All three of the Clear Sky restaurants read like the work of someone who’s been paying attention to what folks want.
Co-owner Dan Shouvlin has got the proper curriculum vitae (a background in TGI Friday’s, Chi Chi’s, Olive Garden and then a few restaurants of his own), as does co-owner Michael "Frenchy" Preston (you know, Frenchy’s). Their first one, Clear Sky Cafe, on Mandalay on Clearwater Beach was appropriately beachy and breakfast-centric. The second one, Clear Sky Draught Haus on Main Street in Dunedin, reflected that city’s preoccupation with craft beer.
The third one, Clear Sky on Cleveland Global Bistro, opened in July, doesn’t say anything specifically about downtown Clearwater. It’s broader than that — it’s more a compendium of foods served on planet Earth.
Chef Bobby Shirley, a graduate of Academy of Culinary Art, is doing a yeoman’s job with a menu that spans five densely written pages and about all the continents that there are (nothing from Antarctica, but I suppose you could order a lot of ice in your water and call it covered). Fusion, especially the kind that is essentially world cuisines jostling up against each other in a cacophony of gochujang and saffron broth and Mexican mole, is darn hard to pull off. Shirley has some hits and some misses.
But before we dive in, it must be said that downtown Clearwater, for the first time in years, is looking lively. Even on a night when Sammy Hagar is not playing in nearby Coachman Park, downtown has bustle, much of it centered around Clear Sky and Tony’s Pizzeria a few doors down. It feels good after so many years of reviewing restaurants where fellow patrons could be counted in single digits.
Clear Sky has an appealing long bar, a handful of sidewalk tables with heat lamps, and an array of low-tops and high-tops in a couple of dining rooms kitted out with brick, wood and exposed duct work (the garden room in back is a nice surprise). Service is efficient and friendly if sometimes a little brisk. ("Do you make your own falafel from scratch?" "Yup," a monosyllable because asking in the kitchen might take too long.) And the bar program has a solid lineup of 20 beers on tap, familiar wines with a not-usurious markup, and signature cocktails that aren’t pushing any envelopes but are executed with care.
We learn to read menus like a book, appetizers and salads to the left, entrees and large plates in the middle, sides down at the bottom right, and maybe desserts on the backside. Clear Sky is messing with our minds, or at least mine. Salads are way back there above a huge lineup of naan flat breads (not great), tacos and sliders are on the next page with kids’ stuff and desserts, soups are mysteriously tucked under entrees. I found myself flipping back and forth a little frantically my first visit, before we fell into a "let’s just order a bunch of stuff and share" strategy.
I’m going to start with the most shock-and-awe item, the peanut butter and jelly Brussels sprouts ($8). Let that sink in. Really just deeply caramelized deep-fried sprout halves drizzled with a Thai peanut sauce, some chopped peanuts and a truly egregious swirl of berry coulis. Not bad, but a combination that could only have been gleaned from the stoner scientists of YouTube. But here’s one that charmed me: Roasted trumpet mushrooms and nutty caramelized Jerusalem artichokes come in a crock with a whole lot of cream and some dunkable toasts ($12).
I logged serious miles with the next few dishes: to Italy for chicken Milanese, a plate of deep-fried pounded, breaded chicken paillards topped with cherry tomatoes, dressed arugula and parm with a heady wallop of charred lemon (a good deal at $14); then to the Middle East for a passel of falafel ($8), a little soft-centered, sitting on a bit of tahini with drizzles of harissa and olive oil; back to Italy with another plate of balls, this time Italian-inflected, arancini ($8); and then a fever dream that was a plate of tuna nachos ($12) topped with too much of everything (eel sauce, gochujang aioli, mango, pico de gallo, and I could keep going).
With the exception of the nachos, for each of those last dishes I’ve had significantly better versions in restaurants that adhere only to the cuisine in question. That shouldn’t be a shocker. A world-beat approach like this aims to provide something for everyone, at a range of price points and levels of sophistication, such that no one can honestly say, "There’s nothing I can eat there" (gluten-free-ers, your dishes are all marked, and vegetarians have loads of choice among apps and sides). All of that said, when you try to do everything, dishes lack nuance and verisimilitude.
You know what, though? Shouvlin and Preston know that not everyone is a stick-in-the-mud like me. It shows: two midweek visits and just about every seat was filled. Let’s hope this signals nothing but Clear Skys for the downtown’s future.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.