There must be something in the water. Just north of Safety Harbor’s Main Street on the block between Fourth and Fifth avenues, there’s a proliferation of bungalows churning out good food. The five-star Pizzeria Gregario is just around the corner from Green Springs Bistro and Parts of Paris. And on the western edge of the block, a hypnotizing path of tiki torches invites you in.
Marker 39 is named for an old diminutive concrete pillar just outside the door next to a pink flamingo. There, amidst the ferns, concrete rises from the earth and “1939” is clearly embedded in the rough facade. Tiny rocks of white, gray and amber peek through the textured surface near the tip like fossils in an archeological dig.
It’s here that chef-owner Justin Murphy, a disciple of Florida cuisine titan and visionary Norman Van Aken, brings his Floribbean fusion. Among the tropical foliage and canopy-covered deck, he reinterprets classics through a Caribbean-Latino-Asian lens, creating “ingredient-driven, seasonal menus that contain bold textures and dramatic flavors,” according to the restaurant’s website, with a commitment to local, organic products.
The starters shine. Crisp cornmeal-crusted gulf oysters sit atop a pasilla pepper-sweet corn relish that provides a nice contrast of flavors. Add the brightness of citrus-dressed greens and creamy heat of roasted poblano remoulade, and an exciting symphony of tastes plays on your tongue.
Shrimp bisque is textbook perfect. The broth, infused with sherry, has a luscious mouthfeel, seductive seafood flavors and a yummy blue crab garnish. Even better are the Nemo Rolls of soft ginger-cured salmon wrapped around crisp pickled cucumber sticks. Dots of ginger-wasabi mayo peak with a flash of bright orange tobiko caviar, the flying fish roe so often seen in sushi preparations. It’s a delicious expression of Murphy’s artistry.
On the entree front, meaty beef short ribs get an adobo rub, braised till fork-tender and glazed in a sweet house-made guava barbecue sauce with touches of tamarind. The sweetness of the meat balances heat and sharpness from horseradish mashed potatoes and some basil purée. The crispy, golden haystack onions that top the dish provide a welcome textural contrast. If you’re open to the marriage of sweet with savory, you’ll love this one.
The fish dishes on our visit have nice touches, but suffer by comparison. Charbroiled mahi mahi has an eye-pleasing golden exterior, but ends up on the dry side. The jasmine rice is bland and can’t be rescued by fire-roasted corn and toasted almonds. Perhaps the roasted shallot-key lime butter could’ve saved the day, but there’s too little of it to help the overcooked fish. The West Indies-spiced carrot chips are a surprising and tasty garnish, but without the filet spot-on, the dish dies.
Floribbean-style paella has chunks of mahi mahi, mussels, gulf shrimp, a little pulled chicken and a tomato-sofrito broth to flavor the jasmine rice. M39’s version has an overdosage of broth and no socarrat, the caramelized crust you find in a true paella. The menu also lists chorizo (which seems to be absent). Most of the flavor comes from the poblano rouille (a red pepper mayo that’s used in France to garnish soupe de poisson or bouillabaisse). The pepper overwhelms the delicate fish, and there’s too much broth without any bread to sop it up. In my experience, rice absorbs the liquid in paella. This seems to be a hybrid that hasn’t decided what it is.
The desserts sound good in theory, but waver in delivery. The key lime tart fares best yet doesn’t need the scoop of (over)brûléed meringue. The passion fruit and strawberry sauces provide nice color, but, for me, are extraneous. I’d prefer to focus on the lime; this is a lily that doesn’t need gilding.
Chocolate lava cake has become a ubiquitous wonder, with the liquid center a delicious surprise. Unfortunately, what arrives at our table is Mount St. Helens with its top blown off — 10 percent cake with 90 percent lava. It is clearly pulled from the oven too early and can’t be rescued by adding peanut butter-banana crumble and vanilla ice cream.
The warm doughnut with brown butter toffee and bacon crumbles is a mixed bag. Although one server waxes eloquent about this dessert as life-altering, my table is a tough crowd. The doughnut is just a tad greasy, and I (alone) love the sauce. The bacon bits, though, strike me as too large and not crisp enough. Perhaps they soften in the brown butter toffee, but they would sing as a crispy accent. Not all patrons are ready for bacon in desserts. For those who are, small and crunchy wins the day.
The appetizers prove Murphy can deliver excellence. However, his small kitchen needs to churn out each dish flawlessly for his well-conceived menu to shine its brightest. I’m ready to tap dance on the table before the entrees arrive, but a few technical glitches and uneven service curb my enthusiasm. When a chef shows this kind of talent, you want perfect execution.