What's the Catch?

Grouper gripes, Headliners' big fish ambitions and fab crab.

click to enlarge BISQUE, QUICK! Lobster smooths the way at - Chavez. - Laura Fries
Laura Fries
BISQUE, QUICK! Lobster smooths the way at Chavez.

Like Buttah
When you see a sign proclaiming "Fresh Local Catch of the Day: Grouper" at a restaurant, look for the hand that wrote that sign. That hand will be attached to a liar. Because, fish fans, it is illegal for commercial fisherman to catch grouper in the Gulf until midnight, Jan. 1, 2005. It's perfectly legal to sell frozen grouper, or to import grouper caught in other parts of the world, like Mexico or the east (Atlantic) coast of Florida. As for grouper caught in these parts of the world: "There's no such thing right now," states Chris Smith of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration emphatically. NOAA is in charge of regulating our nation's fisheries, and grouper, due to its popularity, is in danger of being overfished; local fishermen hit their quota early in 2004. There is a grouper alternative, though, say the seafood mavens at Bonefish Grill: butterfish. The texture is similar, states Dale Mabry-location manager Drake Jotch, and the flavor is superior. Butter up!

Made In The Shade
Chavez of Hyde Park made me happy this week with delec-table crab cakes, two for $8.95. Each round, golden cake was about the size of a hockey puck, with a delicately fried shell encasing a soft mixture of crab, red pepper, red onion and other seasonings. The cakes were served with a traditional tartar sauce and a tangy spinach slaw. The spinach, tossed with mayonnaise, contrasted perfectly with tiny bits of diced celery and unexpected chunks of cheddar cheese. This is fall in Florida — sitting outdoors in the sun, watching the movie-set crowd stroll Hyde Park Village, slurping spoonfuls of subtle, sweet lobster bisque ($3.95 cup) in the shelter of a large shade tree. Chavez captures what I miss about Austin: a tiny bungalow, painted yellow with orange-and-green trim, sunlight streaming through leaves, a breeze taking the conversation of my fellow diners far away, and a feeling of peaceful camaraderie among those who elected to dine outdoors. And oh, those crab cakes! (www.chavezinoldhydepark.com)

Bobos in Paradise
You may have seen the billboards across town: the lower half of a tanned woman in a short, white pleated skirt, holding a record and permitting the cord of a guitar to snake up her red-stilettoed gams. What on earth was that? Why, just the image for the wannabe coolest hotspot at the West Shore International Plaza, that's what. Headliners — aforementioned hotspot — opened with a bang Nov. 24, featuring a crowd of office dudes still in their button-down best from work, and ladies with highlights and tube tops. Cover band Retro Manic worked the crowd with their rendition of "Play That Funky Music White Boy," which was much appreciated by the partying patrons, many of whom could be seen chair-dancing to the beats. Essentially, Headliners is the "bar/club" half of Kahunaville — split for legal purposes into two entities. (But you can still enter Headliners from the mall food court.) Food-wise, I was enticed by the plates set out for the opening, especially some lovely little éclairs, filled with sweet cream gooeyness and dipped in sensuous dark chocolate. Little tidbits of lamb, gristly but good, and some sweet and sour shrimp did the trick as far as edibles went: tasty, but not especially memorable. The décor is upscale, considering. Owner Cliff Litchfield told me — and later, his associate told the crowd — that some big names would be coming through his venue, including heavyweights Black Eyed Peas and Alicia Keys. A later call confirmed that those deals are still in the works. It would be cool to catch the Peas from the red carpet-lined VIP room — but until that's "confirmed" — and until the $250-a-year VIP membership fee is reduced to $.25, cheap folk like me will have to settle for watching Starship (Dec. 12) from the main room. (www.headlinerstampa.com)

Feedback, Veggies!
Reader Susan Oliver had a great point. We often tell you how great a restaurant is, but fail to mention whether it's vegetarian-friendly. I myself went through a vegetarian period — until I became a food editor, that is — and I know how hard it is to eat out when you're constantly wondering if something's been made with chicken stock. And how much it sucks eating only salads, gardenburgers and grilled cheese sandwiches. So from now on, we'll be sure to mention vegetarian-friendliness in our reviews. We're open to suggestions, folks, so send them on in.

FEEDback: What else would you like to see improved in the food section? What do you think of our dining guide? All e-mails sent to [email protected] will get a response. Know about a restaurant opening, closing, a food trend or some juicy insider gossip? Make sure I know, too.

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