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Restaurant review

Marlin Darlin' is a prized catch

The drive to the Belleair Bluffs restaurant might put off some, but fantastic food will make diners forget traffic.

By CHRIS SHERMAN
Published October 19, 2006


The only flaw of Marlin Darlin' is that this sharp new effort from the Salt Rock Grill gang is in Belleair Bluffs.

It's worth the effort to reach this hamlet on the west side of mid Pinellas, even if you must travel an hour, for its solid taste of present-day smarts from big-city America.

Credit owner Frank Chivas and culinary guru Tom Pritchard for importing hot tricks from Stanton Social in New York, Jaguar in Miami and elsewhere.

Credit them more for their own inventiveness, passion for fresh seafood, penchant for Asian spices (tandoori onions anyone?), foraging for top ingredients, and desire for simplicity and affordability.

Almost all entrees are under $20 yet hearty, clever and pretty as any in town. Desserts and sides are $5.

The "first catch" menu (before 5:15 p.m.) is $9.90 for the likes of rock shrimp pasta and mangrove snapper with crab. A big chunk of the menu also is available past 11.

Drinks are clever and top shelf; wine and beer just as savvy.

It adds up to the most progressive food this group has served yet.

What to eat?

The menu starts with ceviches and tartares served in wide Chinese soup spoons for $1.90 a shot and moves to fries in truffle oil, crab cake corn dogs and flatbread pizzas with pears and Nueske bacon.

A spoon of silky tuna tartare or shrimp ceviche is a must.

For bigger bucks, try a big bowl of fried rock shrimp on a sharp puree of pears or a platter of yellowfin tuna carpaccio, fired up with capers, lemon and wasabi oil. Go lighter with marinated beets on arugula with crusty goat cheese.

On the main plate, the obvious choice is fish. The hogfish was gone on my first visit, but tuna was fabulous, thick and seared in poppy seeds and varnished with citrus. Salmon gets a moist roasting in a banana leaf with pineapple zinged with cinnamon and chili sauce.

Wahoo, my favorite, has a permanent place on the menu, simply grilled. But I'd love to see this kitchen juice it up, maybe with curry beurre blanc or rum raisin sauce.

If not fish, get the hanger steak, deep, red, rich beef. Chicken breast with a bone-in wing joint is roasted to good, moist eating. Ramen noodles and mushrooms could be livened up with ginger or peppers.

Go for cauliflower on the side, pureed with garlic and stock to taste like mashed Thanksgiving. Lobster's great fun in mac & cheese but the cheese needs spice.

Desserts are all winners; the grand prize goes to the rum baba, sponge cake saturated with rum and finger-licking vanilla anglaise.

The wine list is short, with great names and prices by the bottle ($20 to $50), the glass and half glass. Rare choices: viognier, gruner veltliner and petite sirah from Swanson, Darioush, Hahn and Earthquake.

The best catch may be the staff, from a clever and busy crew in the kitchen to the servers who know and love food.

Set your course now.

Chris Sherman dines anonymously and unannounced. The St. Petersburg Times pays all expenses. A restaurant's advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment. Sherman can be reached at (727) 893-8585 or sherman@sptimes.com

Marlin Darlin'

2819 West Bay Drive

Belleair Bluffs

Phone: 727 584-1700

Hours: 4 to 10 p.m., limited menu to 11:30 p.m., Sunday through Thursday; 4 to 11 p.m., limited menu to 12:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday

Reservations: Recommended.

Details: Credit cards. Outdoor seating, early bird menu before 5:15; late-night menu.

Prices: Starters, $1.20 to $10.50; entrees, $13.50 to $26.90

[Last modified October 18, 2006, 10:47:28]


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