ST. PETERSBURG AND PALM HARBOR
Comfort food is idiosyncratic, often a reflection of where we were raised and what foods were on our holiday tables or what we remember Nana whipping up those times Mom and Dad absconded to Atlantic City or Aruba.
For Lynn Marasco, who owns the new Steel City Brewhouse in St. Petersburg, comfort food means pierogies and stuffed cabbage, the foods of her Pittsburgh Polish-Russian-Italian roots. And for Tara and Randy Cook, owners of the new New England Ale House Grille in Palm Harbor, a little bit of home means chowder and lobster rolls and fried whole belly clams.
The interesting thing is that both have similar missions: Offer an array of craft and large-production beers in a casual setting suitable for game-watching and community-building. Steel City opened in February in a former Hooters location (Marasco says it's been "de-Hootered," an uncomfortable-sounding process) that needed a new bar, new kitchen and the works. It's a pleasant space, with 16 taps that rotate (all American beers), similar to the place of the same name Marasco ran for more than two years at 2061 Central Ave. in St. Petersburg.
She's recently taken a little heat for instituting a no-kids-in-the-evenings policy, but as she says, "it's a bar that serves food" and there's a lot of grownup bar behavior kids don't need a front-row seat to. Marasco is responsible for the short menu, most of the items family recipes and all of it (except the hamburger buns) made from scratch.
Five pale pillows of pierogi (say that out loud; $8) are filled with soft potato and sauteed in butter, topped with a plop of sour cream and a loose tangle of sauteed onion and flecks of bacon bit. Or twirly egg noodles come ladled with a sour cream-lightened beef gravy and studded with Italian meatballs, an oh-so-Pittsburgh spin on stroganoff ($8.50). It's rib-sticking food, as was a passel of breadcrumb-crunchy molten mozzarella sticks with a zingy ramekin of chunky marinara ($6.50). All of these are workhouse foils for a Rivertowne Pourhouse or Pennsylvania Brewing Co. or even a hometown Cigar City.
The Cooks opened their ale house in June in an orphanage and schoolhouse building that dates to 1910. It was the Olde Schoolhouse Restaurant for the last 30 years or so; the Cooks were drawn to it for "its old New Englandy charm." Randy, a veteran Army Ranger who has done tours in Afghanistan, is a veteran at restaurants as well, having had a few in Maine.
After redoing the kitchen, adding a deck, making things ADA compliant and gussying up the interior, they launched with a work-in-progress attitude, tinkering with the menu and other details to reflect diner feedback.
What's settled so far is 30 beers on tap, some local brews and some big-name nationals, with a Mug Club of 250 mugs overhead (if you join, beers are half off on Tuesdays, and you get 5 ounces more because of the mug capacity — there are still 52 mugs for rent, $75 a pop). There are a whole lot of flat-screen televisions and incentives like raffles to home Bucs games and an all-expense-paid trip to Super Bowl XLIX.
The menu is by and large not reinventing the wheel, offering solid renderings of fried fisherman platters ($29), which come with fried fish, shrimp, calamari, whole-belly clams, choice of two sides, roll and little salad. The most interesting, and sumptuous, part of the menu is a section of mac-and-cheeses, one of which you can have studded with lobster, another with shrimp and still another with scallop and bacon, each of them with a velvety bechamel and topped with crunchy breadcrumbs ($23).
Chef Angie Cloutier has a nice way with steamed clams ($12) and mussels ($9) and her creamy clam chowder ($5/$7) gets an applewood bacon boost and a sturdy thickness. Pretty much no matter where you hail from, that's a bowl of comfort right there.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.