From the outside looking in, Gulfport has a more coherent identity than most of the communities in Tampa Bay. Folks are civic-minded, a little iconoclastic and a whole lot of friendly. It has more than its share of wind chimes, paintings of geckos and mailboxes shaped like manatees or jowly pelicans. Its 1930s bungalows tend to have yards that are pretty without being what might be described as manicured.
Restaurants follow suit. Many are housed in those historic bungalows with wide patios, tables trailing out into the yards. Breakfast at Stella's, hot dogs at Yummy's, dinner at Pia's or the recently reopened Backfin Blue — there's a family resemblance. Peg's Cantina was a sprawling indoor-outdoor craft beer-forward hangout with the kind of Mexican food that wouldn't have kept Diana Kennedy up at night with its persnickety verisimilitude. It was fun and it was comfortable.
Peg Wesselink and Tony Dodson closed after 11 years at the end of 2015; Mike and Cathy Burke took over, and on March 8 it debuted as Fish Bar and Grille. I'm not sure how much time went into considering how that name would play on the World Wide Web (hint: not well), but the mission is clear: fresh fish and shellfish served in a convivial environment without a lot of frippery. Scrolling through my mental Rolodex of Gulfport restaurants, it's a niche that really isn't filled.
First-time owners (Cathy has been catering coordinator for St. Pete Yacht Club; Mike recently retired from AT&T), they have hired veterans like general manager Dave Peterson and executive chef Scott Basso and have committed to sourcing seafood from diligent distributors like Sammy's in St. Petersburg. They inherited a pretty space (and an immaculate kitchen, they say), so it didn't require much more than a coat of paint and some taxidermied fish to get diners oriented.
As with many new restaurants, servers are still finding their footing, and I'd say the bar program overall needs attention: Not just as an homage to Peg's, Fish needs to embrace the proliferation of great craft beer in our area; the wine list features mostly pedestrian grocery store familiars; cocktails lean too heavily toward the sweet and fruity. There has been enough forward momentum and rigor in the area's bar programs recently that the offerings at Fish feel a little retro.
Nothing much needs to be improved upon with starters like a dozen Manatee County Joe Island clams steamed with lemon, garlic, butter and wine ($11), or with the fat gulf oysters, shucked and sent out with the necessaries (cocktail sauce, horseradish, saltines), a dozen for the budget-benevolent price of $13. Looking around, it seems the ahi tuna nachos ($12) are a house favorite. It's a big pile of fried wonton chips topped with tiny cubes of ahi, mango salsa and a Jackson Pollock-style accent of Sriracha. Nice flavors, but the presentation was a bit blowsy.
The menu is not vast but traverses a fair amount of ground. There's New England clam chowder served in a sourdough bowl ($8), so rich and thick that when completed it may result in an inability to operate heavy machinery. Key West peel 'n' eats ($16) can be served hot or cold and feel like a mini vacation, a pile of soiled napkins a testament to diners' enthusiasm; and those same shrimp appear in a solid ceviche ($11) with tiny scallops and chunks of snowy whitefish. (A little less time in the citrus might yield a slightly plusher texture.)
Fresh gulf grouper ($24) and snapper ($25) take center stage among entrees. You're paying for the good stuff here; portions aren't vast. You have a choice of grilled, blackened, panko-crusted or fried, accented with sauce choices of citrus teriyaki, mango-pineapple salsa, piccata or soy-honey-ginger-lime. I tried a couple of iterations and would say the simpler the better to let that fish shine through, accompaniments like grilled asparagus and mashed cauliflower expertly executed.
The kitchen's aesthetic is very homemade. With dishes like the shrimp and veggie stir-fry ($18), the timbale of jasmine rice at the center of the plate feels restaurant-y, but the jumble of snow peas, bean sprouts, bok choy, peppers and bouncy shrimp reads like something a good home cook might whip up. That's not a criticism — in these days of Instagram-ready architectural plate presentations, Fish seems firmly on terra firma.
Some Gulfport residents will persist in lamenting the passing of Peg's. Making use of the same pretty setting, Fish seems like a welcome newcomer offering honest seafood in a space casual enough for sports-watching. Oh, and the patio is dog-friendly. It's Gulfport, after all.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.