Critic's Rating: 3 stars out of 5
220 E. Davis Blvd., Tampa, 220east.com, 813-259-1220. Appetizers $4-$14, entrees $10-$28, desserts $2-$6, wines by the glass $4.50-$8.
Davis Islands is, by definition, its own little enclave. And 220 East is just the kind of neighborhood restaurant that you’d love to have near your home. The first down-home touch immediately to your left is a glass wine cellar, but it’s not the bottles that catch your eye. It’s the autographed sports helmets looped around the bottlenecks inside the temperature-controlled environment, setting a comfortable tone reinforced at every turn. Flat-screen TVs, high-top tables and sports memorabilia next to the bar, leather booths and bead board, the walls covered with instruments, skis, mirrors and fish.
The decor is, in a word, eclectic. And the same is true for the menu. It’s a mixed bag, but there’s something for everyone at affordable prices. And that, maybe, is 220 East’s secret.
I find the food fine, if not exciting. But I bet if you asked any of the patrons, they wouldn’t give a damn. What is most notable about my visits to 220 East is the sense of joy and energy. Families with young children mingle with groups of seniors and everything in between, including a few Gen-Y dating couples. I can’t remember being in a restaurant where everyone seemed to be having such a good time. The smiling blonde bartender works the crowd like a favorite camp counselor.
And every time I turn a critical eye toward the food in my mind, I can’t help but picture a jolly diner saying, “Who cares?”
While the French onion soup suffers from having under-caramelized — no, make that barely translucent — onions that just don’t make the grade, the beer and cheese soup is tasty with good flavor and a creamy texture.
The hot stickers remind me of the frozen ones I used to get at Costco that are perfectly okay when you just don’t feel like being in the kitchen, although I used to sauté the wrappers till golden. These are served on a bed of shredded iceberg lettuce on a metal pedestal with Szechuan soy sauce for dipping.
The sushi grade tuna “sashimi” is actually rolled in sesame seeds, pan seared and served with the obligatory pickled ginger and wasabi. It, too, is fine, but I want surprise or excitement. The presentation is just straightforward, and I must remind myself that this is not a white tablecloth establishment. I guess I need to get down off the hot sticker pedestal and join in the fun.
The 220 salad combines crisp iceberg lettuce with a little romaine, red cabbage, and carrots, topped with tomatoes, celery, cucumber, a few croutons, and some shredded cheddar cheese. In other words, a generic house salad with your choice of dressing and a grin from your server.
The Margherita pizza looks promising with a thin crust (which I prefer) plus fresh garlic, olive oil, and basil, but there’s little tomato and enough cheese for all of MacDill Air Force Base.
As the food critic ponders the soggy crust at the center, plenty of little hands joyfully shove gooey cheese into their satisfied mouths.
The bacon-crusted scallops feature a plate full of the fresh shellfish seemingly sprinkled with bacon dust prior to being sautéed to a golden brown; a delicious creamy cheese sauce made from smoked Gouda accompanies. Again, I’m seeking more finesse in the plating … as I look around at the joyful faces, everyone clearly enjoying themselves to the fullest.
The 12-ounce hand-cut New York strip steak, which by request is smothered in onions and mushrooms, is perfectly seared and served a beautiful medium rare. Boy, is it juicy. No real effort is made to dress it up, it just lies there on the plate waiting to be cut, chewed, and happily swallowed by a smiling diner and washed down with a glass of a nice Cabernet from the budget-priced wine list.
So while the entire dining room is having a great time, enjoying their food, sharing the camaraderie of friends and neighbors from the island, the intrepid food critic is making mental notes, looking for flaws, weighing every nuance.
The dessert choices boast authentic key lime pie, but the custard is very light and lacks the tartness that would add real zing to the filling, which is in a crust made of Lorna Doones (Nabisco’s shortbread cookies) instead of graham crackers. Hmmm, this version would really be family-friendly.
Chocolate velvet cake blends dark chocolate with peanut butter mousse and a touch of cherry brandy and crème de cacao for depth. The result has a cheesecake texture and deep chocolate flavor. But it’s served with colorful but disappointing raspberry sauce that is surprisingly watery, as if it had been frozen, and not well-blended. Luckily, the sauce doesn’t matter, but it is a missed opportunity.
What is a food critic to do in Happyville? Drink another glass of wine, relax, don’t sweat the details and be happy. Everyone else is … even the baby in the highchair. 220 East knows exactly what its diners want and it delivers.
And that, dear readers, is very smart restaurant business.