It was a perfect sunset, the kind with lurid pinks and corals and yellows slathered across streaky clouds of an approaching cold front, a row of royal palms thrown into inky relief. Everyone had their cellphones out, little rectangles duplicating the glory unsatisfactorily in the way they almost always do. It was my second visit to Walt Wickman's Olde Bay Café, and I was thoroughly smitten.
I had loved Wickman's previous restaurant, Walt's Seasonal Cuisine, which for six years was a homey spot at 1140 Main St. (which now houses Bistro Atlantis). There, Wickman developed a mid-price menu with an abiding respect for gulf species like hogfish and cobia and grouper. The economy laid the hurt on and he ended up closing shop and working for his family's fish market in an old wooden fish house at the Dunedin Marina.
Wickman's dad had purchased the Dunedin Fish Co. with a buddy of his in the early 1970s, then sold it to Wickman's uncle, Bruce Lee (not that Bruce Lee, this one is 6 feet 5 with red hair), who had the retail and wholesale fish market for 27 years. When Lee's business skewed more wholesale than retail, he sold the retail part of the operation to Sarma Reynolds. She went out of business right before the BP oil spill, and Walt took over the space in March 2011.
I don't know why it took me so long to get over there, but the launch of stone crab season — and October is National Seafood Month — got me thinking saltwater. So on a gorgeous, balmy evening with the marina spread out before us, corralled boats rocking on gentle swells, a friend of mine and I shared a half pound of stone crabs (two jumbo claws, $15), delicious in their sweet simplicity, and then the kind of honest, fresh seafood dinner that is maddeningly rare around here.
Wickman, 41, has a big following in Dunedin. On Thursday nights, a group of local runners end their exertions here on the patio with good beer prices (Wickman is a strong supporter of Florida craft beer, most drafts hovering around $5). The rest of the week, it seems like regulars, most of the staff recognizing folks and kibitzing accordingly. The servers know the menu cold, not that it's vast. But still.
Every day there are a few kinds of fresh fish (the retail side of the business lists the fresh fish on the website), which you can have as a pair of messy tacos, in a sandwich or as a dinner. First, though, spend a little time with a bowl of thick, cream-based corn shrimp chowder ($6) or a half pound of huge peel-and-eat shrimp ($11) offered cold with cocktail sauce or hot with butter (don't feel like peeling, a solid shrimp cocktail, $9, cuts out the work).
The lion's share of seating is outside on the covered patio, but step into the bar and glance around to the left and you'll see the microscopic kitchen. There's no deep fryer, no big grill. Most of the grub is steamed or pan-seared — no hardship there. On my second visit, the kitchen was out of the snappy, skinny green beans that had wowed me the previous week, so with my fresh swordfish (perfect texture, very fresh-tasting, $18) I ordered a fan of fresh avocado and a little green salad with a slightly sweet, citrus-y vinaigrette, the whole dish working synergistically with flavors and textures.
What Wickman is doing now is a little more casual and affordable (alright, and the wine list isn't as good) than it was at his previous venture. That suits the setting, the economy and Wickman himself (he and his wife have a 4-month-old baby). With culinary training at Johnson and Wales University, he certainly has the pedigree to do "fancy" food, but it's his background in the family fish business that informs what he's doing at Olde Bay Café.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.