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This is what Florida's all about

Fresh seafood and lack of pretense make Backwater's a near-perfect beach spot.

Published June 12, 2003

[Times photo: Douglas R. Clifford]
At Backwater’s on Sand Key, surf and turf pairs a half-pound lobster tail with a 12-ounce New York strip for $29, one of the most expensive items on the menu.

[Times photo: Douglas R. Clifford]
Clambake anybody? Backwater’s offers oysters, mussels, scallops and clams steamed in wine, garlic and butter for $15.

CLEARWATER - The stretch of sparkling sand and manicured grounds lined with high-priced condominiums on Sand Key must look like perfect Florida to some folks. But after they play in the waves, return to the $300,000 view and realize they'd rather not cook tonight, they might see an imperfection.

Back down on ground level there are lovely bougainvilleas and sidewalks for biking and dog walking, a long strand of country club cleanliness almost uninterrupted by the commercialism that permeates other Florida beaches. Pretty to look at, but what if you want to do something tacky like go out to eat?

There is only one oasis in the 3 miles between the bridge to Clearwater and the one to Belleair and, to the good fortune of several thousand condo dwellers and tourists, it's the Shoppes of Sand Key.

Calling them "shoppes" sounds pretentious, but this strip is more like the main street of a small town, a rare, humane place that supplies everything from a fried bologna sandwich to the Wall Street Journal.

Sure, the gift shops sell prints and shirts with palm trees instead of flamingoes, but there's also a dry cleaners, a dentist, a deli-convenience store and five places to eat, all of which share a 200-foot back porch overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway.

There's an ice cream parlor, a branch of the Columbia for paella and tapas, Paloscio's for Italian, Maggie Mae's for biscuits and gravy or turkey Reubens, and Backwater's Cafe, which serves as the neighborhood Cheers.

Anyone marooned here would be thankful if that were all, but chef Michael Rabidoux takes Backwater's several steps beyond fern bar, sports bar or sand bar fare with better sourcing and handmade cooking. The kitchen makes its own tuna salad, forms up hefty half-pound burgers, bakes strawberry pie and fries up Frips (a cousin of house-made potato chips).

Yet the menu puts on no pretentions. Backwater's is firmly anchored in real-life Florida, and knows why visitors are here: seafood with no frills. Rabidoux buys high-quality fish and shellfish, most of it local, and tries to get cobia, flounder and such in season, as well as grouper.

He also knows he's in the South or the upper Midwest, or whatever region the Pinellas beaches are in, so he's not afraid to fry. The menu brags there's "no fu-fu" or tall food here, but they still have fun (and serve Thai pork and asparagus ravioli, too).

Besides, those golden onion rings are the size of quoits, and anything else that comes out of the fryer in crispy beer batter makes their own boast. In a special sandwich of "chicken lips" and onion straws, the chicken (actually strips of tenders) and onions might win over unbelievers. Tarragon mayo helps.

I didn't realize that the yellowtail snapper over crawfish etouffee would be fried - been away from Louisiana so long I couldn't imagine it - but the snapper came out perfectly moist inside with a crunchy crust with more snap than grease. It was a fine match for the crawfish, which came in a thick musky etouffee, made from one of the better roux offered here in the name of Louisiana.

Rabidoux does add a lot of Cajun touches (and could add more fire if the locals would bear it). The restaurant sets out a full Cajun menu on Tuesday nights.

Seafood, however, is key, and it needn't be fried. Backwater's does broil, saute, char-grill, blacken, sesame-sear and toss on mango sauce as well, but the starting point is good ingredients.

Blackened scallops wrapped in bacon, for instance, have only a dusting of spices, but the real selling point is the scallops, good-sized and not overcooked, still fresh and tender. Peel-n-eat shrimp here are served cold at $12 a dozen, but showed the same quality. Genuine jumbos of at least three bites apiece were so perfectly cooked you could still taste the sea.

Fresh seafood and crackerjack frying shouldn't be remarkable; it ough to be the starting point for any restaurant on the beaches.

Backwater's gets that right and adds an authentic Cajun kick, but it needs to go further, especially in the trimmings. Vegetables one night were broad pole beans, a better choice than most restaurants make, but they were overcooked. Salads were of the plainest iceberg and tasteless tomatoes. Cinnamon in the house molasses bread is good; the crust would be better.

The wine list is surprisingly minimal for such tony precincts, but maybe this is still white zin country. I'd like to see more chef's imagination and punch in coleslaw and tartar sauce, two inseparable sidekicks of fried fish.

But when you've got a cold drink, friendly barkeeps and servers, and a broad view of dolphins, sailboaters and the Coast Guard, folks don't complain. A place like Backwater's can make the condo coast feel a little like home.

Backwater's on Sand Key

Shoppes of Sand Key

1261 Gulf Blvd., Clearwater

(727) 517-7383

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to midnight Friday, Saturday.

Details: Reservations, most credit cards accepted; full bar, smoking permitted outdoors.

Features: Outdoor waterfront seating.

Prices: Lunch, $6 to $12; dinner sandwiches and entrees, $8 to about $20.

[Last modified June 11, 2003, 10:38:25]

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