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Casting about

All I needed was the number, but when I said Yellow Fin, the operator volunteered an endorsement, "Everyone who calls says that place is excellent!"

I understood the enthusiasm over a seafood place that specializes in grilling tuna, invents wild sauces, gives mashed potatoes a reggae flavor and is not too expensive. For Pinellas beaches, that's like, totally radical, and Yellow Fin has quickly drawn a crowd.

Unfortunately, menu-writing and popularity do not a fine restaurant make. On my first visit, the food showed some originality and enough quality to compensate for failings in decor, service and atmosphere; maybe the kitchen was in better hands than the front of the house. On return, I found the cooking matched the other aspects.

Somewhere along the way the idea of grilling seafood with imagination got derailed.

"Yellow Fin, the Cadillac of Seafood Grilles" may be catchy, but the upholstered Cadillac trunk is just kitschy. The rest of the decor _ bright tropical fish and splattered paint walls _ didn't rise above normal fish-house ambiance of cavernous rooms with too-close tables. (We set our wine on the floor so servers could get between tables.)

Human elements were jarring, too, with a full house creating a rattling clatter. In chaos, servers can be a lifeline of security and stability. Not on my visits. One night it took 10 minutes to get the first attention to our table; both times entrees almost beat salads out of the kitchen.

It was hard to relish the day's specials, too, when chalkboards were illegible and the server's descriptions were crippled by such grating phrases as "SALL-mon." That's not just snobbery; it's hard to have confidence in a server's description of snapper "provincial" as fish in a paper bag with tomatoes.

If you're saying "C'mon, what about the food?", that's the point. When other aspects of a meal are aggravating, even stellar food can get lost.

With some of my meals, that would have been a benefit. Snapper Provencal ($12.95), for instance, turned out to have the tomatoes and onions of Provence, but was not served en papillote and was very tough and rubbery.

Mussels and pasta "with hats" ($9.95) spoiled some classic flavors and wasted tomato-basil linguine in a pasty tomato sauce more peppery than fra diavola and surrounded by dry, tough mussels topped with olives.

Yellow Fin did better with grilling. The namesake fish ($11.25), done medium, was good eating with a salsa of fruit and peppers (although it could have been livelier with fresh herbs).

The best was red meat, roast lamb loin ($13.95) sliced and served with melted brie and a coriander sauce. Rich, but worth it.

Starters, salads and side dishes showed similar imagination on the menu but rarely met the promise on the plate. Drunken shrimp ($4.50), marinated in tequila and served with a jalapeno cream, had the fire it should. But a soup of shrimp and broccoli ($2.25) was bland. A salad of broiled calamari ($5.25), grapes and snow peas was equally tasteless _ with no snow peas and no prescribed dressing.

House salad included a little romaine with iceberg and some husky croutons, but the roasted pepper Dijon vinaigrette was a dead ringer for Thousand Island, and cucumber-coriander didn't exist; go for the raspberry poppyseed instead.

However, Jamaican smashed potatoes ($1.25) enriched with jerk seasoning, cream and peppers were a hit. Veggie enchiladas ($1.25) proved a clever way to serve a vegetable medley (and a smooth Mornay sauce), but wild rice was soggy and bread soft. A Caribbean Key lime pie ($2.95) was garnished with banana, kiwi, coconut and nuts (the server said macadamias; I say goobers) and a strawberry margarita cheesecake ($3.25) didn't have a whiff of tequila, salt or triple sec.

Yellow Fin did live up to its promises on the wine list, a short selection of top affordable names, like Estancia's rich cabernet and Dry Creek's crisp fume blanc, priced under $20.

As to the rest, Yellow Fin should go back to the drawing board, not to revise its plans but to make sure that the execution lives up to the dreamy specs _ and to adjust the atmosphere to match. An imaginative restaurant shouldn't exist just in the imagination.

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

Yellow Fin

2721 Gulf Blvd., Indian Rocks Beach (593-3346)

Type: Seafood grill

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sun.-Thur.; 11:30 a.m. to midnight Fri.-Sat.

Reservations: Accepted

Credit cards: AE, MC, V

Full bar

Wheelchair access: Good

Non-Smoking section available

Children's menu: Yes

Prices: Dinner entrees, $4.50 to $13.95