Rattle tattle

Tampa's hot new (and overpriced) spot puts the "din" in dinner

My first attempt at experiencing the hotter-than-hot new restaurant Rattlefish was a washout in every sense of the word. It was Valentine's Day eve, and the Significant Other and I wound up driving around in the pouring rain for the better part of a half-hour trying to find the place. We were on babysitter time and the clock was ticking, so we finally gave up and settled for a quick, cozy meal at the first dive that would have us.

The very fact that Rattlefish is so hard to find is part of the reason it's so ridiculously popular. The restaurant is tucked away on a little side street just south of West Shore and Gandy, in a neighborhood that you probably didn't know existed and that doesn't seem to even have a name. Rattlefish does virtually no advertising, doesn't take reservations, and has been packing them in since it opened a few months ago. Just finding the place is a minor triumph, like happening upon some exclusive, by-invitation-only party, albeit the biggest, noisiest private party on the block.

At any rate, what with all the buzz about Rattlefish, I suppose it was only natural to have some pretty major expectations about the prospect of finally eating there.

And that, as they say, was my fatal mistake.

But first the good news. Arriving at Rattlefish, especially for the first time, is a pretty cool experience. The restaurant emerges out of nowhere, smack dab in the middle of an industrial zone where nothing else seems to exist but train tracks, dirt and some shells of buildings. Unseen at first but just behind Rattlefish is a marina, though, and the restaurant's back decks offer some of the most magnificent views of the water you'll get anywhere in the Bay area.

The next thing that strikes you about the place, however, is the noise. I'm not sure I fully understood the meaning of the word "din" until I walked into Rattlefish. The crowd is animated and mostly young-ish, although there are children and older folks scattered throughout the restaurant's one large room. The color scheme is a tasteful tan and black done up in combinations of rattan, wicker and various woven materials, the lighting is low, the ceilings high, and there isn't a single piece of art on the walls. It's the sort of bare-bones, we're-not-even-trying chic that was so popular in Manhattan 15 years ago, and that can still pass as cutting edge in places like Tampa.

You walk through the restaurant to get to the outside decks and the view. The upper deck is where the bar is, and the "action": a wriggling, impenetrable mass of mingling singles, bustling waitrons and a band belching out covers of Dobie Grey's "Drift Away" and Outkast's "Hey Ya" (although everything winds up sounding like "Brown Eyed Girl"). The lower deck, which is slightly less noisy, offers al fresco dining, so that's where we chose to sit.

Waits of up to two hours are not uncommon at Rattlefish, so we counted ourselves lucky to be seated in just under 30 minutes. Cocktails were in order, and when they arrived we got our first inklings of trouble in paradise. The restaurant's signature Rattlejuice, a rum punch that tasted not at all of rum, bore an uncanny resemblance to the sickly sweet canned juices sold in Puerto Rican bodegas. A mango daiquiri was refreshing and all a daiquiri should be, but a Bloody Mary arrived watery and rimmed with salt, the bottom third of the glass a globby mass of thick, tomato paste.

All of our drinks were served in plastic cups, not real glass, an unexpected bit of tackiness that turned out to be a blessing in disguise when my 5-year old spilled Mom's daiquiri all over the table. After several attempts at flagging someone down, we finally managed to get a server to come over and reluctantly wipe up the mess. Inexplicably, he disappeared without removing the soggy napkins from the table, apparently leaving it to us to bus our own trash.

As for appetizers, as with virtually everything else at Rattlefish, the best way to go seems to be the simplest way. Raw oysters ($6.95 for a half dozen) were plump, fresh and flavorful. A ceviche-like dish called a seafood margarita ($8.95) was also tasty, albeit a bit heavy on the salsa marinade and served in a generic casserole dish rather than the nifty martini glass it was supposed to be in.

The more complicated appetizers were less successful. A smoked fish spread ($6.95) was whipped to a mousse-like consistency and tasted slightly gummy, as if there might be some cream cheese in it. Oyster Bar Junk ($14.95), the most expensive and elaborate of the lot, amounted to shrimp and crabmeat drowning in a pool of rich but undistinguished cream sauce. The dish was way too salty and the three small, fried oysters that sat on top were soggy even before they reached the table.

Entrees were a similarly mixed bag. The grilled salmon filet ($18.95) was thin and somewhat dry, but pan-seared sea bass ($22.95) was perfectly prepared and melted on the tongue. Bouillabaisse ($16.95) was packed with chunks of fish, but the tomato broth lacked complexity and could have benefited from the garlic aioli-smeared croutons one expects with this dish. Sauces ranged from fair (Thai ginger tomato chutney) to inedible (chili lime piquant sauce), and side dishes ran a similar gamut from inoffensive (potatoes au gratin) to awful (an overcooked melange of zucchini and yellow squash that would have been right at home on a cafeteria steam table).

As they say in the movie biz, though, the ending is all that matters, and Rattlefish's is a doozy. Tres Leche ($5.29) was a satisfyingly dense and moist take on traditional milk cake. An even better desert was Oreo Beignets ($5.49) — sublime junk food consisting of cookies flash-fried in batter and topped with ice cream. The restaurant's Big Finish was complemented by servers who seemed suddenly to snap to attention after spending most of the evening ignoring the empty glasses and plates that crowded our table until we begged for them to be removed.

The member of our party who enjoyed his meal most was my 5-year old, who pronounced the chicken fingers awesome — and that tells you a lot about Rattlefish.

To cut to the chase, Rattlefish is more about fun than fine food, and if you simply go with that, you'll be fine. Anyone expecting haute cuisine at these prices — like, foolishly, me — is bound to be soundly disappointed. To be blunt, the place is a bit like a glorified sports bar, albeit one with a nicer décor and a better view, and its food is essentially bar food with delusions of grandeur. There are worse things in this great big world of food, to be sure, but there are certainly better.

Contact Lance Goldenberg at 813-248-8888, ext. 157, or [email protected].