Fancy Seafood in TPA/St. Pete (Part 1 of 2)

Sea Salt

(Plus a few words about Aqua)
(12/28/15, in DTSP)

[We tried three restaurants within eight nights of each other over the holidays here in Tampa. While Sea Salt and Aqua are much more singular in their focus on seafood than Farmtable Kitchen, the meals we had and foods on offer were similar enough that I decided to put them all together... until it got too long, so I split it into two parts. Mel, of the Red Book, didn't take her own notes on these occasions, but I recorded her impressions along the way, so you'll get both points of view. As usual, she is the harsher one-M]

Sea Salt

SS bar

We had 7:45 reservations, and the hostess offered us a choice of a big booth up front or a smaller table nearer the back of the place. But it was a beautiful night out, and we wanted to take advantage out on the balcony. The hostess declared this impossible, but a manager who was passing by overheard and offered to go bus a table for us if we would wait a few minutes. We agreed, and he took care of it personally. We were seated next to the railing overlooking the "Sundial" courtyard moments later-- nice first impressions from the front of house.

The cocktail menu: Cocktails

I began with the barrel-aged cocktail, and M ordered up some starters: One of each oyster (there were five varieties from which to choose), the Wahoo Tartare, and the beef carpaccio. The server asked how we like our first courses staged-- another nice touch. The aged peach manhattan was quite peachy, but I didn't want a second one. The finish was a tad metallic.

Diner Menu 1: Menu1

The server brought out bread, oil, canolini (?) bean spread (like a hummus), and a dish with three different salts, which made this the bread service with the most explaining required ever. Surprisingly, I did detect a difference between the salts, and I had a clear preference. The foccacia was very good.

Next time she came by, M asked what "Nairagi" was, as it was on offer as a crudo. I'm sure that M (but hopefully not the server) noticed the horrified look on my face when she explained that it was Blue Marlin. I can't abide eating the big billfish generally, and that one perhaps least of all.

Dinner Menu 2: M2

After eating round one, I asked M "what do you think so far?" Her reply: "Meh. And it's coming out too slowly." I had to agree, as my second drink certainly took its time finding our table. The oysters were all pretty good, and I always love noting the subtle difference between them. But the mignonette was heavy handed and badly made, while the horseradish was not feisty enough for our taste. The Wahoo was also good-not-great. Both the fish and the crab in the dish were fresh, and the texture was just right for me (a little soft for M). But the balsamic reduction was too dusky and overpowering for such subtle proteins.

Oysters & Wahoo: Oysters Wahoo

The Blackberry Fresco, my 2nd cocktail, was nice, but it made the mistake of putting me in mind of the blackberry bourbon lemonade at The Federal [review coming very soon!-M], which was much better.
Blueberry Fresco: Fresco

After a long wait, the beef carpaccio and the cheese and charcuterie plate arrived. The former was good, but I prefered the version we had a couple days ago at Aqua. I tried adding some lemon juice to brighten it up a tad, but I overdid it. Go easy if you do the same.
Beef C&C

The C&C plate was only "good" too. I thought all three meat selections were underwhelming, though the speck was M's favorite while I favored the soppresatta (also: M griped that no one explained what was what, and when she asked the server for that info, she had to go ask the chef for it). [The cheeses must have underwhelmed as well, since I made zero notes about them]

The pace remained, ahem, leisurely (which was honestly OK for me, but was bugging the hell out of M). We ended on the crab raviolo-- a single, giant ravioli-like structure stuffed with delicate lump crab, swimming in a dark miso broth with some kind of green foam on top. The best bites featured the little roasted tomatoes, but on the whole, neither of us was impressed.

We both really wanted to like Sea Salt. We'd both read and heard good things, and I liked the style and layout of the place quite a bit (Waaaay more than Aqua, where we both kind of hated the space, but they unquestionably served us the better meal). When the $150 check arrived we both felt a little ripped off.

2 out of 5 from Matt

2 out of 5 from Mel

A few more words about Aqua:

The unexpected side effect of feeling so let down at Sea Salt was warm feelings for Aqua, where we dined on Christmas Eve, three days prior. I honestly had no intention of reviewing the place, so I didn't take any pictures or have my Greenbook with me at the time, but I can share what I remember:

The Space: Let's get this out of the way. Both M and I hated the space. It was a hotel restaurant, through and through, and boy did it feel like one. The color-changing lighting and stainless steel beads made Ocean Prime look classy. On the plus side, the table was huge and the chairs very comfortable.

The Drinks: Our server got my cocktail order wrong, even though I clarified it twice. So I ended up with a bourbon old fashioned with muddled fruit and too much simple. Not what I asked for, but I didn't complain, because I was in a good mood and didn't want to be a pest. The glass of wine I had after was great and well priced.

The Food: Everything we had was good, and some of it was better than good. The seafood sampler platter felt like a steal at $29 (which bought 1/2 a lobster, six oysters, gulf prawn cocktail, some clams, and a shrimp ceviche- the latter being the only thing we didn't care for). The Alaskan King Crab cakes were great, as was the beef carpaccio (although the massive portion belied its otherwise luxurious feel). If anything, we ordered too much, as we were both pretty full when our whole hogfish came out. It was perfectly cooked and thoughtfully garnished. I heated it in the oven the next day and thought it was great.

Price/Service: The server was very attentive, and other than the hiccup with my drink (which to be fair, could have been the bartender's fault), got it all exactly right. The bill was just over $100 without tip and it felt like good value for money.

So in the end, while I was initially in no hurry to go back to Aqua, after dining at Sea Salt it looks a lot better.

3.75 From Matt

3.5 From Mel

Read Part 2 now here!