By Laura Reiley
Times Food Critic
What was once Rio Bravo, a fairly ersatz Mexican restaurant, became Pssghetti's, an also ersatz Italian market and restaurant. There was rough justice that neither was a long-term hit, but their failures might have been in part due to the goofy access off of U.S. 19 onto Enterprise Road. That goofiness still prevails (the GPS lady wearily intoning "Make a U-turn"), but the spot seems to have come into its own in its new incarnation as Sea Dog Brewing Company.
A small chain of six brewpubs in Maine and New Hampshire, it's not without its own ersatz elements. Wearing a fisherman's rain hat pulled low over one eye, the sea dog of the logo barks it loud and proud: This is New England! Well, sort of. Bahamian conch chowder, Florida smoked fish spread — hardly Kennebunkport staples.
What Sea Dog, the first in Florida, has done right is offer a broad, beer-friendly menu at modest prices, and to do it all in a space that shares a parking lot with a Cody's Original Roadhouse outpost that is perennially thronged. An hour wait at Cody's? Head over to Sea Dog and have a pint and some pulled pork nachos ($10.50) or an order of fat pretzel sticks ($6.99) with cheese dipping sauce.
Given the Tampa Bay area's ascendancy in the current craft beer boom, Sea Dog's arrival may seem like coal to Newcastle. Truth is, Florida is a huge market for Sea Dog and its parent company, Shipyard Brewing. Locals seem already familiar with what's on tap, from the apricot wheat (up front apricot, mild sweet malt, thin head) to the imperial stout (nearly black, with dark roasted coffee aromas and sweet, creamy Kahlúa on the finish). And for those who aren't, sampler flights of four 4-ounce beers are $5.50, 8 are $10 (and try the root beer; it's good stuff).
Walk-ins are likely to get a buzzer and a wait unless seats are available in the first-come bar. Shiny concrete floors and an absence of linens mean the noise level can get a little fierce, and service seems unusually rushed, with some dishes arriving just minutes after orders are taken. Not a bad thing, but it contributes to a slightly frenetic air.
The Maine lobster roll ($12.99) isn't going to worry any vendors in Wiscasset, its lobster meat finely shredded and unadorned, but the buttered bun is pure verisimilitude. On the other hand, a pot roast sandwich ($10.99) was sunk by its bun, lacking the kind of plush, musky, slow-cooked meat that could stand up to a stiff ciabatta roll. Just a different roll might bring together the meat with sharp cheddar and swipe of horseradish sauce.
A grilled Caesar ($8.99) was a competent offering (although give me more oomph on the dressing, I want a wallop of anchovy and garlic), but a parallel "grilled caprese" ($9.99) didn't make much sense, a brief grilling lending the tomatoes no smoky flavor and serving only to mush the red rounds.
The space inherited from Pssghetti's was quirky given the "market" concept. Sea Dog has carved off some for brewing equipment, some for a pretty display wine cellar and some for private dining (a great glassed-off space that accommodates around 60). Even with these reductions it's a big restaurant, with lots of bar and table seating as well as a broad outdoor patio. Still, Sea Dog seems to operate at near capacity, craft beer enthusiasts doing their best to work through the dozen beers on draft ($4.50 a pint) from this new Northern interloper.
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.