The newest Here To Serve concept struggles to find its sea legsMonday August 9, 2010 09:00 am EDT
Beach house withdrawal is something many of us experience this time of year. The kids return to school, and the vacations are over. As we settle back into our mundane and tastefully decorated lives, we yearn for nautically themed rooms, fish mounted on walls, bucolic prints of sandy shores, and, perhaps most of all, the mediocre fried seafood that punctuates any good beach vacation.
Have no fear! Coast, the latest Tom Catherall/Here To Serve Restaurants venture in the old Seeger's location, has stepped up to provide all of the above.
It's hard to believe that this is the third incarnation of the Catherall empire's attempt to do something worthwhile with the Seeger's building. In early 2007, the first, Posh, opened to fairly positive reviews. To me, this was the most personal restaurant Catherall had opened in years, right down to his mother's sticky toffee pudding on the dessert menu.
Even so, it wasn't quite exciting enough, and in 2008, Richard Blais stepped in for the whirlwind that was Home. Right off of his near-win on "Top Chef," Blais brought in the crowds for the few months his name was on the menu. But the relationship didn't work out, and the crowds left along with Blais. Home struggled on valiantly until March of this year, when it shuttered. By April, the restaurant that had once been the pinnacle of lavish dining in Atlanta had been transformed into a fish camp.
Tropical cocktails, oysters on the half shell, and cuts of fish served "pan roasted, grilled, blackened or naked" are served in a room that's been painted sky blue and adorned with beachy tchotchkes. Out front of the restaurant, a wooden deck has been erected, meant to evoke an oceanside patio.
All of this, if a tad silly, has its charm. Even the waitresses have the perky disposition of summer-job college girls. And when steaming hot hushpuppies arrived at the table, studded with sweet corn and a trace of crab, I allowed myself to hope that the food would have a modicum of honesty and freshness.
Those hushpuppies were by far the best thing I sampled at Coast.
Clams, in a blunt white wine and butter sauce, were gritty and overcooked. Raw oysters were limp and flavorless. Vietnamese summer rolls, with crab and shrimp, had gummy rice wrappings and a meager filling — sweet chili sauce that tasted like it came from a jar did little to pep the dish up.
Fish of the day is served in parchment with julienned vegetables. The day I had it, it was advertised as black snapper, but tasted distinctly like a river fish, having that markedly muddy flavor catfish and other bottom feeders attain.
A Mediterranean seafood bowl had beautifully cooked fish, shrimp and mussels, but the broth lacked zip in the middle. Wine and salt gave some up-front flavor, and tomato provided the acidic finish, but whatever stock was used to supply backbone was sadly weak or missing.
A hot chili seafood entrée came to the table looking exactly like a fried delight from a Chinese take-out joint, right down to the diced red and green peppers and sticky chili sauce drizzled over it. It had that same kind of perverse appeal as well, a kind of General Tso's calamari dotted with Sriracha; hard to stop eating, hard to know why.
Prices at Coast are also in line with a casual beachfront eatery — most entrées fall in the $15 range. The idea is simple, inexpensive fun. But more care needs to be taken and fewer shortcuts if the experience is worth having at all.
There's a lesson to the never-ending revamps this location has needed since Here To Serve took ownership, and I think it's this: The days of the concept restaurant may be numbered. Marketing executives and hospitality majors will tell you otherwise, but increasingly, customers are looking to independent restaurants and local chains for individuality and personality rather than easily packaged and branded concepts. Coast is one of the most forced restaurants I've seen in a long time. It looks — and tastes — like it came out of a box, rather than from the mind or heart of an actual human.
This may work with vacation rental homes, and even cheesy beachside restaurants. But it doesn't work for a place we have to live with, year-round.