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This one's a keeper

It's a horrible prejudice to drive by a place for years thinking you know exactly what's in there. To the Nibbler, the Castaway looked like a traditional old seafood chain, a fake beach shack with deck grown to dormitory proportions, full parking lot and a tour bus or two, for what would probably be a good water view but with food that had graduated from fried to creamed, cheesed, imperialed, stuffed and comboed. Besides, as food snobs tell each other all the time, "Can't get good seafood around here; what a shame." We know what to expect.

Well, yes, and in a number of pleasant respects, no, at the Castaway. The water view goes well beyond good: The place has almost 200 seats, all with a wall-to-wall prospect of the bay, perfect to watch the setting sun colorize the view of Pinellas until the night sky turns the bridges into twinkling garlands that seem almost picturesque.

And though the food is not universally transfixing, the kitchen has a big catch of good ingredients _ macadamia nuts, sun-dried tomatoes and even wahoo one night _ and has learned the tricks of salsas and buerre blanc sauces to go with them.

The updated menu is not apparent when you enter the place. The Castway is a branch of Specialty restaurants, the California theme pioneer that also owns the Rusty Pelican and the 94th Aero Squadron, and the interior feels much the same, not especially at home in Florida.

Servers in tropical shirts try to brighten a wood-paneled place with lots of heavy wood furniture, fireplaces and deep booths festooned with shell lamps, fishing floats and other items from Nautical Artifacts, Set 579. Looks like Trader Vic opened a ski chalet, dull, dark and dated even though it's only 10 years old. Needn't freshen up the place just for my taste, but please replace the broken tables on the deck; resin furniture isn't that expensive. What the heck, look outside and enjoy the shorebirds in the flats.

Or enjoy the specials section of the menu, which has at least a half-dozen daily features, both traditional and down-right modern, garnished with jicama slaw and other nifties.

In fact, I made a rare pass on wahoo, my favorite pork o' the sea, to try a wok-fried whole snapper. I never expected to see that Asian favorite here; I had to order it to reward the chef for trying it _ and thrill neighboring diners, one of whom did the same thing. The pleasure was the eater's: true whole fish, head and all, very crisp with fresh, moist flesh inside. Hot and sour sauce was a touch on the cocktail-fruit sweet side but still peppery. It is a good dish and a brave stunt.

Seared salmon with a peppercorn crust was likewise crisp on the outside and moist inside, with a lemony buerre blanc and bit of white wine. Saucemaking, with and without cream, showed professional polish in general. Oysters Rockefeller, for instance, tasted fresh and almost light (I like a stronger splash of Pernod).

Even plain raw oysters were fresh and salty, and farm-raised to give extra assurance about safety. Coconut shrimp were big and perfectly crisp (the only demonstration of frying I tried here, but encouraging).

The only disappointment in seafood was bouillabaisse, the one combination meal I like. I must say my servers were not encouraging.

"It's a lot of work. . . . It's an acquired taste," they said, but I figured it must be too rustic for them and their usual customers. The pot was packed with crab claws, large shrimp, scallops, clams, mussels and big pieces of fish, but the broth, mostly of tomatoes, carrots and potatoes, wasn't fishy enough and lacked the aroma of fennel and saffron. It tasted as if only scallops and shrimp had been cooked in the soup; the crab and fish seemed precooked and tossed in at the last minute. I don't really want fish heads, just more oomph.

Together with a pasta, stir-fries, steaks, grilled Caesar salads, curried seafood and the cream and cheese dishes, the Castaway menu manages to deliver entrees for everybody, the Nibbler included.

Fine, but whatever your choice, the quality of accompaniments should be consistently high. Salads, for instance, are good stuff, a good mix of greens with ripe tomatoes or dolled up with Maytag bleu and honeyed walnuts (far too many). Desserts, too, are quite well-made, apple pie with real apples and crisp crust and key lime that's yellow and fairly tart (only a little cloying). Bread, however, is terrible, miniature loaves that tasted like stale challah. The mixed vegetables were nicely julienned, then overcooked, the new potatoes served alone without even parsley, and the wine list is dominated by supermarket brands. This isn't good enough to match the kitchen's better efforts on the main courses.

A wide selection of seafood and a great view have made the Castaway a fixture on the causeway, and innovations in the menu may win over the Nibbler and other new customers. Yet it must modernize further to keep its place.

WEEKEND NIBBLER

The Castaway

7720 Courtney Campbell Causeway, Tampa

+ Phone: 281-0770

+ Hours: Open 365 days a year; lunch, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Saturday; brunch, 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sunday; dinner, 5 to 1O:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5 to 11:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday.

+ Reservations: Suggested

+ Credit cards: AE, CB, D, DC, MC, V

+ Wheelchair access: Ramp, restrooms adapted.

+ Features: Full bar; non-smoking section available; brunch on holidays; banquet facilities; children's menu

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