For Row Boat Mediterranean Cuisine owner Jordan Said, restaurants are nothing new. His family owns five eateries — two in San Francisco and two in Las Vegas — which means he has a fair bit of experience when it comes to launching a new place. And in the first few months after opening Row Boat in Ybor, you can tell.
Not because the place is fancy and impressive, because the new Mediterranean restaurant in the former home of Laughing Cat is decidedly not designed to amaze diners with its decor. Instead, that experience is shown in the streamlined way the restaurant does its business, the straightforward way it makes its food, and the ease with which it has inserted itself into the neighborhood. Row Boat is efficient and focused.
The menu aims for the familiar notes of Greek cuisine — gyros and falafel, shawarma and spanakopita — at prices that make it a daily possibility for HCC students and local worker bees at lunch, and thrifty drinkers at night. Said’s experience, however, means that cheap and easy comes with surprisingly tasty results.
Dips, Mediterranean cuisine’s biggest culinary export, are done right at Row Boat, starting with hummus that is smooth and elegant, with just a hint of acidity to help cut through the rich tahini at its base. Babaganoush is almost as good, the eggplant dip slightly smoky and with a similar note of acidity to keep it lively.
That blast of bright flavors seems to be a trademark at Row Boat. In the spanakopita, it makes the feta, pastry and spinach sparkle a bit, though in the grape leaves the flavoring is a bit much, overpowering the rice stuffing and making for a potentially puckering experience.
But don’t limit yourself on my account — Row Boat’s appetizer platter gives you a chance to try all of that for yourself, plus the restaurant’s capable falafel. The chickpea balls are crisply fried on the outside and steamy moist inside, heavily seasoned, and begging for a dredge in hummus, or the tzatsiki made in-house.
And you can have all of that on one plate for a mere $10. Even if one or two of Row Boat’s apps don’t row your boat, who cares at that price?
Despite the vast numbers of appetizer platters I see on tables at Row Boat, gyros are the biggest draw, and for good reason. The thick pita is nothing to get excited about, but the meat — a combination of lamb and beef — is just about perfect, the texture an ideal mix of tender and moist interior pieces and crusty exterior edges sliced from the rotating spit behind the counter. It’s salty stuff, just as it should be, the seasoning tempered by the bright and fresh cucumber and yogurt tzatsiki. And it looks fabulous on the plate; ribbons of meat artfully arranged like a starlet’s carefully coiffed fresh-from-bed curls.
The chicken version is a tad dry, but tasty enough if you aren’t down with cow. You can also have the meat in a quesadilla if you’re willing to deal with the cultural dissonance of gooey cheese with your shaved gyro meat, or in the shawarma which is coated in different seasonings. But the gyro is still where it’s at if you’re eating at Row Boat.For lunch, Row Boat just makes sense. It’s quick, tasty and cheaper than many local options (other than a slice of pizza and a can of soda). At night, however, this place shines like a beacon for
Ybor revelers. The restaurant is open late on the weekends — 3 a.m. on Friday and Saturday — and serves Greek and Turkish wines for anyone who wants to maintain their buzz while downing filling sustenance to counteract the night’s earlier debauchery.
Hit the right night and you can even have a little flesh with your flesh, thanks to the occasional nighttime belly dancing performances. Sure, the counter service and casual décor — complete with a row boat suspended behind the counter emblazoned with the restaurant’s menu — doesn’t quite lend itself to shimmering costumes and undulating hips, but that’s part of its dissonant charm.
I guess that’s the secret that comes from owner Said’s experience. Row Boat has hit the ground running with a clear sense of purpose, a definable niche and price point to exploit, efficient service and food that is well worth the price of admission. That’s a rare thing, even in restaurants that have been around a lot longer than three months.
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