkable Nest kitchen, and the dining room saw an overhaul of all the lighting (alas, because the Nest lighting was really chic) and the addition of a pleasant waterfall. The overall effect is more nightclubby than restaurant, tamping down the grownup sophistication level of the Nest decor to appeal to some of Ybor's denizens.
The kitchen is still getting its bearings, but I have high hopes. Chef Mike Webster was the brawn behind the pan-Asian menu at Twisted Bamboo in Oldsmar, which hit a lot of flavor notes dead-on, from Thai to Japanese to Chinese. For now, Buddha Lounge is a couple ticks higher in price than your neighborhood Asian joint, but the dishes lack a clear ethnic identity. It's fusion food, but in the sense that the flavors are a thin stew.
I do have one suggestion. What Buddha Lounge does best is noodles. Pad Thai ($7 for veggie, $8 for chicken or beef, $9 for shrimp) are tasty, as are fat udon in rich broth (same prices) with cabbage and mushrooms, and there's a decent stir-fried lo mein (same prices). In many of the country's big urban centers right now, Asian noodles are in demand. Lowly noodles like ramen have been gussied with all manner of dynamic flavors, and people are slurping them up. It's the perfect late-night food, really: cheap and sustaining, and sure to ward off hangovers and the like.
That's a niche not yet really filled in Tampa. Sushi we have in reckless abundance, and Buddha Lounge's rolls aren't winning any awards for finesse or innovation. A volcano roll ($12) is so packed with stuff (tuna, crab stick, avo and cuke, ladled with Thai red curry sauce and sweet eel sauce), it's unappetizing. The fried softshell crab in a spider roll ($9.50) didn't seem fresh or freshly fried.
It seems that business has already picked up from the ghost town that was the Nest. Perhaps it's the entertaining list of Asian-inspired cocktails, the hipster servers and the fun soundtrack that people seem drawn to at Buddha Lounge thus far. Having eaten several times at Twisted Bamboo before it closed in October, I know Webster has the chops to make the food a more magnetic draw.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Read her blog at tampabay.com/blogs/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.