Restaurant review: Keepin' it simple at Fish

In Gulfport, Fish Bar and Grille makes fresh seafood its star, but sometimes less is more.

click to enlarge Fish's panko-crusted grouper with mango-pineapple salsa and more. - Nicole Abbett
Nicole Abbett
Fish's panko-crusted grouper with mango-pineapple salsa and more.

Gulfport is a fun place. Many other folks think so, too, which means having to park on the edge of town and hike.

I ponder as I wander: How will Peg’s iconic Cantina morph into Mike and Cathy Burke’s “Flor-Asian” Fish Bar and Grille ? My thoughts are disrupted as the ghost of Sinatra fills the air from across Beach Boulevard.

“Regrets, I’ve had a few... I did it MY WAY.”

Today, my way is to begin with a trio of golden brown spring rolls. Ground turkey combines with cabbage, carrots, bean sprouts and scallions. There’s plenty of flavor and texture, especially if you add the sharp garlic vinaigrette. The garlic is mild, but the vinegar provides a punch that balances the fattiness of the crisp fried wrappers. Less of a wakeup call, yet fun nonetheless, is a sweet chili sauce.

A martini glass of coral reef ceviche combines Key West shrimp, bay scallops and whitefish marinated in bright citrus. There are also some chopped veggies for a bit of crunch, and fried tortillas on the side to help you scoop up a bite. While the seafood is fresh, it’s under-seasoned, in comparison to the jaunty spring rolls.

click to enlarge The Flor-Asian restaurant offers indoor and outdoor seating. - Nicole Abbett
Nicole Abbett
The Flor-Asian restaurant offers indoor and outdoor seating.
We try ahi tuna nachos as well. An absolute mountain of puffy, crisp wonton chips is dotted with chunks of ahi tuna poke and mango salsa, drizzled all over with tangy Sriracha aioli. It’s hard to get a chip with all the components; the dish is tasty indeed, but the pile of chips takes away from an interesting combo. This is one instance where making a molehill from a mountain might be preferable.

As one might expect from a restaurant called Fish, seafood is the star. The plates are presented simply, as though you were attending Sunday dinner at your Aunt Martha’s: fish and two sides.

Fillet’s are offered blackened, panko-crusted, fried or grilled. We avoid blackened, which had its moment in the culinary spotlight, but, to my taste, obliterates the fish you’re paying for. Save those bold spices for cheap fish instead of wasting them on beautiful premium grouper, snapper or the catch of the day — in our case, wahoo.

Four sauces are served on the side, allowing you to add to taste; a bath isn’t recommended because the delicate, fresh-caught fish flavors will be buried, but hey, it’s your 25 bucks.

click to enlarge Two golden Maryland-style crab cakes with mashed cauliflower and broccoli. - Nicole Abbett
Nicole Abbett
Two golden Maryland-style crab cakes with mashed cauliflower and broccoli.

Although the citrus teriyaki offers a tangy Asian profile, the thick soy honey ginger-lime is way out of balance. The salty soy obliterates the plate’s other flavors. It’s a pleasant-sounding mashup if the kitchen can pump up the ingredients that don’t register. More successful are the fruity mango-pineapple salsa and the piccata, dominated by butter with lemon and herbs in the background.

You have a choice of two sides with entrees. Most are fine yet not inspired. Select from coleslaw, crinkle-cut fries, potato salad, broccoli florets, jasmine rice or baked potato. The asparagus stand out as perfectly al dente, but the mashed cauliflower is a bit gray, bland and grainy.

The two Maryland-style jumbo lump crab cakes have plenty of crab. However, they’re soft and fall apart. The remoulade (on the side) isn’t too spicy, and it’s a nice complement as far as taste. The Chesapeake native in my group, though, bemoans the cakes’ lack of crispness. They’re golden, but there’s no textural contrast to the crab when you dig in.

The Hawaiian huli huli chicken is shoyu-marinated breast meat that’s grilled until nicely charred; the smoky poultry is enhanced by slices of sweet pineapple. The dish’s nutty jasmine rice is plain, so it’s a good idea to combine everything together — or steal a few spoonfuls from your companion’s sauce bowl.

click to enlarge The creamy key lime pie rests on top of a nontraditional chocolate crust. - Nicole Abbett
Nicole Abbett
The creamy key lime pie rests on top of a nontraditional chocolate crust.

The restaurant doesn’t have a dedicated dessert menu. Instead, four sweets are presented on a plate by your server: two homemade “moon pies” with either salted caramel or coconut; a soft brownie covered with bright mint icing that looks like it’s celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, topped with more zig-zagging chocolate drizzle; and a creamy key lime pie, which, unfortunately, sits on a thick chocolate crust.

The selections are chocolate overload without alternatives for non-chocoholics. The lovely texture of the key lime filling almost makes up for the lime’s timidity (it’s merely present when it should strut like a peacock), and my table unanimously gives a thumbs down to using a chocolate crust. The chocolate competes rather than complements; even with more assertive lime, it's just a culinary bully.

As I walk back up Beach Boulevard returning to my car, soaking up Gulfport’s quirky charm, the same crooner’s voice soars across the street.

“Isn’t it rich?... Don’t you approve?”

Sondheim’s most famous song reminds me that sometimes you don’t need to send in the clowns. A simple piece of fresh, grilled fish will suffice.

Jon Palmer Claridge dines anonymously when reviewing. Check out the explanation of his rating system.

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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