It's August, and smart Floridians hibernate. Especially this August.
Yet some restaurateurs have the smarts to use the low point of the off-season to stir up Tampa Bay's bouillabaisse.
CRABS, MARYLAND STYLE: You can get 'em steamed with Old Bay and dumped on the table by the dozen and half-dozen, yours for the pounding, cracking and eating at the new Maryland Seafood House (15925 U.S. 19, Hudson; (727) 861-7770). The menu includes crab cakes, shrimp, some finfish and steaks, as if you care; the main event is heaps of blue crab, $9 for 6, $18 for 12.
It's open at noon daily except _ warning, warning _ closed on Tuesdays.
UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS: An old boarding house in Safety Harbor has been renovated with upscale rooms and board, for shopping as well as eating.
The ground floor of the old place has a clothing boutique and a nail salon; upstairs, Cafe Cheetah (509 Main St., Safety Harbor, (727) 791-6960) seats 50 in old rooms and porches redone as series of designer showrooms. Owner Nancy Henslee is a designer with Interior Interiors by Terry D., and she wanted a place where customers could shop for decorating needs as well as food.
The menu, with Blue Heron's Larry Lloyd as consultant, trips the light eclectic: Asian dumplings, Mediterranean salads, comfort desserts and clever sandwiches, such as lox and cream cheese wraps. Prices are $7 to $10; Cheetah is open for lunch now and may expand to dinner hours.
HIP AND HIPPER IN TAMPA: A new infusion of hip is hop-penin' on the SoHo row of restaurants in Tampa, with Bacchus, a sushi bar with edge (and more), replacing Ho Ho's, the Chinese restaurant known for its French decor.
When Ho Ho's moved a few blocks south for a fresher look, Corey Donavan, who owns the Hydeaway bar, started expanding to turn the old brick warehouse into a full-scale nightlife complex. The first installment is Bacchus Sushi and Noodles House (720 S Howard Ave., Tampa; (813) 254-0004); next to open will be the Leopard Lounge, a club with cigar bar and Champagne room.
Bacchus already gives Asian food new energy with a sushi bar that overlooks a busy open kitchen and a big staff (in black, natch). The menu includes a big range of traditional noodle bowls, tempura, steaks and whole fish done in a wok, but sushi has special flash. It starts with $2.95 stuff and goes on up through perfect tempura tataki to fancy mumbo-jumbo rolls packed with fresh fish and no rice, and the Hawaii Five-Oh with coconut shrimp and sweet potato. Bacchus has a new style in hours, too; open until 4 a.m. on weekends. (Watch out for another Tuesday closing.)
Look for two other new shingles in the neighborhood from two familiar names.
John Agri, who has opened a string of Tampa's creative restaurants (and closed them, too) is back where it all began in the original Gianni's and is reinventing it again. Agri, whose main business nowadays is the Taqueria burrito chain, is back swimming upscale with Fins (317 S Howard Ave., Tampa; (813) 251-6010), which has hip decor and food.
The interior has a '50s setting, retro colors and fishing-rod lamps; the menu dresses tuna, halibut, salmon and shellfish straight and in global drag: dumplings, beignets, strudel and pasta, spiced with nuts, lemon and fennel. Prices run $8.95 to $14.95.
Two doors away, renovation has started on the Bar Bamboo, newest project of another prolific stylist, Mike Nguyen, best known for his Exodus Vietnamese fusion in various locations. The new place will be built around Nguyen signatures of pan-Asian food, sharp decor and odd hours: He aims to make it a late-night spot catering to colleagues in the restaurant trade.
LOBSTER POT REDUX: Not so's you'd notice, but there's a slight change in ownership at the venerable beach landmark. Founder Fritz Reiter, who opened the Lobster Pot here in 1978, five years after opening the first Lobster Pot in Hamilton on Bermuda, has bought out partner Eugen Fuhrman. Fuhrman's now devoting time to his newer ventures, Guppy's on Indian Rocks Beach and E&E Steak-out in Belleair Bluffs.
Back at the Lobster Pot (17814 Gulf Blvd., Redington Shores; (727) 391-8592), manager Antoinette Patton says food and staff remain the same, with Reiter visiting monthly from Bermuda.
BREADSTUFF: A new artisan bakery has fired up its ovens in South Tampa with traditional French and Italian breads.
Pane Rustica bakes lushly tart sourdough, super-crusty baguettes and fragrant foccaccia as well as its signature bread, a rustic Italian round. Owner Kevin Kruszewski, a Boston chef who woke up to smell the trends and went back to baker's school, moved with wife Karyn to Tampa to build their bakery.
Pane Rustica (2821 S MacDill Ave., Tampa; (813) 902-8828) serves coffee, pastry and panini and plans to sell bread wholesale to restaurants.
Nonetheless, the trend to better bread isn't guaranteed to rise here. Breadsmith, another of the new wave of bakeries, only a few blocks from Pane Rustica, banked its ovens this summer, joining Valentine's on the casualty list.
Frozen custard patrol
Sometimes all the Nibbler need do is lament in print that some favorite food's missing from our menu. Sure enough, some bright entrepreneur pops up to point out that the gap is only in my knowledge. Well it's not that easy, or we'd have good tomatoes in salads, coffee-bar service that can make espresso and change in 15 minutes, and more Indian restaurants.
The good news is that there is frozen custard of the St. Louis kind here. You'll find it closer to the Veterans Expressway than Route 66 and under the name Key West Frozen Custard Factory (7512 Ehrlich Road, Citrus Park, (813) 926-5493).
For proof the owners got their taste in St. Louis, you can get your custard free-flowing into cones, sundaes or "concretes," that best of all shakes with fruit, fudge and you name it mixed in. They've also got up-to-date smoothies and "custoozies" with fruit juice, low-fat custard and, if you must, wheat germ, ginseng or protein powder.
Sorry, make mine a concrete. Yours too, I'll bet.