Crazy Good

Spunky Crazy Conch Cafe serves ingenious fare with its fun

It's a long drive from Tampa out to the Crazy Conch Cafe on Tierra Verde near Fort De Soto park, but it’s well worth the time. Located in a shopping center among pizza parlors and real estate offices, the restaurant's blue neon sign stands out in the velvet night. Once you reach the second floor, you'll find a simple little cafe, buzzing with genial diners and drinkers. Though the menu is modestly typed on a single sheet of paper, there's nothing simple about the fare; it’s imaginative, flavorful, complex and handmade by the owner and his kitchen staff. The service was friendly but a tad slow.

The cafe's vital and visible owners, a married couple whose names really are Sally Herb and Michael Peel, have been in the restaurant business many years, operating eateries in Virginia Beach, Va., and at Captiva Island before moving here four years ago. They opened the Crazy Conch Cafe July 4, with Michael serving as chef and Sally handling the administrative side

After a stressful day, it was nice to slide into one of the substantial black wooden chairs at the cafe, sniff the starchy clean white linen tablecloths and contemplate a respite from life's minor irritations. The cafe was busy that night, with the bar and all 10 inside tables full, and people enjoying a few tables outside too. We probably waited 15 minutes, but once our server got to us, she was efficient, cheerful and helpful, even though, she told us, it was her first night on the job.

She did well, so we'll cut her a break.

No breaks for the bartender, however, who failed our Weird Drink Test.

"I'll have a sidecar," I told the young waitress.

"I beg your pardon?" she asked.

"A SIDECAR," I repeated. She looked at me doubtfully.

She went away and came back to report: "The bartender doesn't know what that is. Would you like something else?"

Snared another victim. A sidecar is a classic cocktail made with lemon juice, triple sec and brandy and is served "up" in the glass, rimmed with sugar. For the record, the drinks we did get — a citrusy Canadian Club whiskey sour ($6) and a super-dry martini ($5.50) — were both frisky and the cafe also has an attractive wine list, with a number of moderately priced wines by the glass.

Though there were only seven appetizers, we had trouble choosing because they all sounded good. After much discussion, my dining companion ordered "oyster pan roast" ($6.95), a dish drawn from a recipe made famous by Grand Central Station's Oyster Bar in New York City. It's similar to an oyster stew, with fresh oysters in a cream-based sauce, seasoned with Tabasco and Worchestershire sauce.

I chose seafood gumbo with andouille sausage ($6.95), its broth the deep, earthy brown of the Mississippi Delta, laden with seafood, sausage and vegetables, and just a handful of white rice tossed in, as if for luck. Once in my mouth, it set off a slow burn, reinforced with seasonings.

Sally's endive salad with citrus and warm bacon dressing ($6.95) is based on a French favorite with an exotic mix of fresh endive, radicchio, bitter greens, croutons, chunks of bacon and oranges, and sassed with a warm bacon dressing reminiscent of sweet-and-sour dishes popular in Germany. It was so huge, it could serve as a filling and healthful entree, combined with a basket of knockout, homemade bread and big pat of unsalted fresh butter.

Vegetarians would enjoy Kristin's grilled vegetable panino (panino is Italian for “sandwich”) with fresh mozzarella (7.95), served with crunchy, browned homemade potato chips. The cafe also caters to meat-eaters, with items like smothered chicken and shrimp jambalaya ($16.95) and several types of choice, grilled black Angus beefsteaks, or the wood-fired pork cowboy steak adobo with apple-jicama slaw ($17.95).

I tried the Blue Plate Special (market price; mine cost $24.95, plus an additional $1.50 for a house salad). It arrived on a cornflower-blue plate, a sizzling trio of ahi sushi-grade tuna, a fat pork chop and a hearty lamb chop, charred and smoky from the grill. It was accompanied by a scoop of creamy homemade mashed potatoes, made from the sweet Yukon Gold potato and flavored with butter, heavy cream, garlic and a spice mix of basil, oregano and thyme; a second side dish was fresh green beans.

The meat was high quality, tender and perfectly cooked to medium rare, the way I ordered it. And though it was too much to eat at one sitting, I effortlessly demolished the lamb chop and both side dishes, probably too swiftly to be on the right side of Emily Post.

A perfect cup of Illy coffee from Italy provided an interlude between entree and dessert.

The desserts are made fresh each day, and thus, they change from day to day. One night when we were there, the restaurant was serving an apple crisp ($4.95), but it was more like a crumble because its topping was made from butter, flour, sugar, brown sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg, rather than something crunchy, like oatmeal. It was a dark, rich, complex goo, studded with hunks of apple, glistening with brown sugar and spice. It was fabulous even without the crowning scoop of vanilla ice cream melting in glacial rivulets.

We're lucky to have this accomplished eatery with its chatty charm. Though it’s out in the sticks a bit, the drive from Tampa is pleasant. An enjoyable outing would be to visit Fort De Soto Park first for a walk or jog and then hit Crazy Conch, maybe for one of the restaurant’s popular monthly wine dinners. They’re usually at 7 p.m., on the second Tuesday of each month, featuring five courses of food and five wines. Next month, the wine dinner is slated instead for April 22, featuring Markham wines.

Food Editor Sara Kennedy dines anonymously, and Weekly Planet pays for her meals. She can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888, ext. 116.

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