After just a few pointed comments regarding a round of appetizers one night at Oystercatchers, one of my dining companions turns to me and says, "You like to subtract, don't you?" Um, I didn't think that math was her point, so I cocked my eyebrow in query. "You start with an ideal in mind, then you start taking off points. That's how you judge restaurants."
Well, sure, Rachel, isn't that how it works? Take the gazpacho ($8) that I force her to order, just so I can try it. It has a dull color and even duller flavor, almost as if the fresh tomatoes and veggies powering this cold soup were depressed about the whole pureeing process. A dollop of icy jalapeno sorbet adds spice and sweetness that the soup should exhibit on its own, but still leaves the dish several steps below anyone's ideal of a summery treat. Rachel thinks it's just fine, the sorbet tickling her fancy and making her happy. Humph.
Crab and corn fritters ($10), fried until deep brown and crispy, are better, although the side of "maple mayonnaise" tastes surprisingly like honey mustard dressing. A half-dozen raw oysters ($11) are briny and fresh — if a bit small — and perfect with a dab of Oystercatchers' simple horseradish-and-ketchup cocktail sauce and a cellophane pack of saltines. Piled with shrimp and bits of sweet white fish, the ceviche ($12) is milder than some, but worth the order.
Limp calamari fries ($10) leave an oily film in my mouth, but the squid is cooked just long enough to achieve that small window of tenderness that comes between raw and rubber. All in all, the first course of the night is a little under-whelming, not nearly as good as I had expected, considering the prices and Oystercatchers' reputation as one of Tampa's better eateries. Other Planet staffers echo my sentiments. Not Rachel, though.
"See, that's what I'm talking about," she says "We rolled up in here with the beautiful view and the good company, drinking wine and margaritas, eating this nice food that they make for us. It's all about the experience, not your expectations."
Well, I can concede some of that. There are very few places in our city by the bay that can compete with Oystercatchers' view. The dining room faces west just a few feet from the gently lapping waters of Tampa Bay. Sunsets are breathtaking. After dinner, you can take your drink and saunter down 20 steps to a small beach that serves the Hyatt's fancy bungalows, or stroll out onto the dock for some romantic canoodling.
The interior is nice too, with tile floors, pastel walls and a huge vaulted wood ceiling in our area of the dining room. A pervasive nautical theme dominates the décor, more like anonymous condo art than the lacquered tarpon and hanging nets of your local fish shack.
Our team of two servers seems a bit scattered tonight, perhaps because of a long table of 20 seated nearby, but they pull through admirably. That big group isn't especially loud, but the noise level throughout the dining room is so high that I am forced back into a discussion with Rachel about my pessimistic nature because I can't hear what's going on at the other end of the table.
She starts in with, "You're all about what's wrong, not what's right, with a place," and before I get a chance to respond, our entrees are hitting the table. I reach for Rachel's halibut ($27). We asked to have the kitchen prepare it however they thought best, so it ended up mesquite grilled. There is just a hint of smoke — which nicely accents the mild white flesh — but the overcooked filet crumbles dryly under our forks.
Better is the seagrill ($32), a cornucopia of the ocean's bounty, filleted and grilled. It's a pink lobster tail, some plump and pale scallops and shrimp, and sections of grouper and salmon, all subtly infused with the same mesquite smoke as the halibut, but more expertly cooked. Simple and unadorned, all of the natural sweetness of this fresh seafood shines bright with every bite.
A tilefish special ($28) is coated in ground Arborio rice that provides a crunchy counterpoint to the moist flesh. The fried risotto croquette on the side looks equally golden brown and delicious but the starchy crust turns out unpleasantly chewy.
Crab cakes ($30) also please the eyes and disappoint the palate. Sure, they're packed with crab, but it's almost all tiny shreds that are nigh flavorless. We leave large sections of the two patties on the plate. Oystercatchers' steak ($32) is well seasoned, perfectly cooked and significantly more beefy than most filet mignon, probably due to a meaty red wine reduction dousing the plate.
By the time the desserts arrive, the place has quieted down a bit and we've started a hushed deconstruction of our meal. Conversation screeches to a halt as soon as our forks hit our mouths, however. I'm not sure if I've been swayed by Rachel's arguments or if the rest of the meal had eroded my high expectations, but these desserts are damn good.
A Godiva tower ($7) that could be a trite remix of a thousand other desserts is so silky-smooth that I find myself digging through all three stacked layers to get at the bitter and sweet, milky and rich flavors. Homey pineapple cake ($7) is slightly caramelized on the outside, moist and light on the inside, and surrounded by preserved diced pineapple. The berry stack ($7) might be the freshest, liveliest thing we've eaten all night.
We sum up our experience over Oystercatchers' good coffee. Even coming from different viewpoints — me subtracting points from an ideal, Rachel adding points for good stuff, and everyone else adding and subtracting willy-nilly — we all reach the same conclusion. The view is stellar, but the food is just adequate, especially considering the equally stellar prices.
Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. He can be reached at [email protected]. Planet food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.