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A home-cooked harvest

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[Times photo: Jim Damaske]
Mindy Poulin, left, and Joe Franz, right, gather up food for delivery to diners at Country Harvest restaurant in Clearwater.

By CHRIS SHERMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 28, 2002


It may be ever so humble, but the food served at Country Harvest deserves extra credit for the extra care the kitchen gives it.

CLEARWATER -- Across mid- and north Pinellas many restaurants fall into a category called "family," although the customers often don't.

Occasionally a clump of kinfolk fill up a table or three. Often it's a no-kids couple or a loner sitting at the counter for a cup of coffee that comes without latte, or maybe a beer with a bit of "Dear" hospitality.

Folks come here for a taste of the mythic American family that sits down, not to a pizza box or a bag of takeout tacos, but to a bowl of homemade soup, half-pound pork chops, chicken walnut salad and liver and onions for those that like them, too.

Don't sneer at these places for everyday food. That's a compliment to the hustle and endurance of the crews who deliver three squares a day. And quite a fantasy: a daily serving of an open-faced hot roast beef sandwich, white bread, mashed potatoes and brown gravy.

Such places don't get much credit beyond the bittersweet flattery of imitation by a dozen chains, many of which have failed. But, sadly, some have succeeded in stealing customers.

Country Harvest, in a big yellow and white faux barn in an Albertson's parking lot, might deserve extra credit just for succeeding in a spot where Bob Evans closed up seven years ago.

The distinction that matters to me is that Jim Trizis and the kitchen take extra care about food.

Steaks are hand-cut from certified Angus beef; turkey is roasted whole; salads, tossed or mini-Greek, have extra greens mixed in with the iceberg; the chalkboard lists a dozen specials daily, which just might include walleyed pike or potato pancakes.

Besides the cobbler and rack of pies, there's, you guessed it, tiramisu. And, just in case you care, there's a full bar, serving cocktails as well as beer and wine. Inglenook merlot's tolerable and priced right: two glasses for $4.95.

Country Harvest comes with standard trimmings. The prices seem at least 10 years out of date: 12-ounce ribeyes are always $10.99, and sometimes steak and eggs are only $3.99. The decor is just as dated, very brown but with local painting instead of cute 'n' quaint gewgaws. The exterior looks bright enough to be a chain, but it's not, just part of an old tradition of straightforward restauranting. (And maybe a family bent: The owner's brother runs the Country Skillet in Largo with similar zeal.)

Sit at the counter for a view of the kitchen, the expediter and the servers moving the food and you'll see the customary -- and still remarkable -- hustle and warmth of any busy kitchen. At any seat you're likely to sense in your server an extra measure of pride.

It's appropriate. A few dishes were ordinary at best, but more often I found surprising touches. The chicken soup's broth could cure the flu, and the orzo would bolster the puny, but I was more impressed to see pieces of real chicken and chunks of whole carrots (not labor-saving carrottes).

My ribeye didn't get nouvelle presentation, but there was a hefty marinated mushroom, a heftier onion ring, plenty of juice and one of my favorite sides, baked sweet potatoes and a cup of brown sugar. Steak's the real thing but cut thin for me; this is one time filet mignon's a better choice, especially if your tastes are on the rare side.

A large platter of fish, scallops and shrimp, broiled not fried, had the standard lemon butter and paprika sprinkling, yet there was something different: The fish was properly cooked, moist and tender, not the least overdone, a rarity here at any price level. Pasta alfredo with blackened chicken, however, got it wrong both ways with the pasta overcooked to chicken-noodle soft and chicken breast strips cooked until they were dry.

But turkey came from a real bird, not some plastic-wrapped breast run through the slicer. "You want white, dark or mixed?" are magic words. Dark turkey meat with thick gravy over stuffing when Thanksgiving is not in sight is one of the reasons you go to a family restaurant.

Vegetables, at least a post-1960 idea of vegetables still green with nutrients, are not. Baked sweet potatoes, however, are quite good for you, and I do go for green beans cooked a year and a day (that's family to me). I am long over cafeteria broccoli that's reached the same olive drab. Cross your fingers for the beans (or maybe okra or succotash).

For dessert, key lime pie is close to traditional but not tart enough; apple or berry cobbler a la mode shouldn't be passed up.

At breakfast carnivores are tempted by eggs (three extra large) and one of four or five steaks and the possibility of Benedict on the specials board, but the choices for sweet tooths are tougher: pancakes, extra thick French toast or malted waffles. I vote for waffles loaded with walnuts.

On checks, there's a sign of smart modern management: The register's computer provides a handy calculation of the tip at 15 percent and at 20.

Err on the side of generosity. These people sure do. And at these prices you can afford it.

Country Harvest

  • 1285 Missouri Ave.
  • Clearwater
  • (727) 466-0241
  • Hours: 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, Saturday.
  • Reservations: No
  • Credit cards: Most major
  • Details: Full bar; nonsmoking section provided; wheelchair access.
  • Features: Children's menu; takeout.
  • Prices: Breakfast, $2.29 to $10.99; Lunch and dinner, $3.99 to $12.99

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