The loud buzz of a busy restaurant — glasses clinking, diners chattering, waiters rushing about — makes for a very gay atmosphere inside Tropics on any Saturday night. And though it gets louder as it gets later, the noise never reaches the level of places like Ybor's Mezzanotte, where the red stuff on your pasta may be sauce, or merely evidence that your eardrums are bleeding. Let Ybor roar. Over on South MacDill, Tropics keeps it low key, so much so that chef Matthew Booth assures me some diners have yet to notice this business flies the rainbow flag. Tropics' unique atmosphere is the result of a well-tuned mix of good food and good design, coupled with a commitment to serve the gay and lesbian community. If you remember Tropics' location as the site of defunct seafood house Hot Tunaz, you're already familiar with the excellent design of the restaurant's interior. The rose and sky-blue walls, set off by neon lights hidden within the recesses of a cleverly raised ceiling, the casual furniture, the tropical art — these things haven't changed at all. "When we saw this great interior," Chef Booth explains, "we said, "Why change a thing?'"
The decision not to change the Hot Tunaz design has lead to some confusion in the neighborhood, where a few people still think they're eating at Hot Tunaz. "Sometimes diners ask why we took their favorite calamari off the menu. They notice the menu has changed, but not that the restaurant itself has made a significant change. That's OK. We're striving for, not so much a "gay' restaurant, as a good restaurant where people of all persuasions can feel comfortable and welcomed."
You'll certainly feel comfortable with the menu's broad selection of steaks, seafood, pastas and wild game. The selection is so broad-minded, in fact, it takes two menus to cover it all. One offers "lite" selections, a dinner entree served with house soup or salad at prices that stay under $10. It's paired with a "chef's table" menu of fancier fare, including several game selections, where prices range from $17.95 to $22.95. The second menu covers appetizers, salads, sandwiches, steaks, chops, pork, lamb, poultry, pastas, and seafood, ranging from $6.95 to $19.95. Toss in a wine list and it makes for a lot of menu juggling at the table. The broad selection must also make for a lot of juggling in the kitchen, but Chef Booth seems to be handling it with ease.
Start out with a delicious appetizer of buffalo carpaccio ($8.95), raw, lean buffalo meat sliced paper thin and served with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of capers on thin slices of bread. Turned off by the idea of eating raw meat? Think of it as tartare, or better yet, buffalo sashimi. Any way you slice it, it's one of the best carpaccios I've had hereabouts. Chef Booth shows off his New England heritage with excellent Maryland-style crab cakes ($8.95), two large, spicy cakes served, not with tartar sauce, but the surprising complement of fresh cranberry sauce.
That cranberry sauce also shows up as a condiment with the lean, grilled elk chop, a 10-ounce tower of elk, grilled and served with a red wine sauce spiked with ginger, lemon and lime ($22.95). The mild flavor of the farm-raised red meat is noticeably different from its gamier wild counterpart. Another game choice is a generous portion (nearly half a bird) of farm-raised pheasant, crusted with pistachios and served with fresh mushroom compote ($19.95). Again, this farm-raised meat walks on the milder side of its wild cousin but retains the characteristic leanness, a condition that made me wish for a creamy sauce to add some succulence.
Seafood selections offer plenty of intriguing choices, from an entree salad of grilled tuna, alfalfa sprouts, enoki mushrooms, sushi-style ginger and spinach greens served with a wasabi dressing ($9.95) to grilled swordfish Oscar topped with the classic asparagus, crabmeat and bearnaise sauce ($17.95). You'll enjoy grouper Gaspar, a thin filet of very fresh fish sauteed with a bit of crabmeat in garlic butter, fresh lemon and a dash of white wine; the chef's wine suggestion with this dish is Chateau St. Michelle chardonnay ($5.75 glass, $21.95 a bottle) whose buttery flavor would nicely balance the slight tang of the sauce ($17.95).
Most entrees are served with a delicious bouquet of spring vegetables, including an assortment of both white and green string beans, sauteed in olive oil and garlic until just al dente. A vegetarian would do well to ask the chef for a plate of those sauteed veggies, a bit of the mushrooms served with the pheasant, a small salad and the soup of the day, like the deeply delicious, creamy carrot and almond soup. Keep in mind, any skilled chef will gladly create a vegetarian selection, should one not appear on the menu, but this is a service only offered in independent restaurants. Chains, with their confining formulas, simply can't be as accommodating.
Desserts vary from day to day. Creme brulee washed out with a consistency closer to soup than custard, but a sinfully rich slice of chocolate cake topped with white chocolate ($5.95) bespoke the quality of excellent ingredients. Yum. Dining specials include two-for-one entrees on Tuesdays and a full brunch ($12.95) on Sundays, from custom omelets to pastas, even free mimosas, from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Does Tampa Bay need a gay restaurant? It speaks well of our community that friends who dined with me at Tropics think not. "We've had dinner all over the Bay and never had any problem," they said. But does Tampa Bay need another good chef offering a tasty menu? Oh, yes. We can never have too many of those people!