Restaurant review: Imperfect storm

The forecast for beer is bright at Dunedin’s Clear Sky Draught Haus, but the food’s fate is cloudier.

click to enlarge SAUCY SHELLFISH: Mojito scallops with lime-mint rum sauce. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
SAUCY SHELLFISH: Mojito scallops with lime-mint rum sauce.

The patch of land where Dunedin’s State Road 580 forks into Main Street and Skinner Boulevard was once the site of a Shell station. More recently, it’s proven to be a culinary Bermuda Triangle, sucking up restaurants at a record pace.

Bellini occupied the split before moving half a mile west into downtown. The Living Room then filled the void, but escaped into the new Bellini space in 2010 when Bellini was forced to close. Then, for a nanosecond, 680 Main housed the Dunedin Smokehouse until it hopped and skipped into the vacant Angry Pirate, The Living Room’s neighbor.

Soon thereafter followed Café DePaz, which despite a 4-star review from my predecessor closed after two name changes (pick from “Mezze” or “Cacique” … on Main).

But hope springs eternal. The Clear Sky Cafe/Frenchy’s team, with a devoted following on the beach, opted for a “chef-driven gastropub.” Frenchy’s CEO Dan Shouvlin wanted a special touch to reflect the location’s retro past, so he engaged artist Gary Baillie to create a splendid gas station mural with three “beer pumps" delivering IPA, Ale and Stout.

As its name suggests, Clear Sky Draught Haus is a champion of craft beer with local, regional, and national brands — 28 taps, 50 bottles, a limited but nicely chosen wine list and a full bar with fun specialty cocktails.

My beer-drinking guest happily sips a local 7venth Sun Graffiti Orange Creamsicle Wheat, and as I look around a happy crowd fills the place. Our friendly and attentive server points us around the menu; it goes way beyond pub grub, with ridiculously long hours and myriad choices to feed the starving, thirsty masses from breakfast (7 a.m.) to late night (1 a.m. on Fri & Sat).

When we order the mojito scallops with lime-mint rum sauce for our table, we feel pretty safe. Citrus is a favorite for brightening the flavors of seafood and contrasting the mollusks’ lush texture. The menu doesn’t mention that CSDH is serving the small bay scallops, which are sweeter than those from the sea, but are often chewy.

The presentation is cute, on small shells. But the mojito sauce buries and overwhelms the shellfish with gelatinous goo. Even worse, instead of bright citrus, the sauce tastes like a less sweet version of key lime pie filling.

The panko-crusted cheddar brisket risotto balls are a nice bar food. The rice is soft and the cheese with beef is subtle. The coating, though, doesn’t seem to be as coarse or as crisp as panko (large Japanese breadcrumbs); that’s too bad, because that would add another dimension.

I advise our table to skip the house BBQ sauce. If it’s homemade, you can’t tell; it tastes like a commercial product and overwhelms all that is good about these tasty tidbits.

True confession: I love pork belly. So I am psyched to try the pork belly sliders with pickled vegetables (to balance the fat) and sriracha aioli (to provide some heat). Sounds well-conceived.

Unfortunately, what arrives at the table is the night’s special “shaved beef” sliders. They are mini-cousins of the steak sandwich below. Since I review with the aim of total anonymity, I never send back mistakes, but rather just report the facts.

Next is another promising dish — caramelized date and prosciutto flatbread with goat cheese and candied pecans. Yum, what could go wrong?

Apparently, a lot. The topping combo seems promising, but the proscuitto, which is normally paper thin, is instead served as small, rubbery, inedible nuggets. Even though the accompanying date-cheese-nut trio is tasty, the flatbread is soggy — and not just a little. When the small squares are so soft that they collapse and the filling falls off, your choices are clear: eat what is usually a finger food with a knife and fork or spend the night with your napkin.

The entrees don’t fare much better.

click to enlarge The restaurant's lobster mac and cheese. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
The restaurant's lobster mac and cheese.

The menu lists lobster mac and cheese with “main [sic] lobster, green onions, and havarti.” On the plus side, the chunks of lobster are huge. But the spiral macaroni, while visually appealing, is totally forgettable in a thin, brilliant orange sauce that is closer to Kraft than havarti. If I could just transfer this claw meat to an al dente pasta coated with some enthralling cheese, I’d be much happier.

There’s a huge selection of sandwiches and burgers. My table succumbs to the allure of shaved NY strip, roasted red peppers, provolone, fried onions, and horseradish aioli. What sounds great doesn’t deliver; it’s lukewarm, dry instead of creamy, and just underwhelming.

Sadly, the fish entree we choose, key lime grilled mahi, is also blah. The accompanying cauliflower purée is grainy, and garlic-ginger broccoli ends up as green beans that are, at least, cooked properly.

We skip the fried doughnuts, spiced chocolate bar, and dessert pretzel with mustard icing for a huge, gloppy banana bread pudding that mirrors a sundae with chocolate and caramel sauces, whipped cream (the server says “Cool Whip”) and a cherry.
Go for the beer. 

About The Author

Jon Palmer Claridge

Jon Palmer Claridge—Tampa Bay's longest running, and perhaps last anonymous, food critic—has spent his life following two enduring passions, theatre and fine dining. He trained as a theatre professional (BFA/Acting; MFA/Directing) while Mastering the Art of French Cooking from Julia Child as an avocation. He acted...
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