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Restaurant review: Part fish shack, part high-end cocktail bar, Trophy Fish in St. Petersburg thrives on a fresh approach

Photos by EVE EDELHEIT | Times Trophy Fish in St. Petersburg is essentially a bar under an overhang, surrounded on several sides by bar stools, with wooden tables extending to an order-at-the-window kitchen.
Published Sep. 11, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG

I value restaurants and people the same way, I suppose. I like those with a take. They don't have to be the smartest or the prettiest, but the ones I like have a unique perspective, something that differentiates them from everybody else. Next week I'm going to review a restaurant that reads like a time capsule of food from 2018: a cheese and charcuterie board, a fancy burger and truffle fries served on a rustic wooden board, gratuitous use of quinoa. It feels generic, a restaurant entirely energized by a lemming-like devotion to what everyone else is doing.

But this week I get to review Trophy Fish.

It's a project from Ryan Griffin and fellow Mandarin Hide partner Blake Thompson and Bill Griffin (Griffin's dad). And there's nothing else precisely like it. It's one half no-frills fish shack where fish freshness is everything. And it's one half high-end and cerebral cocktails with a historical tiki-nautical vibe. (Instagram influencers, there's one served in a pineapple that you've got to get on STAT.) It's pretty much entirely outdoors, so weather is crucially important to your enjoyment. It is friendly to your canine companions but also a totally appropriate place to bust out the little black dress.

Ryan Griffin is a lawyer by day, and the other hours he's not sleeping he's opening restaurants like Souzou in St. Pete or the brand new Mandarin Heights in a shared space with a second Bodega location in Seminole Heights. He also chairs St. Petersburg's Grow Smarter Strategy, which he describes as an economic development strategy employing a collective impact model with a focus on inclusive prosperity. He's also got a retail fish market in the works up on Fourth Street N, one that will sell only regional fresh fish.

Griffin fell in love with the space that would become Trophy Fish in 2015, really a 250-square-foot fixer-upper that had once been a car sales showroom and more recently was a coffeehouse. It would make a good fish camp, he thought. He didn't end up buying it until March 2016, but the ideas were marinating: He had grown up in St. Pete with a beach place in Madeira Beach, watching the commercial fishermen bring in their daily catch. Downtown St. Petersburg didn't really have much in the way of funky-casual seafood restaurants that focused exclusively on local species, places like Walt'z Fish Shak in John's Pass Village.

The first thing to do was set up a working relationship with some local commercial fishermen. They've found two, going out to meet the boats, loading whole fish into the truck and filleting them back at the restaurant. For the drinks side, they employed superstar local bartender Morgan Zuch (formerly with Datz; she has done well at a number of national competitions) to imagine surf-sun-sand-boat drinks, but fresher and more contemporary. They hired Liz Senyak as director of operations and Andy Hobbs (formerly with Casita Taqueria) to oversee the kitchen.

Not heavy-handed with the nautical touches (some mounted fish, portholes into the bathrooms, some buoys and palm trees), the restaurant is essentially a bar under an overhang, surrounded on several sides by bar stools, with a shell-floor patio spread with wooden tables extending to a squat order-at-the-window kitchen.

Let's start with the cocktails. They are broken into categories, some of which I understand ("stirred cocktails") and some of which I don't ("I'm on a yacht"). I can imagine having a stirred cocktail on a yacht, just saying. As at many high-end cocktail bars, puns and much verbal tomfoolery are employed in the naming of drinks (there's a "fin and tonic," a "banana hammock" and an "If you like pina coladas"), but don't be confused. These are smart, edgy drinks that are often exceedingly balanced and well thought out. A Bloody Money ($11.50), for instance, gives you smoky mezcal softened by blood orange but then goose-walked toward bitterness with two kinds of amari. There's plenty of crowd-pleasing pineapple rum and such, but deft restraint prevents a pisco ($11) from being blowsy with a little herbal kick and introduces smokiness and pistachio underpinnings to the house mai tai.

Zuch and her team guide drinkers to things that suit them, measure carefully and finish drinks with meticulous attention to visual attractiveness.

In keeping with its high-low approach, the menu is a hoot. Late in the evening the chalkboard is awash in scratch-outs and slash-throughs. They sell the catch of the day (maybe a golden tilefish, red snapper, yellow-edge grouper and shrimp — all offered grilled, blackened or citrus-marinated) until it's gone, on a plate with coleslaw and red beans and rice; in a pair of tacos with a side of red beans and rice; perched on a simple green salad, often with a punchy, good shallot vinaigrette; or in a sandwich also with coleslaw and red beans and rice on the side.

You can preface your entree with a shared order of tender-crisp hush puppies ($6 for small, $8 for large — and as an aside, this means Trophy Fish has a deep fryer but doesn't offer french fries, something that takes guts) or a classic Tampa Bay fish spread with a stegosaurus spine of crackers and a passel of pickled veggies adjacent ($6.50/$9.50). All of the dishes are served in disposable serving containers with plastic silverware, tables can be just slightly too small to accommodate your order, and I guarantee they're going to be out of something you were itching to try.

And that's okay. Trophy Fish may not be for everyone, but no one can deny that this newcomer has its own take.

Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines unannounced and the Times pays all expenses.

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