Fishing for a Summer Vibe 

8th Avenue Fish House & Grille captures Florida sun 'n' fun

After years of cursing the heat and fleeing the brutal sun in favor of the comfort of air-conditioning, I never thought I would yearn for summer. As I sat inside 8th Avenue Fish House and Grille, looking out at the patio with a big tree in the middle and tables scattered around a pretty courtyard, I wondered how pleasant it would be to hang there in a swimsuit and flip-flops, tossing down drinks and snacking on the restaurant's primo quesadillas.The restaurant sits one block from the beach at Pass-a-Grille, along the barrier islands of St. Pete Beach. It has a funky aura, possibly due to the flamingo-pink interior walls and the colorful artwork hanging everywhere. It gives off a Key West sort of vibe -- loose, sand-tossed, unhurried and carefree.

The food was generally well done, but the restaurant displayed some glaring deficiencies. The service was terrible one visit and terrific the next. And the ambiance? The place was virtually empty during both visits, so it was hard to tell what kind of crowd it attracts. I thought about what it might be like in warmer weather, during the high season, with vacationers laughing on the patio and the casual gaiety of a beach town in summer.

Owned by Joanne "JoJo" Crompton and Michael Trusiak, it has been open three years. The pair lived for years in the Philadelphia area and Jersey shore; she ran a catering business, and he ran restaurants in Cape May and elsewhere. Chef Keith Richardson has trained in kitchens from Hong Kong to France and back to the U.S., and his experience shows in the fare.

My summer reverie foundered temporarily in the restaurant's watery margarita ($5.50), entirely too tame for the kind of daydreams I was spinning. On a previous visit, my dining companion had ordered a bottle of frisky Flora Springs Merlot ($35), but the wine selection when I was there was awfully sparse, consisting of a Kendall Jackson Chardonnay by the glass ($6). Ugh. It would be kind to term the wine list "in transition."

From a short list of appetizers, we started with Duffy's Clams ($7.99), steamed with Andouille sausage, garlic, green onion and butter -- very satisfying. They were fresh and flavorful, so pretty with their shells upturned like hands in prayer. We demolished them before switching to Mike's Wings ($6.99), chicken wings oranged to a glittery golden color, lounging in a firecracker sauce. Ooh, they really had it: very little grease, careful frying and that peppery, sizzling sauce. If it were summertime, and we had lots of time and assistance, we could have savored the wings' spicy voltage and doused their heat with brewskis. That's really the best way to eat them, but on this visit I didn't have the time, nor did I have the requisite squadron of partiers, so I had to make do.

On another visit, I tried the restaurant's quesadilla appetizer ($5.99), a six-inch, sun-dried tomato tortilla, three cheeses, bacon, sour cream and bits of chicken, served with a cup of homemade salsa. It was a winner too -- the tortilla was crisp and flecked with brown from the skillet, with no visible oil on its surface, its filling gooey and hot. And the salsa was so delish that it never made it to the tortilla. I snarfed its big squares of tomato, onion, garlic and herbs right out of the cup.

The server during our first visit was friendly but too laid-back. Whenever we needed something, he was busy doing crossword puzzles at the bar or nowhere to be found.

We had dawdled through the drinks and appetizers, so when the entrees turned up, we were definitely ready. My dining companion ordered Cheffie's Tuna ($14.99) -- Ahi tuna steak, blackened, served with wasabi, aioli and shiitake chutney. It was an accomplished dish, the fish cooked exactly to medium rare with a cold center, its sophisticated accoutrements providing a definitive culinary jolt.

Equally accomplished was Scallops Jeffrey ($14.99), big, puck-like scallops in a tasty, almost soupy sauce loaded with bacon, leeks, tomato, white wine and garlic, and lots of butter. Even heated in a microwave the next day at lunch the dish was a treat. It came with rice and a verdant pile of fresh veggies (entrees include house salad, starch and vegetable of the day).

On the second visit, I tried shrimp scampi ($13.99) -- garlic, butter and wine sauce paired with fettuccine and healthy, fresh shrimp. The pasta was so-so, but its toppings were just fine, so I wasn't complaining.

The waitress that day was one of those calmly efficient servers who do everything seemingly effortlessly. Our drinks refilled in a flash. Dirty dishes were swept up magically and off to the kitchen. Boxes for leftovers turned up instantly.

But even she couldn't do much about another of the restaurant's glaring deficiencies: dessert. The menu listed three desserts and ice cream, and the server mentioned a fourth, but only two were really available -- a brownie and cheesecake. The former ($2.59) turned out to be a freshly homemade, chocolate chip fudge brownie, topped with vanilla ice cream. It was pocked with fat chocolate chips and sufficiently rich to satiate even the most serious chocolate lover. The cheesecake, on the other hand, was made elsewhere probably a week before, and looked and tasted past its prime.

It would have been nice to sample a tangy slice of Key lime pie or try the Swiss cinnamon cream pie (both listed on the menu at $2.59), but neither was available the days we were there.

We enjoyed the food, but the restaurant needs to correct some serious shortcomings in its service, wine list and dessert offerings in order to reach its full potential.

Contact food critic Sara Kennedy at sara.kennedy@ weeklyplanet.com or call 813-248-8888, ext. 116.

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