Imagine you’re a rainbow trout swimming west along the stream that is downtown St. Pete’s Central Avenue.
As your lean body flexes, your tail flips back and forth to gain momentum, but there’s movement to your right. You rush toward the vibration, flash and color, yet realize too late that it’s a lure, and you’ve been hooked.
While they reel you in, it’s clear that what caught your eye are two pool tables with ornately carved cabriole legs, sitting on Oriental rugs under antique-styled lamps of amber glass. The blood red felt that tops the billiard tables is beguiling, and “ya got trouble, my friend… with a capital ‘T’ and that rhymes with ‘P’ and that stands for pool.”
This is The Lure, home to “tikis, tapas, billiards and cold dead fish.” Chef Tom Golden and his savvy partners Richard Alday, of the now-shuttered Rack in South Tampa, and Michael Stewart, owner of South Tampa’s Ava and 717 South, have their finger on the pulse of what’s now in vogue.
The truly eclectic interior has a casual charm. At each entrance, there are thin log end slices arranged to resemble a cord of stacked firewood. Part of the room divider features thin tree trunks that may have been purloined from a stage set of The Cherry Orchard. A charming wall-length mural on brick by David Boyd, of Tampa’s Boyd Clocks, showcases not only a leaping trout chasing a lure, but also a booze-guzzling chimp on his way to AA.
Between the restroom doors, a yellow neon sign proclaims “final watering hole.” Under a multicolored wood-plank wall, there’s a series of beige booths with bright red alligator backs. The rear is anchored by a splendid contemporary horseshoe bar lined with flat screens, glowing bottles and an irresistible, one-of-a-kind tiki collection used to serve specialty drinks from Don the Beachcomber, rehabbed to appeal to more contemporary tastes.
Tapas, which used to refer to snacks of Spanish heritage, has come to mean diners splitting small dishes. In this case: tacos, flatbreads and sharing plates with varying gastronomic influences.
And then there’s sushi. The Lure’s catch phrase comes from an offhand comment. Golden shared a story on Studio 10 last week about when he turned to his seafood mavens and quipped, “I’m starvin’, make me some cold dead fish. Just throw something on a plate; I’ll eat it. I don’t care.” That inspired descriptor is now emblazoned on the menu.
Luckily, his sushi chefs know their craft and offer 50-plus options, from standard nigiri and sashimi to a specialty roll touting “an obscene amount of bacon.” We happily gobble down the terrific Taste the Rainbow with thin, glistening slices of tuna, salmon, shrimp and whitefish sashimi delicately draped over a California roll. Then there’s the CC&T, with spicy tuna, cucumber, avocado and crunchy tempura chips, rolled and topped with real snow crab meat and spicy mayo that makes every bite pop.
Much to the dismay of my tablemates who can’t refrain from expressing deeply held feelings of utter disgust, I’m excited about trying the chapuline (grasshopper) taco with avocado and spicy jicama slaw. Golden imports the insects from Thailand, removes their legs and deep fries them in a jerk tempura batter with jerk remoulade, so they resemble “a fried oyster with the texture of popcorn.” Sadly, the delivery from Thailand is slow, and this taste treat is not available.
So, much to my companions’ delight, our taco choice is The Donald (as in Disney, not Trump). Delicate slices of spiced, seared pink duck breast practically jump off the duo of soft corn tacos thanks to surprising, bright acidity from cilantro-laced citrus salsa fresca. They are just plain terrific.
There are also five splendid flatbread offerings, each created by a different chef — four of them based locally. Every flatbread ordered triggers a $1 donation in that chef’s name to their favorite charity. My table attacks the crisp Fig and the Pig flatbread like ravenous dogs. Aged prosciutto and fresh black mission figs sit on fig jam under a melted blanket of four cheeses, lightly drizzled with white truffle oil. Superb.
The tapas dishes, with largely inexplicable names, highlight everything from wings to lobster tails. The Eric Kern is thin, rare slices of orange-maple-Dijon-marinated filet mignon paired with maple bacon-flavored black-eyed peas. Teddy and the Greek is a salmon fillet marinated in orange-pineapple ponzu with honey-garlic peppers. Both are served atop flavor-packed garlic-basil mashed potatoes. Seeing the alacrity with which they disappear is akin to watching a flock of hungry buzzards. Clearly, Golden and his kitchen have found the bay’s culinary sweet spot.
Currently, the only dessert is crème brûlée. It’s served in a low, wide-mouthed Mason jar with strawberry garnish. There’s not a lot of sugar crust, but it tops a dense, lush, deep yellow custard. It’s sweet, creamy and seductive.
My hope is that the team will add a few other sweet choices of this quality. The “school of fish” who dine at my table exit after our meal, happy to have taken the bait.
Jon Palmer Claridge dines anonymously when reviewing. Check out the explanation of his rating system.