I've been writing about Baystar Restaurant Group since I started at the Times 10 years ago. I've been writing about its founders Frank Chivas and the late, larger-than-life Tom Pritchard for just as long. I've reviewed most of their restaurants (Salt Rock Grill, Island Way Grill, Rumba Island Bar & Grill, Marlin Darlin Key West Grill, Salt Rock Tavern), though not the more recently opened Marina Cantina in Clearwater Beach, because I visited a couple of times and felt it was somehow provisional or half finished. Turns out I was right: Poke Havana will open there soon, as well as a pizza place and tiki bar.
Chivas is a pro, takes the long view, has been a restaurateur in the Pinellas County market since it wasn't much more than chain restaurants and fried fish sandwiches. He was named "Mr. Clearwater" not long ago by the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce and sits on the board of this-and-that civic organization. He has more restaurants on the horizon. (He just signed on a space for a Rumba on Fourth Street N in St. Petersburg.)
Turns out, despite all that, he can still get bored.
"Marlin Darlin made good money, it was an efficient kitchen and an efficient restaurant. But I got tired of Marlin Darlin," Chivas said. "I live in the neighborhood and I wanted a sushi and raw bar. I wanted a restaurant with a wine cellar."
He closed Marlin Darlin at the beginning of the year and started scheming, visiting cities around the country and assembling ideas, combing through magazines for fresh recipes. He renovated the restaurant space and "defished it" (his words for removing 22 fish mounts and sticking them in storage). And on June 15, he debuted Seaweed in its place.
It's a revelation.
Smart, attractive and contemporary, it adopts a something-for-everyone approach without being in any way incoherent. It's hip but not flashy, with a staff that seems genuinely interested in making sure you're enjoying yourself. In short, it feels like Chivas is reinvigorated, drawing on so many exciting national trends.
Obviously, it's a group effort. Chivas has tapped Robin Vela (Island Way, Bern's) as general manager, Mark Hrycko in the kitchen, Souka Phommarak on sushi, Willie Roque the oyster shucker extraordinaire, Alex Dunbar heading up the bar.
The only thing I'm not wild about is the name. It says "sushi bar" to me, and while there is a glamorous long sushi bar near the restaurant entrance, that's just one component of the restaurant's allures. It's essentially a steak and seafood house, but one where half the menu is small plate sharables (oysters, snacks, a raft of steamed bao buns, salads, skewers and tempura) and the other is entrees and sides, heavy emphasis on big, prime steaks. Even for that second side, the menu lends itself to a scattershot, shared approach: Order the 1-pound prime New York strip ($39) for the table and they will slice it for you for easier sharing.
There's quite a bit of ground to cover, so let's dive in. There is an appealing list of 13 house cocktails spanning traditional (old fashioned) to froufrou (a raspberry rum, coconut, pineapple beachy concoction), all a very reasonable $8; a fairly pedestrian draft and bottled beer list; a curated wine list very strong on Napa cabs and big-name California chards; and a sophisticated lineup of cold sakes offered in a range of sizes. The long, skinny sushi menu offers simple sashimi, pairs of nigiri and classic maki on one side (nice: a little separate list of vegetarian and vegan rolls), house specialty rolls on the other. Presentations are clean, attractive, well rolled and well priced ($7 to $19), but I'm dinging their specialty rolls for relying heavily on cream cheese and krab stick.
Now this is where things get interesting. There are six varieties of oysters on offer ($1 to $2 each), no nameless gulf oysters from Louisiana or Texas. From Beavertails to Blue Points, they are fresh and clean-tasting, well shucked and bedded on ice with lemon wedges, crackers on the side (would love to see a mignonette, but that's just me). If you feel like splurging a little, there's a chilled seafood tower priced fairly at $28, which features fish dip and salmon spread smoked over charcoal and cherrywood. (You can order these by themselves for $8.)
Still, the menu features many come-hither options, so don't load up on the cold stuff. (Okay, get the raw and crispy salad, a stunner that pairs raw and fried kale and Brussels with a plucky yuzu vinaigrette; $7,) You're definitely going to want an order of steamed buns, maybe a pair of crispy local snapper ones (Chivas has his own commercial fishing boats and manages a whole bunch of others, so there's fresh fish delivered nearly daily) crowded with daikon and herbs and just the right amount of shiso dressing ($12). I was less wowed by the Caribbean lobster tempura ($12), a little dry, but would absolutely return for any of the robata skewers (salmon teriyaki, beef tenderloin with shishito peppers) served with a little sushi rice and pickled cukes ($7 to $10).
Flip the menu to the other side and I'm flummoxed about what I love best: maybe it's the sharing side of crispy cauliflower florets dotted with roasted cashews, cilantro and pickled red onion, all of it glossed with a sweet-tangy ponzu glaze ($8), or perhaps the bouncy sweet potato noodles cradling a regiment of coconut-curry marinated grilled shrimp ($17).
A great deal is the whole roasted snapper (they will steam or fry, but go roasted), about 22 to 24 ounces right now for $20, easily sharable. But the 2-pound black Angus porterhouse ($39), fatty and juicy and charry, with a sauce of your choosing (how about the horseradish cream, or even more classic, the red wine demi?), may hold sway. Sides have just enough Asian inflection (dashi ramen noodles; sweet corn with yuzu butter) to suit the restaurant name, but it doesn't seem heavy-handed.
I'm told the black pearl chicken ($15), with its dark matcha dusting glammed up with edible gold, is the most dramatic dish at Seaweed. I'll check it out next time. (That way I can get another crack at the raspberry tiramisu, a luscious square with just the right fruity high notes.) I miss Tom Pritchard for his stories and his leadership in the restaurant community, but it's good to see Frank Chivas energized and going strong.
Contact Laura Reiley at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines unannounced and the Times pays all expenses.