Brian Storman has had a long and colorful career in the Tampa Bay area. In the 1980s he had the insanely popular Storman’s Palace in Feather Sound, which in 2008 became the grownup playground "ultralounge" called the Venue (25,000 square feet of martini bars, champagne lounges, cabana decks and VIP rooms, with a sushi bar and Mediterranean tapas restaurant). He also opened an ambitious seafood market called I.C. Sharks on Gandy, which several years ago expanded into a multilevel waterfront tiki bar and restaurant. (This move prompted ongoing friction with next door neighbor the Getaway.) The market has been my go-to place for gulf finfish as well as mussels, clams and stone crabs. (Oh, and they do a killer whole smoked salmon that will crush at your next dinner party.)
So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Storman set his sights on the slightly down-at-the-heels Champion’s BBQ space on Fourth Street N to do a next project. It’s in his blood to think, "What next?" Baytenders Oyster Bar & Steamer opened a couple of months ago after an extensive remodel (and painting over the bubblegum pink) that yielded a casual, TV-centric bar and main dining room, with a phalanx of covered wooden booths outside.
What might surprise is the oyster part of the program. Increasingly in American cities, hipster oyster bars have debuted that showcase the full range of these bivalves, from the European flat to the Pacific oyster, the Kumamoto, the Eastern and the Olympia oyster of the Pacific Northwest. Folks are hunkered over trays of ice extolling the virtues of Wellfleets or Fanny Bays or Shigokus. This is not that kind of oyster bar.
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This is a low-key, friendly, roll-up-your-sleeves-and-eat-a-pile-of-seafood kind of place where no one is sweating the minutiae about precisely where these oysters hail from (Texas, Virginia). Presentation is not fussy, oysters are fresh, briny and shell-free, but they aren’t going to knock your socks off with their merroir. (Still, $8.75 for six is a pretty fair deal.)
This is the kind of place you settle in with some friends to do the focused work of plowing through a plate of snow crabs ($29.95), everyone’s chin going a little buttery and lunging at the wet wipes once they’ve been dropped tableside. A bowl of Prince Edward Island mussels ($13.95) had plump and appealing mussels, but the broth in which they bobbed seemed more hot water than anything appealing like butter and white wine (alas, because the broth is often my favorite part; $13.95).
The house mahi fish spread is quite good, served simply with saltines and rounds of jalapenos ($8.95), the fish itself smoky and unctuous and just bound together, a squirt of hot sauce giving the whole shebang a little lift.
You’re not here for the vegetables, right? You’re eager to plow into a plank of fresh local snapper, blackened just enough for oomph but not enough to obscure the fish’s flavor ($24.95), with a refreshing bit of pineapple mango salsa perched up high. Fine, but you’ve got to get the side of asparagus, three fat spears still crisp and dribbled with a tarragon-scented bearnaise. Or while you work your way through the velvety swaths of blackened tuna in your salad, which you swipe through the tangy sesame ginger dressing, you can still enjoy the sweet sugar snaps, carrot and crunchy wonton strips.
On one of my visits I sat at the bar, a spot from which to take in the whole scene. There’s quite a bit of watching of sports, some straightforward mixing of cocktails while trash-talking and kibbitzing — it feels like a neighborhood bar, one that traffics in fried oyster baskets and steamer pots crowded with clams, mussels and shrimp heady with that distinctive smell of Old Bay. It’s something this part of St. Petersburg doesn’t have much of, and it should come as no surprise that Storman is the one to bring it.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines unannounced and the Times pays all expenses.