And Now For Something Completely Different

Mangroves' Floribbean gets an extreme makeover

click to enlarge MOJO RISING: Grilled Mahi Mahi with mango-mint - mojo is typical of Mangroves' inventive cuisine. - VALERIE MURPHY
MOJO RISING: Grilled Mahi Mahi with mango-mint mojo is typical of Mangroves' inventive cuisine.

Mangroves Seafood Grill has always been one gorgeous little restaurant, even before its recent six-figure extreme makeover. Before, the trendy SoHo eatery was working a Floribbean fusion mojo, with tropical blue walls and an under-the-sea décor. Now, though the bright mosaic bar remains, the restaurant has gone a bit more uptown with a black-and-white color scheme accented with brushed silver and ultra-modern lighting fixtures that spring from the walls like industrial-era sea anemones. The restaurant's loft level looks funky and urban, rather than an awkward attempt to squeeze in more table room. Stepping into the restaurant, any New York City transplant would feel right at home (and judging from the large percentage of out-of-town clientele from nearby hotels, they do). The update is, in a word, stunning.According to the fickle tastes of Tampa trendsetters, Mangroves' ranking as a "see and be seen" spot is currently on a downswing. But give it a few weeks and fortune's wheel will turn again, bringing migrating hipsters from whatever watering hole is the latest thing.

The menu is at first a bit daunting. The martini page alone boasts several dozen entries with fanciful names and intriguing mixtures. And of course, along with the New York décor comes New York prices: my Julie's Lemonsine martini was a cool $9, and tasted just like homemade lemonade. It had about the same kick, too. I figured that there was too much 7-Up and sour in the mix, and so for the next drink I ordered a more classic martini (also $9). However, even a supposedly all-alcohol drink wasn't particularly strong. Still, I found the drinks to be cleverly concocted and tasty, in keeping with the restaurant's tendencies toward unusual combos.

The meal began with warm fresh bread served alongside a plate of tasty asiago cheese and herb-infused olive oil. The menu, divided into lists of "small" and "large" plates, describes the ingredients of every dish in minute detail. Cooking-school terms are sprinkled throughout: pluches, for instance, which the waiter had to ask the chef to define for us (it's an herb garnish).

The most unusual "small plate" is a grilled shrimp sundae ($8) — a trendy shrimp cocktail that utilized tomato-jalapeño ice cream dotted with charred corn in place of cocktail sauce. Though savory ice cream (especially ice cream with shrimp) may be an acquired taste, I enjoyed the scoop's fiery flavor. However, the real disappointment in the dish proved to be the indifferent grilled shrimps ringing the martini glass in which it was served. They had little flavor and no pizzazz.

A good bet is the macadamia nut-encrusted crabcakes. I prefer more lump crabmeat in my cakes (they weren't lacking in crab, but it was shredded smooth), but the macadamia crust and mango garnish provided a welcome note of nutty sweetness. I fell immediately in love with the tri-continental fusion of New Zealand green-lipped mussels (finest mussels in the world) stewed in a sweet but spicy red panang curry ($8.25). The perfectly prepared seafood was served in a delicious sauce with truly inspired garnishes of fried plantains and roasted coconut shavings.

One of Mangroves' newest entrées, Brazilian zarzuela ($27), is a sort of South American bouillabaisse chock-full of mini Danish lobster tails, mussels, clams and scallops in a delectable, creamy tomato broth. We ordered more bread when the entrée arrived, the better to appreciate every drop. Another entrée was similarly stunning, with macadamia nut flour crusting a tender filet of red snapper ($20). Served over a scoop of sweet potato mash that skirts the line between entrée and dessert with the addition of vanilla bean, the dish gets another kick from a drizzled topping of maple syrup infused with fiery Tabasco sauce and a side of apples sautéed in rum. Surprisingly, these myriad flavors combine to make a dish that balances sweet and spicy without overwhelming the subtle mildness of the fish.

But not all of the entrees had the same success. Though they each boasted exceptional ingredients and combinations rarely seen around town, occasionally the recipes fell flat. The unimpressive blue crab stuffing of the filet of black grouper ($23) clashed with the strong flavors of the purple Peruvian potato and goat cheese mash served alongside the dish. However, a trio of miniature, roasted baby veggies provided a pleasing touch.

Our desserts were, unfortunately, substandard. A "pear tart" ($8) was lacking in both pears and pastry, and was topped with a strange, spongy, bright orange icing. Our chocolate trio (also $8) was plagued by an odd blandness.

As a counterpoint to the occasionally over-the-top menu, the service at Mangroves is uniformly excellent and down to earth. At no time during the meal did we lack for anything, and our server was informative, friendly and extremely fun. Granted, there are a few missteps on the menu (and more noticeably at the bar), but with such a focus on inventive combinations, it stands to reason that not every experiment can be an unqualified success. Still, since new items appear regularly on the menu as the chef concocts new dishes, it's an ongoing project. With such beauty, innovative cuisine and wonderful staff, Mangroves Seafood Grille is well positioned to take a place as one of the area's top establishments.

Freelance writer Diana Peterfreund dines anonymously and the Planet pays for her meals. She may be contacted at [email protected]. Restaurants are chosen for review at the discretion of the writer, and are not related to advertising.

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