Restaurant review: Olde Bay Café is quite a catch

Dunedin's Olde Bay Café pairs its toothsome seafood with a slammin' view.

click to enlarge LUNCH IS SURFED: Olde Bay's Blue Crab Salad Roll with creamy 'cado slices. - Kevin Tighe
Kevin Tighe
LUNCH IS SURFED: Olde Bay's Blue Crab Salad Roll with creamy 'cado slices.

It’s really nice when friends are visiting from Stratford-upon-Avon to have them gush over the Dunedin Marina — gobsmacked by the beauty of the Gulf breezes and the thrilling sunsets that set the clouds aglow. I stifle my surprise, since I have the same thrill in a swan-dodging boat down the Avon; just passing the Royal Shakespeare Company quickens my pulse. The grass, it seems, is always greener.

Nonetheless, it’s a pleasure to wander down to Olde Bay Café, peek inside the fish market for fresh catches on ice and then sit on the patio deck under an umbrella to partake of chef Walt Wickman’s casual seafood, so fresh that it might as well have jumped onto your plate.

Freshness is the main allure of Olde Bay. The oysters are full of delicious nectar from the sea. We suck them down from their icy cold bed while watching gulls and pelicans zoom from pillar to post.

I begin with a creamy, sherry-laced lobster bisque soup du jour that’s all you can ask for, and there’s also yummy mushroom-Brie bisque and corn-shrimp chowder to tickle your taste buds.

A smoked fish spread of salmon and mahi mahi is soft and fine, as opposed to being full of large chunks. Some shaved celery provides the crunch, but like the smoke, it’s subtle. The spread’s served in a basket with cellophane-wrapped Ritz crackers, which reinforces the laid-back vibe.

click to enlarge Chef and owner Walt Wickman filets a fresh catch. - Kevin Tighe
Kevin Tighe
Chef and owner Walt Wickman filets a fresh catch.
The tuna poke combines cubes of fresh pink ahi tuna with avocado and a hint of ponzu in a well-balanced ginger-soy vinaigrette, topped with a squiggle of spicy Sriracha. More Ritz are a vehicle to transport the tasty morsels from the black plastic cup to your mouth, and to add texture and a counter-balance to the tangy elements.

The cafe’s out of the peel-and-eat shrimp the day we visit; one person at my table is close to tears. “But we do have some huge langostinos tossed with fresh garlic and herbs.” There’s a huge sigh of relief, and the mood brightens considerably. My tablemates prove quite adept at separating the shells from the succulent meat, and the garlicky crustaceans are wolfed down with some craft beer in short order. All is right with the world.

Speaking of brews, the cafe has skimmed the cream of the craft beer scene and offers options for every palate. My English friend, who knows his ale, is impressed. The red sangria leans more toward the sharp side than fruity or sweet, and a white sangria is full of flavor and fruit, pairing well with the many from-the-sea options.

Two delectable fish sandwiches offer ample filets: the “Frugal Fish” with tilapia and the Olde Bay grouper that can hold its own against any in town. The accompanying fries are crisp and golden, and the dainty cup of house-made slaw is mild, wet and very finely textured. Neither tart nor sweet, it’s just right if you don’t want to be reminded you’re actually eating vegetables.

click to enlarge The restaurant's deck allows diners to enjoy their seafood in the open air. - Kevin Tighe
Kevin Tighe
The restaurant's deck allows diners to enjoy their seafood in the open air.
The menu also features multiple ways to enjoy sweet, moist crab meat with the right amount of spice and acidity. There’s a crab cake duo dinner, and you may try a single in a wrap with some crisp lettuce and key lime Dijonaise, or even in a hot dog bun alongside a long sliver of bright green avocado, which melds seductively with the shellfish.

If fresh fish overlooking the beauty of St. Joseph Sound sets off the pinging sounds of “ick” in your brain from some unresolved seafood trauma, the turf items include pork barbecue, a Cuban or chicken salad with grapes and pecans. The burger has good beefy flavor on a toasted bun with lettuce and a thick, ripe-red tomato slice. Melted cheddar molds itself into the nooks and crannies of every variegated surface, coating a nicely caramelized sear. My fish-averse guest smiles from ear to ear.

The desserts are not done in-house, but when key lime pie is the question and a fabulous slice from Mike’s Pies is the answer, what’s not to love? It’s as tart as a stand-up comic and as creamy and memorable as, well, the perfect key lime pie. If you’re not a fan of this local treasure, there’s also apple crisp or peanut butter pie to satiate your sugar cravings.

If you’ve been out fishing and managed to hook a big one, the cafe will clean and cook your catch, alongside salad and two sides, for about $9 per person. More importantly, nothing gets between you and your fish; it’s all seared in a cast-iron skillet and finished in the oven ‘til it’s flawless and piping hot. No batter or frying involved — just fresh, local fish.

Whether you’re an angler on a lucky streak or a landlocked visitor from an ancient empire, Olde Bay’s the right place to sample the Gulf’s bounty, enjoy an adult beverage and lazily watch the birds troll for food (or your fries) in the sunset’s afterglow.

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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