Mangrove Grill is located in Palmetto, but with its casual island décor, relaxed waterside setting and breezy menu, it might as well be Margaritaville.
Mangrove Grill is a friendly neighborhood hangout for the upmarket enclave of Riviera Dunes Marina Resort, a burgeoning community of estate homes and high-rise condominiums on the Manatee River. I can't imagine anything more pleasant than relaxing on the Mangrove Grill deck, watching the boats bobbing in the marina, sipping a glass of wine and munching a grouper sandwich while the sun begins its showy descent. It's that idealized vision of what you thought living in coastal Florida would be like. Nice to have expectations realized, isn't it?
If you eat inside, your choices are two. You might be happy in the large lounge, with bar, cocktail tables and elevated table-seating pavilion. Two large televisions keep track of the sports scores. Overhead, you'll notice double rotating fans that are literally and figuratively quite cool. This section of the surprisingly spacious building also conceals a private dining room that resembles the bow of a ship. This intimate and handsome space, called Captain's Quarters, can be reserved for private functions for up to about 20 guests.
The main dining room (which affords a view to the wide deck and the river beyond) has a waterscape mural on one wall, carpet on the floor and light music in the background. Expect dark bare wood tables but white cloth napkins. A nice touch is coarse-grain salt and peppercorns in individual grinders at each table.
Gulf Coast paella with dirty rice is an especially good choice at $17.95. It's full-flavored and includes sausage and chicken in the mélange of fish and shellfish. Floribbean grouper (so called because it's encrusted with toasted coconut and pecans) is pan-seared and jazzed with sweet, red pepper and papaya jam. It's $23.95, and just sparkles with taste.
The spareribs, tender and spicy, are served with the house non-traditional coleslaw, which isn't creamy. Instead it's a tangy, colorful confetti of a salad, owing to several different cabbages in the mix. Sides with most entrées (and with the sandwiches if you want) include dirty rice or French fries. In addition to complete meals, sandwiches, meal-sized salads and small plates, the kitchen offers four varieties of pizzas for $11.95 each. The Mangrove specialty pizza combines grilled chicken, smoked cheddar, sweet onions and the kitchen's own barbecue sauce for a flatbread meal much more tropical island than Italian.
All four desserts are $6.95; the Beach Bistro praline Alexandra arrives tableside in a white boat-shaped bowl with two iced-tea spoons. (And there's plenty to share.) Intensely flavored vanilla bean ice cream balls are rolled in a homemade crushed praline. A little Frangelico is poured over the top, and fresh whipped cream crowns the creation. This is a fantastic finale, and it's also a dessert meal all by itself if you just want to stop in for something sweet at the end of the day.
The genius of Mangrove Grill is that it simultaneously satisfies cravings from simple bar food, pizzas, heavy snacks, salads and sandwiches to fully orchestrated meals from soup to dessert. The food is fresh and has a bit of pizzazz, with Caribbean, Creole and Asian accents enriching a coastal bistro bill of fare. First-time guests who find their way to Mangrove Grill either by land, sea or word of mouth will end up wishing they lived near enough to this restaurant to visit it more often.
102 Riviera Dunes Way, Palmetto
Dinner: Monday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m.; Friday, Saturday and Sunday, noon to 10 p.m.
No reservations (except for large parties)
Parking in restaurant lot