On a Fishy Mission
The nice thing about reviewing chains, even small three-shop operations like Tarpon Bend Raw Bar & Grill, is that they come packaged with a mission statement that makes evaluation more facile. Tarpon Bend number three opened in January on Miracle Mile, following the splash of the first two fish-themed restaurants in Fort Lauderdale and Weston. Partners Tim Petrillo, Peter Boulukos, Billy Ivan, and Alan Hooper had already reeled in popular acclaim with their River House and Himmarshee Bar & Grill properties in Broward, but this trio of eateries is more geared to formula than those places. The aim here is "for Tarpon Bend to be a place where the atmosphere is laid-back, where the food is always fresh and fun, where the beer is always ice-cold, and where people can feel as much at home as we've often felt during our many tarpon fishing trips."
I'm not sure about that last part, though short of hanging fishing nets from the rafters they do make an effort to evoke a nautical atmosphere. The décor is a contemporary take on the traditional seafood house, the modernization mostly occurring up front, where an open glass-door façade allows fresh air to flow through the 200-seat room. Not exactly aromatics from the sea, but it makes sitting at the sizable rectangular bar nice and breezy and affords a picture-window portrait of Miracle Mile. The bar setup, with five TV screens hanging above it, mimics the always-happening Houston's a few blocks away. Tarpon's neon-lettered signage is likewise similar, a glowing blue signal of intent to lure a chunk of that chain's overflow. Perhaps it has already succeeded to some extent, for the clientele here clusters the same assemblage of hopeful sports fans and singles mingling at the bar, couples and families seated in booths toward the rear of the space.
As lounge area leads to dining room, the tall, black industrial ceiling drops to the sort of wood-slat design more common in seafood joints. Trophy fish and sepia-toned photos of fishermen hang on the walls, as do two blackboards: One lists some two dozen types of seafood, which at first (and rather ecstatically) I mistook for specials of the day; in fact Tarpon's owners are avid fishermen affiliated with the International Game Fish Association, and I had been salivating at the official fishing world-record board. The other blackboard was what I should have been focusing on, a detailing of daily specials: ceviches, fish, featured cocktail drink (on this night "Coyote Margarita"), and a concise compendium of raw-bar selections. The regular menu, a laminated rectangular affair, is short and straightforward. (Hey, what a coincidence, just like Houston's.)
The waitstaff, a group of sincere, down-to-earth, likable kids, would probably be an efficient crew if they were well trained. As it stands, Tarpon will not be appearing on official restaurant-service world-record boards any time soon. Too many mostly minor mishandlings to rehash here, but a highlight reel would include our waiter interrupting conversation to ask if we'd like more tap water, our empty glasses apparently not enough of a hint. It took at least half an hour for water to arrive, although our entrées were rushed to the table in the midst of appetizers. Another time our waiter offered a contorted explanation of how side-dish choices worked, leading one of us to end up with tabouleh salad rather than onion mashed potatoes, which was the accompaniment listed on the menu for his entrée; the waiter insisted he pay extra for a return of his rightful mashed potatoes. Then there was the busperson who needed two trips to carry four plates from the table.
One thing that distinguishes Tarpon Bend from other seafood houses is the lack of bread, usually a staple in spots like this. "Not included in our regular service" is how it was put, though upon request flimsy slices of sourdough were brought without charge. Wasn't worth the effort.
Appetizers were appealing, none more so than middle-neck clams (from Florida's west coast) pan-roasted in a spicy white wine-and-tomato broth, with grilled triangular toast for sopping up the garlic-and-herb-pepped liquid. We likewise savored a grilled white rectangle of Tuscan calamari steak, fairly tender from marination and further softened with light lemon-basil butter sauce, though I suspect it ultimately pleased more for what it was not -- the same old breaded-and-fried squid rings.
You needn't cast a very wide net to cover Tarpon's raw-bar options -- three varieties of oyster, peel-and-eat shrimp, stone crabs, and the aforementioned ceviches, which are presented as a trilogy of daily picks, each in its own clam shell. The lime-juice-marinated grouper rendition stuck closest to tradition, while strips of snapper were stimulating in a dark, ginger-flecked Asian sauce, and nibblets of shrimp in tomato-tequila-chili margarita sauce tasted of a bit too much ketchup.
Catch-of-the-day specials netted a quartet of filleted fin fish -- snapper, grouper, mahi-mahi, and salmon. The first was fresh and adroitly grilled, dressed with a wedge of lemon. Our side of choice was vegetable du jour, broccolini, the greens brightly but blandly sautéed and not, as was described to us by our increasingly unreliable waiter: "grilled and served with lemon butter sauce."
A fillet of farm-raised catfish, spicily seared and too-bright-red with Cajun seasoning mix, was presented in a skillet (an unexpectedly cold one, though the fish was warm enough) with a small but shellfish-generous dab of crawfish étouffée and what tasted like Uncle Ben's rice with flavor packet. After finishing this dish, I cast a particularly rueful gaze at my empty water glass.
Any beverage would have sufficed. The breadth of beers here isn't nearly as extensive as at the other Tarpon branches, but Guinness, Bass, Miller, and Stella Artois are on tap, another eight available by the bottle. (Steve Forbes must've been brought in to set the pricing, all a flat five dollars regardless of label.) If you fish through the small pool of wines long enough, you're liable to hook a neat Napa such as Rombauer cabernet ($9/glass, $34/bottle.)
A couple of steaks, pork loin, and a crisply skinned grilled chicken breast comprise the nonseafood courses, but I'll take the supple Maine lobster roll: plump lumps of sweet white meat bathed in seasoned mayonnaise and cradled in a toasted hot dog-style bun. Honey-cider cole slaw on the side avoided mayo redundancy, the sweet, vinegary chopped cabbage salad contributing a welcome crunch. Makes a nice lunch plate, and there are salads and burgers on hand for that function too.
A paltry three-dessert menu recital runs the short, well-trod gamut from warm brownies à la mode to apple crumb pie à la mode to custard-and-fruit-layered banana cream pie with graham cracker crust and puff of whipped cream.
Let's troll Tarpon's objectives once more. Was the atmosphere laid-back? Absolutely, though I wish the waitstaff was a little less so. Was the beer ice-cold? Now that you mention it, my draft was well chilled. Was the food always fresh and fun? Always fresh, yes, but I can't really say it was much fun. That's all right by me, but the cuisine does need to be kicked up a couple of notches. Prices are reasonable, but so are you-know-who's up the street, and that competitor puts out a mighty impressive product with which to compete. Discombobulated service here doesn't help either, but judging from the crowds so far, the public seems to be nibbling the bait. Taken on its own less-than-ambitious terms (a casual, family-style, bar-scene-fueled seafood eatery), we'd have to conclude that Tarpon Bend has accomplished its mission.
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