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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.
A grouper sandwich comes with coleslaw and red beans and rice. Fish freshness is everything, and cocktails are not to be missed.
EVE EDELHEIT | Times Hush puppies are served at Trophy Fish in St. Petersburg.
EVE EDELHEIT | Times Smoked fish spread is served at Trophy Fish in St. Petersburg.
EVE EDELHEIT | Times Fried Pickles With the Banana Hammock Cocktail, a Zacapa 23 Rum, Velvet Falernum, Giffard Banana de Brasil, Coffee infused Amaro and Australian chocolate bitters, wearing a skimpy banana leaf, is served at Trophy Fish in St. Petersburg.
EVE EDELHEIT | Times Cocktails served at Trophy Fish in St. Petersburg include the Banana Hammock, left,and a Fin & Tonic, front.
EVE EDELHEIT | Times Kick back under an umbrella at Trophy Fish in St. Petersburg.
EVE EDELHEIT | Times The board at Trophy Fish in St. Petersburg shows what\u2019s on the menu.
Monday 10 September 2018 11.00

ST. PETERSBURG

I value restaurants and people the same way, I suppose. I like those with a take. They donít 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 Iím 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.

Itís a project from Ryan Griffin and fellow Mandarin Hide partner Blake Thompson and Bill Griffin (Griffinís dad). And thereís nothing else precisely like it. Itís one half no-frills fish shack where fish freshness is everything. And itís one half high-end and cerebral cocktails with a historical tiki-nautical vibe. (Instagram influencers, thereís one served in a pineapple that youíve got to get on STAT.) Itís 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.

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Ryan Griffin is a lawyer by day, and the other hours heís not sleeping heís 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. Petersburgís Grow Smarter Strategy, which he describes as an economic development strategy employing a collective impact model with a focus on inclusive prosperity. Heís 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 didnít 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 didnít really have much in the way of funky-casual seafood restaurants that focused exclusively on local species, places like Waltíz Fish Shak in Johnís Pass Village.

The first thing to do was set up a working relationship with some local commercial fishermen. Theyíve 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.

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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.

Letís start with the cocktails. They are broken into categories, some of which I understand ("stirred cocktails") and some of which I donít ("Iím 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 (thereís a "fin and tonic," a "banana hammock" and an "If you like pina coladas"), but donít 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. Thereís 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.

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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 ó all offered grilled, blackened or citrus-marinated) until itís 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 ó and as an aside, this means Trophy Fish has a deep fryer but doesnít 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 theyíre going to be out of something you were itching to try.

And thatís 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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