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Local restaurateur catches the casual seafood wave

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The concept of having both scene and cuisine has faded a bit during the "00s. Nowadays, some, for whom these economic times have not been kind, are looking strictly for value and care more about maxing out credit cards than dining with linens and weighty flatware. At the same time on a national level, seafood has become the latest opportunity for entrepreneurs/restaurateurs. The concept of the casual dining seafood restaurant is on an upward crest and two local entrepreneurs are hoping to ride this wave.A few months ago, Greg McIntosh, owner of SouthEnd's upscale McIntosh's Steaks & Seafood, and his lifelong friend and business partner Dave Reilly opened the 180-seat Florida Bay Seafood Company Restaurant & Bar across from UNCC.

"Rising tides raise all boats," mused Managing Partner Reilly, about the casual seafood restaurant becoming a popular segment in the restaurant industry. "What we hope to provide our customers is a great atmosphere, high quality at a good price, and outstanding service -- consistently." Sounds reasonable enough.

Although the sign in front of Florida Bay is small, the vivid yellow building should catch anyone's attention. A trail of painted fish stretches the fishing metaphor from the sidewalk into the bar area where the ambience is comfortable Floridian. A gray painted concrete floor, large bar, musical performance stage, and corrugated aluminum spark interest. Past the bar, and a step up, is the carpeted Key Largo-styled dining room. Overhead is a school of fiberglass dolphin (mahi mahi) in suspended flight from an interloping marlin. Black and white photographs of sport fishermen dot the walls. A few depict McIntosh and Reilly, who have been fishing together since they were boys growing up in Fort Lauderdale. Bare tabletops give the impression of dark mahogany while rolls of paper towels, nonweighty silverware and heavy-duty plastic tableware complete the illusion of casual.

Beer and mixed drinks are the beverages of choice. Only a few wines are offered either by the glass or bottle. Overseeing the menu is Kitchen Manager Toby Vinson, a graduate of University of South Carolina's Hotel and Restaurant Management program in Columbia. The desserts are made by the pastry chef at McIntosh's.

From beginning to end, the restaurant is characteristically minimalist and unfussy. Shellfish highlights the appetizer list with a few cross-cultural borrowings, such as the Jamaican Jerk Shrimp Quesadilla. Servers are efficient and knowledgeable, quick to answer questions about shellfish lineage.

The kicky Bahamian conch chowder is spotted with nuggets of succulent conch while the raw oysters were pristine. The Caesar salad, a candidate for a Queer Eye "make better," capsized from the amount of salad dressing.

The seafood entrees here are not like the stars of Charlie Trotter's lush, three-line titled dishes. At Florida Bay things are simple. Their "Fresh Fish Everyday" offers a choice of four fish: Mahi Mahi, Atlantic Salmon, Ahi Tuna, or Gulf Grouper. Each is grilled and plated with sides in the old school 10-2-4 presentation. The crisp-seared, tender and rare Ahi was perfect and familiar, while the Po' Boy sandwich revealed golden fried oysters glossed with a first-rate aioli.

As with any decent seafood place, there are the side dishes. The best of these were the densely flavored black beans. The coleslaw, on the other hand, while fresh tasting, lacked oomph and the garlic mashed potatoes floundered. The corn on the cob apparently had overstayed its welcome in the steaming pan. On the plus side, you'll have room for dessert, which includes their sensational Key Lime Pie.

With dinner entrees ranging from $10 to $16, Florida Bay Seafood seems straight on course to reel in folks looking for good fish at these prices.

Eaters' Digest

A new future in the old Knife & Fork? Renovations are underway. Word in the kitchens around town is chef Robert Graham is opening a "chef-inspired diner." Graham has worked in the kitchens of LaVecchia's, Upstream, Toscana, and Luce (did I forget one?) during the past five years. For those who are recent Charlotteans, Knife & Fork, 2531 N. Sharon Amity, opened in 1963 and at one time was Charlotte's favorite diner.

Ironically on Bastille Day, North Carolina grapes and wine lovers were one step closer to direct-order shipping which is expected to begin October 1, 2003. The state House approved a bill allowing wineries to sell some products to NC residents through direct-order shipping. The legislation was approved 87-to-17. It then went back to the Senate, which is considering the changes made by the House. The bill attempts to address a federal court ruling that found a similar 1981 law unconstitutional. The bill would allow any out-of-state winemaker to obtain a $100 per year permit ($25 to renew) to sell directly to NC residents. Then NC winemakers should be able to sell directly to people in 20 or so states that already allow out-of-state shipping sales. Virginia's new law allowing direct shipment went into effect July 1, 2003. South Carolina's law was passed in June. The majority of the sponsors of the NC House and Senate bill were from Asheville, home of the Biltmore Winery.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. To contact Tricia via email: TLChild@bellsouth.net.

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