Crazy Conch Cafe has a sense of place that fits its location in "downtown" Tierra Verde — you know, the Billy's strip-mall complex that seems to house half the businesses located on this southern Pinellas island. The restaurant is calm. Unfussy. Casual, even when the food strives for fancy.
The interior décor is stripped down, mostly tiles and white tablecloths and a lot of windows, with little else. Look out the northwest corner of the second-floor space and you can see — through trees and over marina sheds — the sparkling waters that make Tierra Verde an envious condo and vacation spot.
And, like many beachside village restaurants, much of Crazy Conch's charm comes from more than the menu. There is a quaint sense of camaraderie with other diners, with the personable owners, with the island community. Before the end of your meal, unless you're a complete misanthrope, you might find out that rum cake is co-owner and front-house maven Sally Herb's favorite breakfast, that her husband Michael Peel (she lovingly calls the big guy "chubby") is the chef, and that their daughter is the one waiting tables with practiced but casual familiarity.
This bonhomie manages to compensate — somewhat — for food that varies wildly in execution and quality.
The highlights of a meal at Crazy Conch? Addictive homemade potato chips ($8) are one. Nothing new here, except the potatoes are fried, drained, then topped with the requisite crumbles of creamy blue cheese and given a refresher in the oven just before serving. The result is a heavily seasoned pile über-crisp chips that manage to be hot but not greasy, topped with cheese that's gooey but not runny.
Tasty chips, no doubt, but the crab cake ($15) is almost transcendent. Picture a golden-brown ball the size of a man's fist, which, when poked authoritatively with a fork, reveals an interior of giant lump crab meat dotted by a few gleaming capers.
Filler? None to be seen, just sweet and buttery shellfish held together by magic, skill and a little breading. A little less lemon in the puddle of sauce — too tart when combined with the capers — and this would be the crab cake of my dreams. As it is, it's still the best I've had in years.
A new item on the menu — beef "ceviche" ($12) — needs to be overhauled before it becomes a regular player. Essentially carpaccio drowned in soy, ginger and cilantro, much of the thinly shaved meat crunches with cold, as if grabbed directly from the freezer. And the beef needs to be better quality or sliced even thinner to compensate for the seriously chewy sections I sample.
Subpar sauces — like those served with the crab cake and ceviche — are a pervasive problem at Crazy Conch's. Case in point is the broth underneath an ideally roasted piece of salmon ($24). The fish flakes into moist sections, with an interior of vibrant, translucent rosy flesh framed by pink, but the broth is blandly sweet with a generically Asian-y flavor.
Gravy almost kills a Southern treat of shrimp and grits ($24). The grits are rich and creamy, just right, but the shrimp are blackened with a pedestrian blend of dried spices that tastes like store-bought Prudhomme, then drowned in a dismal brown sauce infused with the same spices. By the end of the meal, we've scooped as much virgin grits as we can find, leaving several uneaten shrimp and a big puddle of sauce.
A special of filet and scallops ($29) looks fine, albeit with the same featureless sauces I've come to expect, but the beef has the texture of dry, slow-cooked pot roast. The blue-plate special ($19) — roast pork tonight — is better, the meat glazed with an innocuous barbecue sauce laced with sugar and cumin, alongside a mishmash warm slaw of corn and veggies.
What's up with the side dishes, Crazy Conch? Some menu items come with a vegetable or starch, some don't, and there is a long list of à la carte accompaniments like you see in a big-city steakhouse. If your meal seems light on the sides — and you can stomach $5 for green beans — they're worth an order.
So is a decadent squash casserole ($6) loaded with breadcrumbs, cheese, cream and, oh yes, slices of tender-crisp yellow squash, or a zingy pile of crunchy jicama slaw ($5) laced with citrus.
One bite and I understand why Sally Herb chomps her husband's leftover rum cake ($7) for a morning treat. It's a simple dish: just enough rum to moisten and flavor without giving the dessert a "proof," combined with a lighter texture than the heavy alcoholic sweets that are common. This is a bundt that hovers between chiffon and pound, with an almost unnoticeable shell of caramelized sugar.
Maybe food isn't the most important reason to visit Crazy Conch, but it is good enough. Peel obviously has a lot of skill when it comes to the application of heat (as well as a delicate touch with a bundt pan) and, though I rail against the boring sauces, none of them were terrible.
In any case, almost five years after Crazy Conch opened, I'm not sure that the restaurant is going to change much. Not sure if it should. That consistency is another hallmark of Island charm. People come back to this place because of the food, sure, but also, (maybe even more so) for the memory of good times, for the friendly Herb-Peel clan, for the kind of tropical atmosphere where talk between tables is a likely occurrence, and you could leave with more friends than you came with.
Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. Creative Loafing food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertsing. Read more of Brian Ries on his new food blog, Eat My Florida, at http://blogs.creativeloafing.com/eatmyflorida/.