Restaurant review: Trusting in tradition

Clearwater’s Beachcomber proudly offers classic fare.

click to enlarge Beachcomber's famous Back-To-The-Farm Fried Chicken. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
Beachcomber's famous Back-To-The-Farm Fried Chicken.

Imagine if you will the familiar opening of the William Tell Overture. Bump, bada-bump ... The mellifluous tones of the intense narration begins:

“A breaking wave, a cloud of sand, and a hearty ‘Hi Yo Seagull!’ The Beachcomber! ‘Hi Yo Seagull, away!’ With his faithful Seminole companion Osceola, the daring and resourceful restaurateur of the Gulf led the fight for surf & turf and relish trays on the shore. Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. The Beachcomber rides again!”

When your grandmother comes to visit, this is the place. There’s a sense of time warp, but the patrons are happy — so why change? And what they do, they do well. But I had totally forgotten the concept of the relish tray until one appeared at our table. The server skillfully swings the silver tray into place while the centrifugal force holds the contents in each quadrant: sweet, dark apple butter, large-curd cottage cheese with chives, ground beets with horseradish, and spicy corn niblets with red pepper and the bite of vinegar. And crackers wrapped in cellophane. Lots of crackers wrapped in cellophane. I must admit, however, it is fun.

Yes, return with me now to the thrilling days of yesteryear, indeed. (NOTE: If you’ve gotten this far and you’re totally confused, just Google “Clayton Moore.”)

The appetizers feature such classics as clams casino, oysters Florentine and escargot. We opt for two other vintage starters, vichyssoise and shrimp cocktail. The soup is served in a ceramic bowl set in a large container of crushed ice. It’s a nice touch and a reminder why the alchemy of potatoes and leeks has endured. Some recipes add stock, others a touch of cream; but the real key is the balance of the earthy spuds with the edge provided by the onion’s less pungent cousin. This version is fine, but is a touch thin to me and could use more salt. The chive garnish adds a little pop, but it lacks the “ah” factor that I usually get on the rare occasions that I eat this most famous of cold French soups. There’s just something magical about the combo that usually surprises, but not in this case; it’s OK rather than thrilling.

Which is sort of my reaction to the rest of the menu, as well. For the most part, nothing’s wrong with any of the dishes, but there’s also nothing that surprises your palate or stops you in your tracks. The jumbo Gulf shrimp are served with TBC’s own bloody mary cocktail and stone crab mustard sauces. The shrimp are huge, but don’t have much taste which, luckily, the dips have in spades. However, I’d rather it be about the shrimp; which is why, I guess, that iced preparations of this tiny crustacean seem now to be out of style.

click to enlarge THE TIMELESS & THE TASTY: The interior of this coastal location. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
THE TIMELESS & THE TASTY: The interior of this coastal location.

Some entrees include soup du jour and salad. Ours is a tasty bean soup with flavorful broth and a salad with sweet bacon dressing clinging like dew to a crunchy mix of spinach, sprouts, red cabbage, carrots, croutons, and a few nuggets of blue cheese. Again, traditional but tasty. The bread basket has an unexpected mix: banana bread, gingerbread mini muffins, and white bread. They all appear to be homemade and are a hit with my table.

The Heilman traditional dinner is a special fried chicken recipe that dates from 1910. A large breast and wing from an organic Bell and Evans chicken (cold-chilled, no hormones or antibiotics) is sauteed in a dutch oven skillet and served with fluffy fresh-whipped potatoes and pan gravy. Again, it’s OK, but there’s no surprise — no unanticipated crunch or disquieting herb. Just a piece of high-end chicken.

We opt for halibut over the grouper, but all the fish is either fresh from the Gulf or flown in to guarantee freshness. You may choose broiled, blackened, or griddled with either citrus-mango vinaigrette or garlic-herb butter to comport with your taste.

Our fish is broiled just right, but there’s not much mango to the vinaigrette or really much sauce in general; the fish, though, stands up well on its own. That’s not the case for the accompanying vegetable-parmesan risotto, which is gooey rather than creamy and just doesn’t have a lot of flavor. I want risotto that elicits sighs; one that’s light and silky, but with body and not mushy.

click to enlarge Broiled halibut with vegetable-Parmesan risotto. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
Broiled halibut with vegetable-Parmesan risotto.

The char-broiled prime barrel-cut filet mignon is dry-aged (that’s good) and served with sautéed mushroom caps and crisp onion rings. Our steak arrives above the medium rare that is ordered and even a fair tarragon-laced béarnaise sauce can’t elevate beef that’s past the desired temperature.

The dessert menu is built around ice cream variations, but there’s also freshly baked coconut cream pie and their own special Key lime pie recipe that has the sharpness I love and that so many insipid versions of this Florida stalwart seem to lack. I look for a mix of creamy texture and tartness on the palate — and TBC’s version memorably delivers.

They’ve also got a fun cocktail menu and a great wine list, with choices for every palate and budget from around the globe. And, yeah, they’ve got a relish tray from those thrilling days of yesteryear. Hi Yo Seagull, away!

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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