"It's not that we're angry; we're just very disappointed." This was the most withering sentence of my childhood. Like my parents could stare into my soul and figure out the best they could expect of me and discern exactly how far from that my performance had strayed. In a way, this job is like that. Figure out what a restaurant could do given its ambition, talent and resources, and then assess how close it gets.
I have high expectations of Gordon Davis. I've reviewed many of his restaurants over the years, for the Tampa Bay Times and other publications before I worked here. There was Ceviche before he sold the concept in 2008, then St. Bart's Island House, Smoke Barbeque & Grill, Ciro's Speakeasy and Supper Club, Boca Kitchen Bar and Market, and Samba Room. He was the guy who gave the SoHo district its name in the mid-1990s as president and founder of the SoHo Merchants and Residents Association, a local boy who got his start working at Bern's and who in recent years has raised black Angus cattle in Colorado and vegetables in Odessa.
Samba Room wasn't performing the way he and SoHo Hospitality partner Kevin Enderle had hoped. Maybe it was the "Nuevo Cubano" concept that South Tampa wasn't grooving on, maybe it was the decor, or even the team in the kitchen. So they brought on partners Chas and Kyle Bruck and put together a new concept: craft cocktails like Ciro's, farm-to-table fare like Boca, with a focus on super-fresh, largely local fish grilled simply over hardwood.
CopperFish opened about a month ago and, as I said, my expectations were high.
Boca was just about my favorite opening of 2012. And now CopperFish clinches it for 2013 (all right, it's still just June). With its weathered brick walls, huge chalkboards and fancy/rustic chandeliers, it looks like the best page from a Restoration Hardware catalog, masculine but warm. And the smell — if you ever went to summer camp and huddled toward a bonfire while someone told the story of the killer with the hook hand, it smells like that. Fruitwood is hard and burns smoky but sweet, with a touch of spiciness and even a glimmer of the fruit itself.
What was the ceviche and raw bar at Samba Room is now an exhibition grill space on which oysters are cooked New Orleans style (garlic butter and Parmesan bubbling in the open bivalve shells) and skillets sit charring leeks and tomato as they await a payload of grilled mussels or clams. Tall stands are erected on tabletops around the dining room to accommodate platters of chilled seafood or pristine raw oysters.
You've gotta get the oysters, served atop a tangle of ice and seaweed with two kinds of mignonette (the pink peppercorn rocks), cocktail sauce, a tiny bottle of Tabasco and simple crackers. There are meaty-salty Bluepoints, small and briny Dabob Bays from Washington with a surprisingly sweet aftertaste, and fruity, deeply cupped Kumamotos also from Washington — eight varieties ($1.50 to $3.75 each) that show these creatures' breathtaking range.
I can hear the grousing already. "But serving raw oysters isn't about cooking, it's about shopping." True, but CopperFish's genius seems to be about sourcing great fish and getting out of the way.
You've had bigger fillets of black grouper ($29) or Montauk swordfish ($29), but I bet you haven't had such fresh fish cooked so expertly in a while. From Gulf yellowtail snapper ($26) to Scottish, organically raised salmon ($27), both of those served with crisp skin on, fish is grilled to its ideal temperature, some with a little pink translucence at the center, some cooked through and just flake-able. The rest of your dinner plate is given over to a baby green salad or Caesar (utterly different on two visits, but delicious both times), sauteed spinach or exquisitely grilled asparagus. A squeeze of lemon and you're off to the races.
Not everything is yet perfect. Wine supply still seems somewhat chaotic, with bottlings 86ed on each of my visits; service can stutter-step; a wall indicating water temperatures, high tide and other nautical info isn't updated — all small fry for a young restaurant that has admirably gotten its bearings.
Executive chef Richard Pims (most recently from Sea Fire Grill in New York) and his kitchen staff send out picture-perfect baskets of housemade kettle chips ($8), ramekins of buttery farro risotto ($6), gorgeous gem lettuce salads with shaved veggies and even sultry little molten lava cakes ($8) with a scoop of vanilla ice cream — all good, but it's Gordon Davis' vision of simple seafood that won't disappoint.
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.