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The way of the future

Island Way Grill opens up an exciting new world of dining.


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 28, 2001

Island Way Grill opens up an exciting new world of dining.

CLEARWATER -- Island Way Grill packs in so many new ideas it could be a designer showhouse for restaurateurs. For mid and north Pinellas, it's a first glance at the Restaurant of Tomorrow.

Portable air conditioners cool the patio; vast convenience-store coolers have been turned into gleaming see-through wine cellars; a sushi bar, a raw bar, sleek meat cases and a wood grill show off the ingredients and the technique.

That's on top of a rare helping of celebrity -- part owners Mike Alstott and Dave Moore of the Buccaneers may be on hand (but you might not recognize them for their modesty) -- and, even rarer, seafood with Asian influence. Then there's the big earnest staff and the post-Disney decor. Big rooms have neutral tones, sweeping lines and tempting textures. The only decoration is the panoramic views of Mandalay Harbor and the remarkable art and color of Duncan McClellan sealed in glass.

Island Way continues the style in food and drink, with skewers of sugar cane and lemongrass on the grill, plateaux of shellfish in 2-foot towers, and a by-the-glass list of 55 wines.

Yet those sleek trimmings pale beside one simple trick that has diners gaping. On the polished floor in front of the fancy glass cases are long white Igloo coolers, the kind fisher folk favor, packed with ice and hefty fish like a bullhead 25-pound dolphin with the smell of the sea still on it.

Just off the boat? Yep, including one that might pull up to the tiki bar while you're dining. It's the Island Way, a tiny trawler loaded with hundreds of pounds of black grouper, mangrove snapper, maybe kingfish and mackerel too, line-caught during a long day on the Middle Grounds. Cooks come out and muscle the catch back into the center of the restaurant and then to the kitchen and the sushi bar.

Can't beat presentation like that. Fish that fresh ought to be a signature of local dining. Here it's a strong reminder that this is not a chain; sure, it's a multimillion dollar undertaking, but the smarts are local and independent.

My best meal here was amberjack, an overlooked native species, which I got by pressing a waiter who listed the day's fish as grouper and mahi mahi, good stuff when it's fresh but not so interesting. He returned with news of amberjack that had been in the kitchen for 30 minutes. Probably an 8-ounce fillet, quickly grilled so it was lush and meltingly tender, and lightly peppered so the distinct richness of amberjack remained. Great backdrop for a tingling pineapple salsa. Paired with baby bok choy splashed with sake, it's good eating, East or West.

That's the genius in the seafood gospel according to Frank Chivas, Salt Rock 3.0: Combining imported ideas with local realities he knows from a life in Florida fishing fleets and seafood restaurants. Chivas bussed tables as a teen in this restaurant 30 years ago when it was the Flagship and doesn't sneer at the retiree market on Island Estates. So there's an early menu, drink specials AND shuttles to nearby condos.

Yet this is not the Flagship (or the Jesse's that succeeded it), although you can stick to meatloaf and jumbo lobster tails. Me, I enjoy finding the Asian flavor in technique and in seasonings from subtle to wasabi. It's not that foreign, and it gives us new respect for our fish.

Fried soft shell crabs here look no different, but some secret in wok-frying makes them plump and perfect. Thai clam pot is much bolder, steaming Cedar Key clams in a broth bursting with pungent kaffir lime leaf, basil and cilantro. I've always liked the sweet heat and smoky sesame in Korean barbecue and was pleased to find it on a T-bone.

A few fusions didn't work. Wok-fried whole yellowtail, a classic stunner, gets a different twist here: The big fish is fried, but only after the meat is separated from the head-to-tail skeleton. That makes the affair more diner-friendly and more dramatic on the plate, but soft, soggy frying of the flesh sabotaged the idea. King crab meat upgraded Vietnamese rice paper rolls, but they need more cilantro and mint for punch and crunch.

Vegetables, an also ran in many seafood restaurants, are much improved. My first go with vegetables with the bamboo salmon was dull; now the medley's grilled and could include goodies such as Japanese eggplant or bok choy. Salads are bolstered with toasted seeds and lemony dressing. Jasmine rice was unexciting, but mashed potatoes were spirited with wasabi. Bread had a respectable crust, but it does not improve the poor record of Asian restaurants or seafood houses on bread.

Desserts are brighter, from a moist chocolate cake with flavor deep enough to bathe in, to crackling creme brulee, a signature of chef Tom Pritchard. Likewise, wine selection is first-rate in price and variety, from hot '97 California cult cabernets and rarities like Cafaro and Quintessa to dozens of good bottles at $30 or less.

Much remains to be done. The restaurant's expanding to add a dining room, a banquet room and another deck. I hope it addresses one flaw in the design: Main dining area is so vast it can seem institutional until the harbor lights start twinkling. It would be more intimate if the tables were broken up, perhaps by big vases of flowers.

Island Way still has staff to train, menus to revise, buses to buy and fishing boats to outfit, so the present isn't perfect, but it will be.

In the meantime the future has landed.


Island Way Grill

20 Island Way; Clearwater; (727) 461-6617

Hours: 4 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 4 to 11 p.m. Friday, Saturday; tiki bar opens at 3 p.m.

Reservations: Highly recommended

Credit cards: AE, CB, D, DC, MC, V

Details: smoking section provided, full bar, wheelchair access good

Prices: Dinners, $9.95 to $29.95

Special features: Raw bar; sushi bar; outdoor seating, early menu, 4 to 5:30 p.m.

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