I'm not always great with faces. I knew that I knew him: Joshua Breen, the chef for Mazzaro's, Annata Restaurant & Wine Bar and now the brand new Alto Mare Fish Bar on Beach Drive where Hooker Tea Co. used to be. I could see his face in the open kitchen gazing out into the lovely dining room. I went back through my files and, bingo, there it was in a preview before Stillwaters Tavern opened down the block in 2015: "Chef de cuisine Joshua Breen, a Johnson & Wales grad, came most recently from a stint as chef of Kennedy's on the Square, a gastropub in Cambridge, Mass."
I don't know why things didn't work out at Stillwaters, but it was Mazzaro's gain, and Annata's. And now Alto Mare's. I'm jumping the gun a little to review it, but because this is seasoned pros (Kurt and Mary Cuccaro of Mazzaro's own it, then there's Breen, sommelier and general manager Rene Hernandez and the ebullient server and food photographer Allison Harris), it's a couple of weeks old but largely up to speed.
This is a restaurant genre that, strangely, maddeningly, we don't have much of in these parts. The focus is seafood — alto mare means deep sea in Italian — with a European accent, moderately priced and not leaning overmuch on the fryer. One side of the menu is raw bar, crudo, ceviche and cold stuff; the other side is 15 small plates and eight mains, mostly seafood but with a couple of solid options for carnivores (not as much for vegetarians and almost nothing for vegans).
First, peruse the room's art. It's playful and goofy, largely in nautical themes, but attractive. Look at the intricate metal etchings on the hanging pendants, maybe the deep sea-diving octopus logo on the glass of the door. This restaurant is pretty. But the food is prettier.
Take the prime carpaccio ($18), thin slices of pepper-crusted sirloin fanned expertly on an elegant white plate, careful drizzles of horseradish aioli, little pops of crunchy garlic, a well-dressed pouf of arugula flecked with grana padano, a row of perfect dots of black garlic aioli, the whole thing with a whiff of truffle oil and a spritz of lemon. Or maybe the "everything salmon" ($15), really a perfect bagel setup without the bagel: thick swatches of house gravlax, a schmear of labneh, the spices from the top of an everything bagel (garlic, onion, sesame, etc.), rounds of pickled onion, droplets of avocado oil, cracks of pepper and a side of house-made Indonesian prawn crackers. Those crackers remind me of another you'll find: Someone on Breen's team makes these outrageous bubbled tapioca crackers, one version colored/flavored with beet, another with squid ink, both of them uncannily resembling exotic coral.
This food is lovely. Exacting. As was a presentation called BMT ($20), a long length of roasted bone marrow sitting on a bed of shiso leaves and herbs, the buttery plush marrow obscured by jewel-tone cubes of ahi tuna, little bits of garlic and a halo ring of shiso oil shimmering around the plate's perimeter.
The management team tasted hundreds of wines blind, winnowing and refining to come up with a list of 85, most offered by the glass, with loads of fascinating white blends and a whole lot of nice pinot noirs and Rhone wines, Old World and New World in delicate balance, the markup very reasonable. The wines have been chosen to marry with a passel of East Coast or West Coast oysters ($3.50 each, but I hope in the future there are more details about precisely where these are from, also maybe a mignonette?), or maybe several golden orbs of crab arancini ($15) with a slash of avocado mousse and a little more of that horseradish aioli. In short, seafood-friendly wines along with a solid list of largely local craft beers.
Not everything is perfect. In a couple of visits there were cool ideas that didn't quite gel: A lobster bucatini ($24) comes in a cylinder of crunchy red pasta. The cylinder keeps the bucatini and hunks of tomatoey lobster meat piping hot, sure, but it makes it hard to eat, and the cylinder, while technically edible, is not tasty. Then there's a dish called "The Egg" ($15). which is an espuma (foam) very heavily flavored with truffle and scallop, at the bottom of which is a cheese crisp and that somewhere floats a soft-cooked egg. I just wasn't sure what it was trying to be, and it was so rich it was nearly impossible to finish. And there's a king crab dish ($28), two split claws that get a slick of butter that is much too sugary for meat that is already lusciously sweet.
All of that said, Alto Mare represents a dynamic reimagining of what a seafood restaurant can be. They have managed to attract polished and efficient servers right out of the gate, and its location, right next to Annata and with views of North Straub Park, positions it to be a runaway success with St. Pete visitors. Breen may have been imported from Boston to dive deep into Stillwaters, but he may have gone deeper still at St. Petersburg's new Alto Mare.
Contact Laura Reiley at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.
Alto Mare Fish Bar
300 Beach Drive NE, No. 124, St. Petersburg; (727) 873-3427
Hours: 4 to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Details: AmEx, V, MC, Disc.; beer and wine; no reservations; no takeout or delivery
Prices: Small plates $13-$28, mains $17-$38
Rating, out of four stars:
Food: *** Service: ***