Restaurant Review: Island Seafood Market in St. Petersburg serves local seafood with a community vibe

Soon enough, however, they discovered that the close-knit community was just right for their philosophy. Schuch is now on the board of the Grand Central District Association, and the shop has evolved to fill the needs of their regulars. The menu has expanded, the second seafood case was ripped out to make room for a small bar area, and the bistro side of the business is now the focus.


But seafood from Gulf waters is still the driving force behind the place, and that seafood is becoming harder to find and more expensive by the day. "Because we're a market we get reports from the government every day," says Moch. "Most people don't know this, but the fishing is closed from Louisiana all the way to the Keys."


According to Moch, there's just a little strip of water where fisherman can still pull up a catch. Island's clams come from near Cedar Key, which is still clear of oil, but closer to the Panhandle than is comfortable. When the restaurant can find local seafood, it costs double what it did a year ago. "If we can't get local seafood, I don't know what we'll do," she says.


In the meantime, however, Island is still serving plates of scallops and shrimp, big sandwiches loaded with whatever catch is available, and whole lobsters that are one of the few things they fly in from elsewhere. The food is just as humble as the location.


Crab cakes have an almost ideal combination of lump and shredded meat, with a crisp crust and just enough seasoning to add a little interest without destroying the buttery flavor. Island's smoked fish spread is simple but brilliant, heady smoke wafting from every creamy spoonful dolloped onto saltine crackers. The restaurant's tomato-based chowder is classic, with a bounty of local clams throughout.


When Island reaches beyond its comfort zone into more complex dishes, the results aren't nearly as successful. A curry special came with beautiful scallops, but the sear ranged from non-existent to barely there, with almost no curry flavor on either them or the mound of white rice underneath. Ceviche has enough citrus to do the job, but there's no herb punch, green peppers overwhelm every bite, and the fish chunks are too big and too chewy.


So stay in the restaurant's sweet spot and get a fish sandwich. Some of the specialty options are a bit odd -- rare slices of tuna topped with melted cheese on marble rye? Philly fish steak? -- but the basics are worth a revisit. All the fish is grilled and doused in either a minimal amount of blackening seasoning or Island's subtly zesty citrus rub.


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It's more homey fare than you'd find at a more polished restaurant, the kinds of things you'd likely construct at home, but the lack of pretension is part of the restaurant's appeal. Plus, they probably have a better beer selection than what's contained in your fridge. Swigging from a bottle of Sierra Nevada Summerfest makes refinement seem entirely optional.


While you're sitting there chatting with Moch, enjoying a brew and noshing on a messy sandwich, you'll see a microcosm of Grand Central's diverse local crowd stream in for takeout or to order more beer for one of the sidewalk tables. Like most restaurants and bars in the area, it fosters a feeling of community, a rare commodity in Tampa Bay outside of Gulfport and here.


But if you want to experience that vibe at Island, come by fast. If things don't get better in the Gulf of Mexico, things are definitely going to get worse for local seafood restaurants.


Island Seafood Market- 2057 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, 727-821-8181, islandseafoodmarket.com.

There's a truism in the restaurant industry that says if you can survive your first year, your chances of success skyrocket. Look at the failure rates of food businesses and you'll see why that's such a common benchmark. But it's also no guarantee.

Island Seafood Market in St. Petersburg's Grand Central district has just hit the one-year mark, normally a time for celebration. "We survived our first year, yeah," says co-owner Elizabeth Moch. "But now it's horrible. It sucks." She still sounds positive — anyone who's eaten at Island has experienced Moch's casual, happy banter — but it's difficult for restaurateurs like her not to be a little bitter about circumstances beyond their control.

When Moch and partner Linda Schuch opened the place a year ago, their plan was to offer local seafood, mostly retail but with a few sandwiches and simple dishes for casual diners and takeout. They picked their spot in Grand Central based on a simple equation of rent and proximity to downtown, not because of the vibe or people who frequent the area. "We didn't even know about Grand Central at that point," says Moch.

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