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Still seeking the sizzle

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[Times photos: Krystal Kinnunen]
A chocolate martini, stuffed pork roulade, coconut pecan shrimp and banana caramel xango tempt the tastebuds at Saute Cafe.

By CHRIS SHERMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 24, 2002


Saute Cafe succeeds with pastas but needs to add pizazz to more entrees to make the concept work.

ST. PETERSBURG -- Saute Cafe started out last year with a little glitz, a smart location, hot skillets of pastas and stir fries and the dream of becoming a chain.

Not an unusual dream here, where restaurateurs go to bed with visions of Outbacks dancing in their heads.

Brian Storman already has tasted some success with chaining. The owner of Storman's Palace nightclub turned Fred Fleming's Famous Bar-B-Q from a single location on Fourth Street N in St. Petersburg into many in less than three years.

Not so fast this time.

Before cloning Saute Cafes, they have to get the first one right in concept and detail, and that will take some time, judging from my visits.

The apparent idea was to give the area a new smorgasbord from Italian to Asian and stromboli to wraps and make it hip enough to appeal to new-generation office workers caught between cubicle and club.

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Saute Cafe owners Brian Storman and Scott Mauro hope eventually to create a chain of restaurants serving hot skillets of pastas and stir fries.
The gimmick and name ties the foods together by the way it's cooked, sauteed in a skillet. Saute is a French word, but it's not that sexy. It is how most of us cook any night we throw a chicken breast and some tomatoes into a Teflon skillet on top of the stove.

If sauteing is such great shakes, why not have a an open kitchen to show it off? And why has perhaps half the menu come from an oak fire (grilled or baked on a stone) and the modern fernbar inventory?

Well, let's not get too picky. Much of the food does involves flame or smoke and hot iron, which makes for fun graphics. Borrow red and yellow neon, burnished aluminum and a Staff in Black from the club scene, and you have a place that calls itself "casually elegant" and still has a primal whiff of barbecue After Dark. What you have ultimately is the nonsteak version of cooking for guys, sort of Dish meets Saturday Night Fever.

Theory wouldn't be crucial in a place called Sawyer's or Moonlight, but it's the name of the game in a concept restaurant. And if the kitchen concentrated, it might do more things right.

On my first dinner last fall, the kitchen tried some fancy tricks: grilled skewers came in lettuce wraps, and filet mignon was decked out with an earthy wild mushroom puree, roasted asparagus and thyme butter.

This month, the asparagus was still there, but the lettuce wraps were gone and the filet came with nothing special, the same mashed potatoes and Polynesian (read sweet as a pineapple) vegetables as both other entrees at my table. But the wild mushrooms were still on the menu -- and so was the almost $20 price.

Pork roulade stuffed with spinach and feta shows some imagination (it may have been roasted and then sauteed), but the pork was dry and dull and the rum sauce weaker. Crab cakes were big and crab-heavy but too soft and mushy.

I and the kitchen had better luck with pastas, which made better one-skillet dishes. Chicken tossed with bowtie pasta, artichoke hearts and Marsala was heavy but a step in the right direction. Salmon and penne succeeded; the fish not overcooked, asparagus still crisp and sauce with lemon and dill you could still taste.

Accompaniments, likewise, ranged wildly between clumsy and clever, closer to the former. Onion loaf, another entry in Tampa Bay's "I'm Fryin', I'm Cryin' " contest, has some crisp nibble on the edges, but it's more lump than loaf. You'd need a table of eight and a couple of pitchers to finish it. Spinach dip added sun-dried tomatoes but achieved little distinction, and crab soup was gloppy. And while I liked the smoked chicken, cheese and tomatoes in the taquitos, I don't get the idea of rolling your own like miniature fajitas.

Yet house salads were a pleasant version of the modern greens, cheese and candied pecans staple, pecan-coconut crusted shrimp were big and crisp enough to be a world beater in that category (except for a too-sweet sauce) and the banana caramel cheesecake xango, a sweet gooey chimichanga, was wickedly fun.

Service from the large young staff was occasionally clueless but more often earnest and winning. Get the right host and server here, and you could want to come back.

Even so, you might be puzzled trying to describe this place to your friends. "It's like . . . Bennigan's, but they do these saute things and kebabs and . . . it's, you know, like a sushi bar in Ybor, not some old people's place in Largo."

For me, it's way too unfocused in its marketing and fuzzy in its food. Does it want to be creative or not?

If it does, I'd put more flash in the pan -- and less in the gimmicks.

Saute Cafe

  • 2325 Feather Sound Square, Suite 3, St. Petersburg
  • (727) 573-9177
  • Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight Friday, 4 to 11 p.m. Saturday.
  • Reservations: Yes
  • Credit cards: Most
  • Details: Full bar; no smoking.
  • Prices: Lunch, $5.50 to $10.50; dinner, $9.50 to $24
  • Special features: Outdoor seating

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490 First Avenue South • St. Petersburg, FL 33701 • 727-893-8111

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