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A happy blend of past and future

I hate subdivisions and shopping centers named for trees and birds that used to live there, so I expected to feel that way about Silas Dent's. Figured the beaches' legendary hermit would have felt that way, too. That was until the waiter served us a little free smoked amberjack dip, and I tried some scallop ceviche. Silas would have liked the former and probably snorted at the latter, but both items won my heart. Going through the menu, I was surprised to find a lot more I liked _ food that was fresh, handsome and tasted strongly of Florida and the Caribbean.

Make no mistake about it: The building is imitation ramshackle, the menu is jes' full of cornball dialect, my meals had gaffes and failings, and the place is lousy with tourists.

So? Despite ersatz Cracker nostalgia, Silas Dent was a real part of our past, and creative tropical cooking should be a part of our future. If tourists luck into that, I say join 'em, don't begrudge 'em.

Granted, Dent knew the islands before Long Key became St. Petersburg Beach and before his beloved Cabbage Key became Tierra Verde (most of us wish we did, too), but he was a friendly hermit: He had an island dairy, sold shells to vacationers and wore his Kriss Kringle beard and role as local legend until he died at 76 on Christmas Eve 1952. (That's fact; truth is stranger than marketing.)

A lot of Florida has died in the 40 years since then or lost its flavor. That's why I was pleased that Silas Dent's kitchen has Florida food alive and reinvigorated, mixing Cuban and Cracker recipes with Cajun, Creole and, forgive us, Silas, nouvelle ideas.

Behind the rusting corrugated facade you'll find blackened mahi mahi with fruit salsa, beef tournedoes with shrimp mushrooms and Bearnaise sauce and gator and Key lime pie (why not smoked mullet and hush puppies?). The results were as fun and unexpected as the teeny cone of sorbet between courses.

For appetizers, ceviche ($3.95) is best, a big bowl of wonderfully tender sea scallops and shrimp in a sharp marinade with an unusual cumin tang, very refreshing. Fried squid ($3.95) was good, but marinara sauce seemed too plain for this kitchen. How about an orange salsa or pepper-mango chutney?

I hesitated on oysters. On my first visit, a server assured me they had Apalachicolas, but when I tried to order them on my return, my server recommended against it. Enough said; hope he told the manager, too.

While I liked the soups _ homemade tomato was as good as uptown bisque, and vegetable was more pungent than gumbo _ the house salad is a good choice, too. Using crumbled Chinese eggroll wrappers for croutons gave it distinction.

The most creative was a "Jamaican paella" ($10.95), which meant chicken, grouper, scallops and veggies in a sauce livened up with tomato and cinnamon. Scallops in a black bean and melon salsa ($11.50) was an equally nifty idea, but the sauce was soggy and the freshness of the cantaloupe got lost.

Tomato-basil salsa worked better on a slab of sea bass ($10.95) than as pesto on shrimp and angel hair noodles ($12.50).

Best pasta was seafood linguine with a sauce of brandy, pepper and cream that was sweet and rich. I'm glad I tried it in the light serving (smaller portion without soup or salad for $7.95 instead of $11.95), and I'm also very glad that Dent's offers a dozen entrees in lighter formats. This should be more common.

By the time I got to dessert, I was no longer surprised that peanut butter pie ($2.25) was light as chiffon and served on a huge mirror of chocolate with fresh cream and strawberries. I was disappointed that bread pudding ($2.25) wasn't hot, yet we lapped it up.

Service was friendly, knowledgeable and costumed a la Buffett but slow. On one visit, entrees sat on a tray next to the table for five minutes before delivery. On another, the server gave us so much time to decide on our order that we finished our beers. Dinner lasted two hours.

The particular rub here is a surprise that is not so pleasant: the automatic 15 percent tip. I'm sure the defense is that foreign tourists make up much of the business, and they're used to it. I'm not.

Only other drawback is that I'd like some bread, whether biscuits or hush puppies or Indian fry bread.

I imagine Silas ate a passel of such simple stuff over the years. We need to keep as much of his Florida as we can to spice up our own.

Chris Sherman dines anonymously at all restaurants reviewed. Most restaurants are visited twice, with more visits when necessary. The Times pays for the meals.

Silas Dent's

5501 Gulf Blvd., St. Petersburg Beach Phone: 360-6961

Type: Seafood.

Hours: 5-10 p.m.

Sun.-Thur.; 5-11 p.m.

Fri.-Sat.

Reservations: Yes

Credit cards: V, MC, DC.

Full bar.

No-smoking area: Yes

Wheelchair access: Fair.

Children's menu: Yes.

Prices: $5.95 to $16.50.

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