Eliza Steak & Seafood
2 out of 5 stars
900 N. Pinellas Ave., Tarpon Springs. Appetizers: $8-$15; entrees: $9-$28; desserts: $7; wines by the glass: $6.25-$8.50. 727-934-7484; elizasrestaurant.com.
I recently had a quartet of friends visiting from Europe. "Why not treat them to a restaurant tasting?" I thought. Great idea — what's next? I check the CL Food Plan and see that we've targeted a new place called Eliza in north Pinellas.
Better make sure they're open before we drive to Tarpon Springs. I go to the website. The homepage is alluring. A beautiful young woman with striking eyes and perfect brows teases you as she peeks out from behind a designer scarf. The text reads: "Appetite is for the palette what love is to the heart, the stomach is the conductor of the orchestra of our passions."
I'm confused. Surely they mean palate (taste buds), not palette (an artist's colors). It's an awkward analogy in any case, one that would fail to pass muster for Hallmark. Nevermind. Let's click the "ENTER" box and see what's on the menu. Perhaps since the restaurant's been open since July, its complete bill of fare is online.
Ah, there's a "Menu" tab. Click. "Coming soon." Not a good sign. Let's try "Wine List." Nada. How about "Gallery?" Zip. "Blog?" Zilch. OK! Time to switch to Facebook. Jackpot — open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week.
Piled into my car, we're off to Pinellas Avenue, which is right on Alt. 19 just before you reach the turn toward the Sponge Docks. As we arrive, the renovated bungalow that once housed Ballyhoo Grill, The Original Grill, Crabby Bill's and Deepwater Grill & Tiki Bar is all lit up with big signs proclaiming "NOW OPEN."
It's 7:45 p.m. on a week night, and we're hungry for seafood and steak. My carload rushes to the door only to find it locked tight. Surely, someone's here. We peek through the windows — nope, it's dark. The restaurant's shut down and gone home. Guess my five hungry mouths will have to wait to be guinea pigs till next time since they need to return across the pond.
Later in the week, with some new guests in tow, we try again. Seems like 6:30 p.m. is the charm. Cold shrimp cocktail is an old-fashioned starter, but the shrimp are pink and plump; it's exactly what you expect. The sesame-crusted ahi tuna served with wasabi, pickled ginger and chopsticks is overcooked. Modern diners know that proper ahi is barely seared, and these slices have only the thinnest streak of red down the middle.
One of the best dishes of the night is tiny tender clams steamed with white wine, butter, garlic, shallots and parsley. It's a classic combination with the winning personality that our other apps lack.
After our appetizers arrive in two trips from the kitchen, on a third we get complementary thin, crisp, nicely grilled bread served with olive tapenade floating in oil. It's tasty, but should be timed to arrive as a welcoming gift rather than an afterthought when our first course is nearly done.
On to the entrees. A generous row of tender, perfectly seared golden scallops is delightful. Unfortunately, the mushy grilled vegetables and corn on the cob might as well have been prepared for toothless patrons. When veggies pass the point of no return, they become indistinguishable.
Eliza's seafood special, apparently formerly called her "extravaganza" but renamed by the new manager, is pretty yet oh-so bland. Except for the succulent snow crab, the mussels and shrimp are essentially unseasoned, and just one of our four oysters in the mix is open. It also includes another ear of mushy corn. Though the creamed spinach side gets some personality with the addition of Parmesan, our wild rice is both overcooked and under-seasoned.
Most disappointing is a too-thin, tough bacon-wrapped filet mignon (complete with toothpick) that's cooked well, but seems like a bait and switch because, even at this reasonable price point, it has none of this king of steaks' texture. The round scoop of garlic mashed potatoes is dull and forgettable, while the coleslaw has crunch and a sweet-sour vinegary bite.
The restaurant wisely opts to bring in desserts from Mike's Pies, which never disappoint. However, there's no key lime since "they ran out yesterday." Our two options: a yummy, dense, creamy salted caramel cheesecake with cinnamon-laced sauce and a moist, rich three-layer chocolate cake with ganache, glaze and mini chocolate chips coating. It's a keeper for chocoholics.
The servers are a friendly bunch, but they haven't quite mastered getting meals to the table together, or clearing plates in an efficient manner. Everything about the service seems haphazard and requires multiple trips. Throughout the meal, we always seem to have extra plates in the way. This is simply lack of a coherent plan and training.
A restaurant is not a great vanity project; there are too many moving parts. With a few casual queries to our servers, they volunteer that the new owner has bought the restaurant for his wife.
And the first manager was gone in a month, so the new one is still in metaphorical diapers.
While the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle for a good local restaurant at 900 N. Pinellas Ave. are lying around the card table, they don't yet fit together to create the picture on top of the box.
Jon Palmer Claridge dines anonymously when reviewing. Check out the explanation of his rating system.