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Seafood, spice and everything nice

Given the scarcity of good seafood spots in Florida, or for that matter places to eat or drink anything near the water in Tampa, Rattle Fish didn't have to do much to succeed once it found its location.

Finding this one, however, was not easy for the restaurant or us. It's tucked in among the rusting and overgrown dry docks, boatyards and tank farms of the Tampa shore below Gandy Boulevard. If you think the address lacks high-priced class, don't dream of yachting in a Lazzara 106 built next door.

So make your way to the sparkling new marina here to a seat by the window or on the endless deck. Look beyond the dredges at Misener and past the cranes of Port Tampa all across Tampa Bay. On a clear day you can see . . . St. Petersburg.

And Rattle Fish's creators went further: They installed a modern version of a plain old fish house. Creator Scott Estes was with Outback, part of the team that turned the recipes of Lee Roy Selmon's mom into a barbecue hit, and so he gives seafood more of that fun than, say, the flash of Bonefish.

So there's a little pasta here, but many more recipes are borrowed from the good-time cooking of Mexico and New Orleans. Some dishes are clever inventions, including a seafood margarita, complete with shaker; others copy classics, from bouillabaisse to Pascal's Manale barbecue shrimp.

Together, location and food have been enough in a month of wintry drear to draw waits of an hour or more from a crowd happy to drop Bonefish bucks while meeting Crabby Bill's dress code. In fact, the big, barnlike space already rattles with much chatter and clatter. (The walls need some serious sound baffles.)

Color me impressed, too. It's not the little independent, food-driven venture I love, but the kind of big-budget restaurant invention Tampa Bay is known for, with a big staff, substantial construction and visions of cloning.

Nonetheless, Rattle Fish already does most of it well, with generous portions and gutsy seasoning. Tartar sauce, mayo and sour cream are spiked with Tabasco, pesto and wasabi, burgers are half-pounders, and grilled fish toppings run from dill and chimichurri to Thai ginger and tapenade.

The margarita of seafood tossed in tomato sauce, with or without tequila, is the best of all the silly uses for martini glasses. Forget the blackened fish thumb bits, a skimpy canape of fish and pickle. Oyster bar "junk," however, is a grand pig-out of shrimp, oysters and crab meat in Creole cream with fried oysters on top and crisp bread. This is officially an appetizer, but if you get anything else, you should share this.

Somewhat light but just as much fun is a smoked fish dip, a local favorite made much creamier and brilliantly updated with chopped egg, capers and onions, easily downscaling garnishes that usually go with caviar.

Likewise, bouillabaisse shows that it's at home here as much as it ever was on white tablecloth, with a robust tomato garlic stock (there's also a coconut broth) and a full helping of shellfish. Fish tacos, the pride of Baja, have the distinct bite of mustard in the crunchy batter and a bright touch of key lime dressing.

The best entree for me were those shrimp that New Orleans calls barbecue. Rattle Fish adds Red Stripe beer, but it's still a heady potion of butter or margarine, black pepper and big heads-on shrimp. That creates such real shrimp flavor, you can dip bread in and forget the shrimp.

There's only one big flaw, and it's the standard problem: Even big outfits can't land fin fish. The kitchen has great fun with oysters, shrimp, mussels and crab and whips up nifty sauces, but the fish in the big glass case is a puny selection of the same old commodities: salmon, grouper, mahi mahi and sea bass.

The most exciting fish I saw were the swordfish and flounder, which were good, if plain, eating, definitely helped by the tart chimichurri. But why bother with a display and blackboard? The catch is likely to be the same thing every day; it seems to come from trucks, not boats, and is the same from Arizona to Ohio.

Granted, this inlet might not see great fishing, but it's still a shame to be on the water and not have whole fish, let alone local amberjack, mullet, wahoo, mangrove snapper, cobia or pompano.

Nonetheless, Rattle Fish has shown significant and appealing creativity in the rest of the menu, although Oreo beignets are probably best left to State Fair daredevils and the macaroni cheesecake isn't ready for prime time (this dish is possible, but few execute it well so far).

Rattle Fish has also assembled an impressive staff, judging by the action I saw in the kitchen and the veteran servers on the floor. One server was clueless about wine or fish, but another met the best standards: friendly, sharp and prompt without a hint of artificiality.

If there's limited variety of fin fish, all the more reason for us to try our luck in smaller restaurants. Yet I'll enjoy Rattle Fish, too, and won't mind if there are more of these. As long as they keep to an old, unstylish formula: seafood and spice, just add water.

Rattle Fish Raw Bar and Grill

5210 W Tyson Ave.

Tampa

(813) 902-1071

Hours: 4 to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday. (Weekday lunch hours begin Feb. 1).

Reservations: No.

Details: Most credit cards, full bar; smoking outdoors only; wheelchair-accessible.

Features: Outdoor dining, boat docks available.

Prices: Sandwiches, entrees, $7.95 to $18.95.

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