Tastes of the towns: Go for the clams, stay for the clams at Seafood Shack

Local seafood? Try hyper-local at the Cortez bar and grill.

Seafood Shack

Clams: 5 out of 5 stars

Everything else: 3 out of 5 stars

4110 127th St. W., Cortez. Appetizers: $5-$14; salads & sandwiches: $5-$18; entrees: $14-$24; beer, cocktails & wine: $3-$12. 941-794-1235. seafoodshack.com.

click to enlarge Served with garlic bread, Seafood Shack's gulf shrimp scampi certainly satisfies. - Cathy Salustri
Cathy Salustri
Served with garlic bread, Seafood Shack's gulf shrimp scampi certainly satisfies.

Growing up, I remember my dad picking up cherrystone clams and letting them soak in water all day, then slurping ’em down raw with a dash of lemon juice. My mom would devour stuffed clams.

Surf clam became one of my favorite (if hard to find) eats the day that I first tasted sushi.

When hurricanes and Henry Plant's decision to bring the railroad away from Cedar Key to Tampa decimated the economy of the small island, residents turned to aquaculture: clam farms. My husband was raised on a steady diet of summers spent clamming in Long Island; he and I once took our camper there and bought 100 clams, thinking they would last three or four days.

They lasted two.

And when I head to Terra Ceia's Citrus Place, I buy clams, not orange juice.

In our house, we eat clams raw and grilled — either on their sides, which keeps them moist, or hinge up, which gives them a nutty flavor. We put the little morsels in a pan with snapper and chardonnay lemon butter and basil. We make Manhattan-style chowder.

Many of the region's seafood restaurants opt for clams from Sysco, US Foods or suppliers with more northern sources, but Cortez — a true working waterfront with a delightful smell reminiscent of the John's Pass fishing village in the '80s — has strong ties to local waters. In this case, hyper-local. Joe Island, north of the Terra Ceia Aquatic Preserve and west of the southern approach to the Sunshine Skyway bridge, has buried treasure — not in the form of doubloons, but fresh bivalves.

Shellfish — clams and oysters — are Florida's second largest aquaculture industry, according to the USDA. How many of you, though, have tasted a clam grown and harvested from within sight of the Skyway? This is what drives us an hour south to the Seafood Shack in Cortez.

We'd hoped to take the boat down — as the bar and grill, established in the early 1970s, features a 68-slip marina for patrons — but a southerly wind made it too much of an uncomfortable a ride. The two of us step out of the car and suck in the salty air that's tinged with fish and low tide, making our way to the bar where we sample some drinks. The margaritas instantly disappoint with their sweet, syrupy mix-like taste, but the Shack Rum Punch packs a... well, a punch. Banana and coconut rums, pineapple and coconut blend with fruit juice to effortlessly slide down our throats (the bartender cautioned us about drinking more than one). The kumquat beer — special to this area — gets mixed reactions.

At our waterside table, we order clams and chargrilled oysters. The clams are heaven in a shell — not gritty (some Terra Ceia clams can be) and clam-tender. There's really not much to say about a dish this simple. The only way it could be less than perfection is if executive chef Gerard Jesse tried to muck it up with other seafood and make it ornate, and he hasn't; combine hyper-local clams with a chef who knows not to mess with something divine in its natural state and you have bivalve nirvana. The clams are presented on rock salt under a bed of kelp, which I'm certain we could have eaten had we persisted. However, after sampling a few strands of seaweed, we deemed it "for garnish only" and focused on the oysters.

Sadly, the Prince Edward Island oysters don't measure up (perhaps the raw oysters would've been better). Ours come as described on the menu with Worcestershire, blackening spices, lemon and garlic butter, with one addition: cheese. It doesn't improve the plate. 

Dinner entrees offer a spectrum of delight as well. The shrimp and grits are quite possibly the best I've ever eaten, and everyone at our table agrees. By comparison, the triggerfish sandwich tastes dry and slighly rubbery, yet the traditionally prepared shrimp scampi certainly satisfies. My grilled yellowtail snapper doesn't need the lemon caper beurre blanc — it's a solidly delicious fish on its own — but even I have to admit (and I'm not a fan of sauce on seafood) it's the right blend of butter, capers and a mild white wine. 

click to enlarge The bar and grill's cheesecake is a solid classic. - Cathy Salustri
Cathy Salustri
The bar and grill's cheesecake is a solid classic.

Although we're pushing through by dessert — these aren't small portions, guys — we gamely feast on flourless chocolate cake, key lime pie, cheesecake with a raspberry drizzle, and peach pie. The flourless chocolate cake tastes good, but has the predictable denseness that makes it too rich for one, even two, already-almost-stuffed-to-the-gills diners to share. As for the cheesecake, it also doesn't deviate from what people expect, which is a good thing — every restaurant should have solid classics.

Key lime pie is flawless, aka made exactly as the dessert should be: graham cracker crust, eggs, key lime juice and sweetened condensed milk. I'm a key lime purist, and one taste of this pie convinces me the Shack is, too. The peach pie, on the other hand, causes some confusion, because to us, it tastes like apple. Our waitress checks with the kitchen and returns with a sheepish grin; the kitchen swapped peach for apples two days prior. It's a delicious apple pie, but somewhat disturbing that no one noticed before we did (and the menu board still reads "peach").

Throughout the meal, our table had few complaints. Yes, the triggerfish was not fantastic, and, yes, the oysters came armed with cheese. The Shack does deliver a tasty, reasonably priced night out, however. What makes the bar and grill worth the trip over the Skyway? Several of the dishes mentioned here, the spectacular views (did I mention the waterfront deck is dog-friendly?), and, most of all, the support of local aquaculture.

Many of our area restaurants would do well to follow the Shack's example. 

Editor's note: This new, semi-regular column — not to be confused with the reviews of CL's food critic, Jon Palmer Claridge — chronicles editorial staff experiences at restaurants and bars all over the greater Tampa Bay region.

About The Author

Cathy Salustri

Cathy's portfolio includes pieces for Visit Florida, USA Today and regional and local press. In 2016, UPF published Backroads of Paradise, her travel narrative about retracing the WPA-era Florida driving tours that was featured in The New York Times. Cathy speaks about Florida history for the Osher Lifelong Learning...
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