As you make your way down Gulf Boulevard on that sliver of land between the narrows of the Intracoastal Waterway and the Gulf of Mexico, most of your culinary choices are of the beach bar variety, championing fried food and beer; the dress code is usually shorts and flip-flops. Even a small step up the food chain is hard to come by.
Luckily, Shirley and Emmett O’Barr decided to go into the restaurant business, and have handsomely renovated the former On the Rocks building that began in the ’40s as a hamburger joint. Aqua Prime’s invitingly landscaped tile walkway leads into a smartly designed eatery that is painted a lovely pale, well, aqua. It perfectly evokes the allure of Indian Rocks Beach that’s just a stone’s throw away.
You can opt to sit out back around the large rectangular dark wooden bar with one side completely open to a huge patio, or inside where there’s a quieter vibe; it’s the best of both worlds. Please note, however, that they’re still tweaking the A/C, which is working overtime to compensate for the open bar access by trying to cool the great outdoors; hence, the dining room is on the chilly side. Let’s hope they can split the HVAC zones soon.
That said, the menu offers a welcome change from regular beach fare without going too far upscale. There’s a selective list of sandwiches, wraps, and pastas with various protein options. In fact, all the entrees include salad or soup and farmer’s veggies, plus your choice (one each) of seven sauces and ten sides. That can be a slippery slope, because not all combinations work even if they sound appealing to diners. And expecting the vegetable medley du jour to be all things to all dishes/guests puts a lot of pressure on the kitchen. They’re a bit boxed into a corner, but the result has a comforting, homey feel. After all, with most home cooking, your choice is what’s on the plate.
Our meal commences with a white bean hummus and warm grilled pita as we peruse the menu. It’s a nice beginning and a welcome change from bread and butter or herbed dipping oil, which are often substandard.
One of my guests has not yet discovered the joys of seared ahi or yellowtail, so we start with tuna tataki. And even though my chopsticks lesson falls on deaf ears, the slices of fresh, deep, pink, rare fish have a nice sear, and translucent slivers of fresh ginger, a spicy mayo-eel sauce combo, hot wasabi, and/or a dip of soy let you fix up the luscious fish to taste. I have made a convert. Oh, and the sesame broccoli slaw partners nicely.
The other apps offer everything from a mix of shellfish to a spear of surf & turf. Somehow we settle on butterflied coconut shrimp that are beautifully golden brown and sing with the piña colada sauce.
The house salad of mixed greens includes very pretty purple winter cabbage a fellow diner finds bitter, the Caesar offers the option of an anchovy garnish which makes me happy, and the white bean and fish chowder (that won out over steak and vegetable soup) is delightful.
For the most part, we play mix and match with fish and sauce. You can choose 5-ounce or 8-ounce fish portions, and we pair salmon with coconut green curry, mahi mahi with mango salsa, and grouper with Dijon garlic cream. For sides, it’s a reunion of potato cousins: Yukon gold mashed, spiced sweet potato fries, and German potato salad with a touch of vinegar and scallions that give it bite. Everything is perfectly pleasant.
The steak options include strip, sirloin, ribeye, and filet. I, however, am intrigued by Berkshire pork “short ribs,” which to my knowledge don’t exist. Short ribs, you see, are cuts of beef, so AP’s pork short ribs might be spare ribs — which would be the closest. Never mind, we’ll leave that discussion to the butcher, because the meat is delectable, tender and falling off the bone. Unfortunately, the sauce (which really isn’t even needed) is overly sweet, like a supermarket product. The tender meat is served on fresh arugula, which is a nice match. And my side choice is a more than serviceable mac and cheese.
The dessert menu offers an apple tart or brownie sundae with ice cream, but we hanker for the mango mousse. Sadly, it has no zing, and the fat graham cracker crust is oddly the same thickness as the mousse. There’s also a viscous fruity berry sauce that is colorful but doesn’t make much sense. Skip that one and try the Key lime TY creme brûlée — a fascinating mashup of Florida’s two most over-exposed desserts; luckily, it’s actually good. The torched sugar on top of the tart lime filling packs a delicious crunch. And if you miss the traditional graham cracker crust that usually accompanies Key lime, there is a loose deconstructed rectangle of crumbs jutting out from the ramekin’s base. Add a dollop of adjacent whipped cream and you can concoct the perfect combination for your own palate.
BTW, “TY” is the chef’s daughter; he’s done her proud.