Fins on the Square takes over the old Rick's Cafe Americain space on Canton Square from Granite Bar and Grille, which tried to make it with a (tired) industrial theme, a concept that lasted less than two years. Fins, under the same ownership, is going with a beach club theme - it looks like a Jimmy Buffett concert exploded in there. It's just as random, but seems like a much better fit for the neighborhood.
There was a lively happy-hour crowd at the bar when we visited on a weeknight, and Fins was feeling less like a fourth-choice-on-the-square place than Granite ever did.
The airy interior space is evenly divided between the entrance-side bar and the dining room, and on a recent late-summer evening, the large front windows on both sides were open to the breeze. A wall only partly separates the two sides. Noise from the bar was not a problem in the early evening, but I'd worry about it toward 10 p.m., when the dining room shuts down and bar life takes over.
Early birds get the prize dining-room seats closest to the open windows. Somehow, even with no other diners in what is a pretty big dining room, it didn't feel lonely, and I think that was because of the lively street scene just outside the window. The menu at Fins carries over some favorites from Granite's menu - appetizers like tuna bites, New Zealand mussels and grilled calamari; entree salads with strip steak or blackened chicken; and simple main dishes like baby back ribs, crab cakes and filet mignon.
The menu might not be exciting, but it makes more sense at Fins than it did at Granite, which had the kind of decor that raised expectations for a little culinary drama. Now, the careful platings at Fins feel like a nice surprise, like the beautiful slices of onion that garnish Fins' sandwich plates, the way mussels have been arranged in the bowl, and the nice tossing a spinach salad gets before it's brought to the table. These things tell me that somebody cares. The "fresh catch" option, in which patrons choose a fish, a basic preparation (e.g., grilling, blackening), and a sauce, felt like a bore at Granite; now, it feels considerate.
The mussels make a great starter. For the same money, I'd rather have half as many mussels if they're plump and grit-free. These come with terrific garlic bread, although you'll need something more to mop up the white-wine garlic sauce. Lightly battered buffalo calamari were a good choice, a fun change from the old, fried preparation.
The spinach salad really impressed us with its homemade croutons and sunny egg quarters, its liberal sprinkling of real bacon pieces and its creamy black-pepper dressing. It made me think that an entree salad might be the thing to get next time.
Our big sandwiches impressed us, too. The jumbo shrimp really were jumbo, and lightly and freshly dressed in the very good shrimp salad sandwich, although I think that not even a good herbed focaccia roll is an improvement over a soft kaiser roll.
The steak sandwich didn't turn out to be as good as it looked. It was really just a thick New York strip on a roll, which sounds like a great idea, unless the meat is even a little bit tough and fatty, and this was. It was difficult to eat, and every bite was the same.
It's interesting how important it is for a restaurant to fit the ambience with its cuisine. Whereas the hip Granite set the table for a dining adventure it didn't follow through on, Fins, with its Margaritaville vibe, relaxed our expectations and ended up satisfying us. This was a smart makeover.
FINS ON THE SQUARE
Where: 2903 O'Donnell St.
Open: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily
Credit cards: AMEX, Visa, MasterCard, Discover
Food: ** 1/2
Ambience: ** 1/2
Service: ** 1/2
on the menu
* Ultimate meatball - $6.99
* Buffalo calamari - $9.99
* Wings - $7.99
* Spinach salad - $7.99
* Blackened chicken salad - $8.99
* Baby back ribs - $15.99
* N.Y. strip sandwich - $10.99
* Shrimp salad sandwich - $10.99
* Fresh catch - $17.99