(2011) I have a confession. For too long and on no evidence I considered Tommy Bahama’s Restaurant & Bar on the west spoke off St. Armands Circle as just another way to cash in on the Tommy Bahama brand. Then my sister-in-law, Anita, set me straight.
“Their Loki-Loki Tuna Poke is really good,” she informed me over a lunch of black bean soup and Cuban sandwiches at nearby Columbia.
“Their what?” I asked, thinking I might not have heard her correctly.
“It’s a kind of sashimi stack with guacamole and capers,” she said. “It’s an appetizer, but it makes lunch for me.”
Ahi tuna! Capers! Guacamole! The hook was set.
Diners at the local outpost of the tropically themed chain have the option of sitting downstairs near the convivially noisy bar or upstairs, where the tables are dressed in white linens and the bar chatter is a distant rumor. There is a great skinny terrace overlooking John Ringling Boulevard from above, a perfect—and often jam-packed—perch for cocktail sipping and people watching or admiring a sunset over the Gulf a couple of blocks away.
We chose the quieter upstairs option and were seated at a table with a nice view of the rosy glow swelling and fading in the west. Paddle fans turned slowly overhead as our waiter—sporting a Tommy Bahama shirt, naturally—took our aperitif orders and recited the day’s specials with a pleasantly understated enthusiasm.
We were in a fine mood and started with glasses of toasty Piper Sonoma sparkling wine ($10 the glass) from California as we inspected the menu.
The appetizer list is varied and tempting. There was the Loki-Loki ($16.50), of course, but Anita had already given that baby the stamp of approval.
Many menu items here come in either small or larger portions, an option I am always pleased to see, and the smaller route is the way both Colette and I decided to go.
She started with the Cooper Island crab bisque ($9.50/$6.50), a creamy smooth and crab-rich soup spiked just so with sherry. I chose crab, too, in the form of an eminently crabby grilled cake in a demure coconut crust that the restaurant evocatively calls Crab Calloway ($16.50/$9). The crab was fresh and succulent and nicely set off by a sweet chile mustard and a haystack of deliciously crunchy Asian slaw. Just right.
The entrée list is nicely varied and well balanced between the expected fish and other fare. On the finny side, I’m given to understand that the Shoal Bay snapper ($29.50), a macadamia-crusted treat from the Gulf, and the Old San Juan shrimp and scallops (28.50), which are sautéed in a coconut curry, are crowd pleasers.
Having started with shellfish, we chose from the land side of the menu. Colette’s choice, Tommy’s rib rack ($29.50/$19.50), was absolutely terrific. A half rack of tender baby back ribs came to table celestially cloaked in the chain’s proprietary blackberry brandy barbecue sauce and accompanied by the same Asian slaw I’d sampled earlier, plus chive-flecked, baked, then whipped potatoes. Yummy.
An entrée that immediately caught my eye was something Tommy’s calls The Island Cowboy ($34.50), an eight-ounce tenderloin filet grilled and sauced in a red wine demi-glace asserted by both caramelized roasted garlic cloves and Maytag bleu cheese crumbles.
On the side are brightly al dente spears of lemon garlic asparagus and potatoes. On the evening we visited, the restaurant was offering a three-course prix fixe menu ($33) that included among the main course options a smaller portion of this dish featuring medallions of the filet instead of the full steak. This was the scaled-back version I sampled. I found it superbly rich and satisfying.
For dessert, Colette couldn’t resist Blackbeard’s butterscotch ($10/$6), a swoony confection teaming vanilla pudding flavored with Scotch whiskey with chocolate ganache, caramel sauce and whipped cream. Oh, my! Were she a cat, Colette would have licked her whiskers and purred as she pushed the empty bowl away.
I fared quite well, too, with my piña colada cake ($10/$6), a moist and mile-high slice of vanilla cake layered and iced with caramelized pineapple, white chocolate mousse and coconut, all flavored robustly with Myers Dark Rum. Oh, and a dollop of whipped cream for good measure.
Tommy Bahama’s Restaurant & Bar
300 John Ringling Blvd., St. Armands
Reservations: (941) 388-2888
Bar: full bar and well-priced wine list
Hours: opens for lunch at 11 a.m. daily and dinner kicks in about 4:30 p.m.; closing is at midnight Friday -Saturday and at 11 p.m. the rest of the week
Cards: VISA, MC, AmEx, Discover
Handicapped accessible: yes
Parking: on street or in nearby parking lot