TAMPA - This will be my fourth review of restaurants in this space, all of them more or less favorable: Bistro Bleu (a sophisticated New American charmer), Marrakech (Yay! We have almost no Moroccan food here! Bring on the tagines!) and Catrinas Tacos and Tequila Bar (opened at the peak of Tampa Bay’s taco fever). Catrinas had a decent run, but you can’t help but wonder about a spot that never seems to take. It’s not the location on MacDill — Datz down the way does monster numbers, Byblos has been doing its thing for nearly two decades and even Mad Dogs, with its unlikely setting farther south into residential Palma Ceia, is aging with grace.
At the end of November, after a nine-month renovation, the Lure opened, and again, I have a lot of good things to say. I’m also going to wager that it will have a solid run. The first Lure opened in downtown St. Petersburg in January 2016, one of a raft of casual, mid-price restaurants to debut in town around that time. The tagline was "Tikis, Tapas, Tacos, Billiards and Cold Dead Fish." Not exactly things I think of in the same breath. But it worked, gaining traction and building a fan base largely on the strength of its "something for everyone" approach and casual, good-times setting.
Second, it has seasoned operators. Tom Golden (formerly of the Rack in Tampa, a similar sushi and billiards concept) and Michael Stewart (Ava, 717 South) are the principals, with investors Phil Gerardi (he did the construction), Michael Kosloske and Raheem Morris, former Buccaneer and a coach of the Atlanta Falcons. Jason Rodis is the executive chef at the St. Petersburg location and has been brought over to get things running, James Roberts has been tapped as sous chef, and Hunter Chi, who was formerly the sushi guy at Ocean Prime, is here to roll the sushi.
And third, it’s got a fun, whimsical look, with a box spring repurposed as a chandelier and a great fish mural by David Boyd, who was formerly of Boyd’s Clocks in South Tampa and also did the charming murals at the St. Pete Lure.
My biggest beef with the Lure so far is something I see at lots of restaurants in these days of small plates and sharing. You order a bunch of stuff, everyone calling out something that appeals to them and hoping it all coalesces into a meal that makes sense. But then it all arrives together and your server stands there, plates aloft, waiting for the customers to rearrange things on the table to accommodate all the food. Nope. When I’m out to eat, my job is not to act as air-traffic controller on the table. If the table is too small to accommodate all the plates, the dishes should be staggered into courses. In fact, the dishes should probably always be staggered into courses so hot food stays hot, cold food stays cold until you can dispatch it.
Rant over. In general, service at the Lure is fairly loose and casual, the high noise level often requiring that servers lean in to catch what you’re saying. It’s a full bar with some fun signature cocktails, a decent craft beer list and familiar wines offered in regular-size glasses and goofy-large 9-ounce pours. (I don’t know why I feel so giddy. I only had two glasses of wine!)
Many of the dishes on the menu are inside jokes and cultural references, some named for friends of the restaurant — it’s a fun read, and makes you wonder what you’d have to do to get a dish named after you. The sushi seems to be the main draw, with a short lineup of nigiri, sashimi and classic rolls, and then a long column of specialties, many of which lean to the more-is-more school of sushi: The Jasmine From the Block pairs tuna, avocado, mango, scallion and smelt roe topped with avocado, mango and tempura chips, and is served with ginger mango dressing ($14), whereas the Marquis de Quisenberry brings together salmon, spicy kani salad, mango and asparagus rolled in seaweed and lightly tempura, resting in a garlic miso sauce and drizzled with a pomegranate glaze ($15). There’s a lot of cream cheese, a lot of eel sauce, a lot of saucing in general. It is well rolled and carefully presented, although I often feel when a roll packs together eight or nine elements, it’s easy to lose sight of the fish.
If you don’t get bogged down in sushi-goes-with-edamame rigidity, there is absolutely no reason you can’t accompany a spicy tuna roll ($7) with a pleasant caprese salad with small moz balls and cherry tomatoes "at play upon a field of pesto, drizzled with roasted garlic habanero and balsamic reduction" ($9) or even a Greek-ish salad called the Little Al (kalamatas, feta, banana peppers, etc.; $9). Or even juxtapose it with a Wake Up Maggie flatbread, really a margherita dealio with sliced romas, fresh moz and a workhorse marinara ($12). (And here’s a nice thing: Created by Mark Riley of Rico’s Pizzeria in Sarasota, the sale of these benefit the Salvation Army. Each flatbread type benefits a different charity.)
The Lure doesn’t take itself too seriously, but that’s not to say that the owners don’t have a keen appreciation of what and how people like to eat in 2018. (Stewart has another exciting project he’s about to announce — stay tuned.) With all of this restaurant’s many, em, alLures, let’s hope it can beat the odds in this "disaster cafe" location.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines unannounced and the Times pays all expenses.