Ken and Trish Keim’s new seafood restaurant at Lake Osprey Village shopping center was jammed with diners on a recent Friday night. Not to mention the line snaking into the parking lot and a clutch of hungry people waiting at the door for their names to be called when a table became free.
Many restaurateurs, lonely from the recession, would love to have that problem.
But Ken Keim, co-owner of the former Shells Restaurant, now renamed Stingray’s Grill, didn’t seem all that surprised that his new restaurant in Lakewood Ranch took off like a bolt.
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He knew he had a good product.
When the Shells chain went bankrupt last year, Keim’s restaurant was under construction. Due to legal complications, he had to rename it, so he held a contest, and picked “Stingray’s Grill” at the suggestion of a New Jersey couple.
The 160-seat Lakewood Ranch seafood restaurant opened Nov. 13, just as the economy was in the midst of a frightening free fall. The financial debacle did not deter Keim, a veteran of the business with 23 years experience.
Asked what attracts diners during a floundering economy, Keim was quick to answer: A value-priced menu.
“My wife and I, Trish, we made up our minds when Shells went bankrupt, they had taken the prices up so high, most people couldn’t afford to eat there,” he said.
He said he would rather host 1,000 guests a day and make 50 cents from each one than attract 100 guests a day and make $2 from each.
“You have a little higher food costs, but customer counts are up,” said Keim, who started out with the Steak & Ale chain.
Because the restaurant was so full and because I didn’t have much time, I chose to sit at the big curved bar in an east wing of the restaurant. It faced a row of banquettes accompanied by little tables.
It had been such a trying week, I had not taken a single moment to contemplate dinner. This is most unusual for me. As a devoted foodie, I ordinarily savor the thought of a good meal, sometimes for days, weeks or months in advance.
Then, when you finally get to eat it, it’s really special.
It took me awhile to refocus in the moment. I looked at the restaurant’s clean lines and muted, modern colors. Its carefree crowd lifted my spirits.
On the other side was an outdoor patio with six tables, where I could see people enjoying the sunset over big margaritas and martinis.
I knew what I wanted immediately when the waiter told me that seafood bisque was on the menu as the soup of the day.
It’s one of my all-time favorites.
I ordered a cup ($3.49) and settled back to relax. When it came, it was the color of a delicate salmon rose and it had a delectable, buttery aroma. The soup was nice and thick, heated just right.
As an entrée, the sandwiches were tempting: A 5-ounce grouper sandwich grilled, blackened or fried ($9.99); fish or chicken Baja tacos ($8.99), soft flour tortillas stuffed with fish or chicken, wrapped in lettuce, sprinkled with diced tomatoes, shredded cheese and chipotle sauce. All are accompanied by french fries and coleslaw.
But I had missed lunch and was really hungry; I ordered a full entrée instead. It was a shrimp and sea scallop skewer ($12.99), fire grilled and basted with a homemade marinade. While I waited, the server brought me water and a basket of bread.
If you review enough restaurants, you become a bread snob, and I certainly am that.
The little, homely blond loaf didn’t look very promising, but it did the job. It was crisp outside and soft inside, and nestled in the basket with it were cold butter patties, an essential part of any decent meal.
Since the entrée had not yet arrived and I was still sipping soup, the bread went down real smooth between slurps.
When my entrée arrived, it was a big, steamy plate from which the scent of super-fresh fish rose in clouds.
The fat shrimp sat amidst a hearty serving of rice and a broccoli melange.
They were perfect. The lemon pepper sea scallops were fresh, fat and flavorful.
It was a simple dish, but it’s always amazing to me how many restaurants goof up the basics.
If you don’t care for fish, the menu included several entrees that would whet your palate, such as an 8-ounce sirloin steak ($13.99), grilled or blackened and served with french fries and coleslaw; or a crispy almond chicken salad ($9.99), fried chicken atop a salad of lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, shredded Monterey jack cheese, carrots and red cabbage tossed with almonds and mandarin oranges.
It didn’t take me very long to clean my dinner plate.
My soup bowl was empty, too.
“How about dessert?” the waiter asked.
Then he had the good manners to smile indulgently when I answered in the affirmative.
Let’s see, carrot cake? Don’t think so. Chocolate cake? That’s more my style.
A piece 6 inches tall turned up with rosettes of whipped cream and a satiny icing ($4.99).
It wasn’t quite chocolate-y enough for me, but it was still excellent. Moist, crumbly, very good and paired with a cup of coffee ($1.99), it was a fit finish to a fun evening.
I enjoyed my meal at Stingray’s and will dine there again.
Ken and Trish Keim also operate another Stingray’s at 7253 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. And the Ruskin couple is planning to open another one soon at 1115 E. Brandon Blvd., Brandon.