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A Grand year for food

photo
[Times photo: Michael Rondou]
Chef John Shields, right, and sous chef Michael Stewart are framed by art at Grand Finale.

By CHRIS SHERMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 2, 2003


That's not an overstatement. St. Petersburg's Grand Finale leads the way in area dining by offering the future of American cooking.

Just when my search for the best on the dining scene seemed darkest -- and this was a dark year of tough economic times and tougher competition that saw good chefs and restaurants fail and others stop trying -- I dropped in on Grand Finale.

This spot, hidden in the shadows of St. Petersburg's downtown boom, has been a favorite for a long time, mostly because of the indomitable spirit of owner Brian Wellman.

Starting five years ago with little more than his energy and taste, Wellman took a dreary location and built an oasis of style and life that shines well past midnight. All that, far from BayWalk and almost despite the arrival of baseball.

That gift of urbanity alone ought to earn Wellman the keys to the city's heart, but what was once a triumph of style has steadily acquired delicious substance. The exquisite cooking from young John Shields -- oversized white plates and bowls showing off the likes of crab cakes on codfish mashed potatoes and Sweet 100 tomatoes, prime beef with with foie gras, bacon and a jelly of shallots -- is now the most impressive modern food on either side of the bay.

If you want a taste of the future of American cooking, where the best restaurants and chefs in the country have headed after exploring California and sampling the world, go to Grand Finale. Shields has learned to make empanadas, season with cumin, pickle lemons and insist on fresh fish and vegetables, but the result is not an explosive fusion. Rather, they become subtle flavors in a harmonious balance.

The flavors are robust and earthy, drawn from fresh fish, sturdy meats, duck and game, whole eggs, thick bacon and the entire breadth of beans, greens and grains found on the farm. They are cooked in ways used by generations of French and Italian chefs and frontier cooks: roasted, grilled, braised and crisped in ways that remember fire and smoke. Sauces are profound and deep. Presentation is not fussy, and meals are not heavy. The tastes are rich in modest portions -- a good balance.
My standards: strict,
not pricey
I know there are restaurant critics who go out, determined to be unsatisfied, but I can't do it. I can't look forward to a bad meal. When I go into a restaurant I enter the same way you do, hoping to have good food and a good time -- and get my money's worth.

Grand Finale's success signals another promising change. With the return of Christopher Ponte from New York and Paris to set up the cafe that bears his name in Largo, dining in Pinellas has reached a new level, where the best is equal to the best on the Tampa side, and on occasion better.

That said, the growth of chains throughout the area showed a big appetite for the bland and well-branded. That was bad news for independent restaurateurs at the high end of the menu: Chandler's and Aqua Blue closed. Perch, O Bistro, Bellarte and Blue Gardenia lowered their sights. That unhappy trend calls for longer rumination, and there will be time. The trend is not going away.

Yet, there were more appetizing and promising trends this year:

-- The title of "Bistro" hangs outside more restaurants, and an increasing number translate it properly into places that are as good as they are casual.

-- Speaking of bistros, French flavors and techniques got new prominence after a long absence. Italian remains the most popular. Sushi is now ubiquitous. Middle Eastern and authentic Mexican are the most intriguing new flavors.

-- Good food gets cheaper as some of our best eating is at bakeries, ethnic groceries and takeaways.

-- Restaurateurs won't quit trying new ideas. Bern's Steak House has revised its menu for the first time in 50 years, and B.T. Nguyen is ready to open a noodle house. Key West's Sloppy Joe's has opened in Treasure Island, and Gulfport has Six Tables serving the Dunedin Continental concept.

I had hoped that my annual search for the best dining in the Tampa Bay area might grow this year, perhaps from last year's Top 30 to a Top 40. But after eating my way through 2002, the list of our best came up one short, leaving us with a Top 29. If you have one that deserves consideration next year, let me know.

For now, here are my best. Enjoy.

THE VERY BEST,
FROM START TO FINALE

Grand Finale

1101 First Ave. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 823-9921.
photo
[Times photo: Michael Rondou]
Grand Finale features fine cuisine and fine art. Sometimes they are one and the same. On the plate: Sashimi of Beef Tenderloin. On the wall: Hot House by St. Petersburg artist David Williams.

Find this place and taste the 21st century: simple, warm and exciting. Retro graphic paintings, lacquer red barroom and late-night munchies are precious rarities to be sure, but stay for John Shield's exquisite cooking. Start with the best salad in town, greens with a poached egg and shavings of Serrano ham, or indulge in squab seasoned with a no-fear combination of sage and grapes, or perfectly crusted tilefish. Finish with the "coffee and doughnuts" homage to Napa Valley's famed French Laundry.

Add the area's most genuine service, a smart wine list and a lively crowd of artists, pool players and foodies of all ages, and you'll want to stay all night.

BEST COOKING, BAKING UNDER $10 ANYWHERE

Pane Rustica

2821 S MacDill Ave., Tampa; (813) 902-8828.

Fabulous artisanal bread, great lunches and the best counter service is more than enough. Yet every week, Kevin K adds something: a fig prosciutto sandwich, squash soup, a pizza with salmon egg salad and caviar, and last I checked, lollipop pork chops. Join the crowd and find what's likely to be the best food of your week at any price.

BEST ITALIAN, NORTH, SOUTH, WHITE TABLECLOTH OR RED-CHECKED

Spartaco Trattoria

3215 S MacDill Ave., Suite B, Tampa; (813) 832-9327.

Spartaco Giolito tries to stick to his roots in Rimini, the best of Emilia Romagna plus a love of seafood. There's nothing formal in the setting, but big shrimp, handmade pasta, mixed grills and personalized service are luxury enough.
photo
[Times photo: Cherie Diez]
Seafood tiramisu is among the menu bargains at D’Amico Pasta Grill.

BEST NEIGHBORHOOD ITALIAN WITH LOBSTER TIRAMISU

D'amico Pasta Grill

11002 Fourth Street N, St. Petersburg; (727) 577-9191.

Two Guys Who Were Chefs at Twice the Prices have cast their lots with pizzas, calzones, fettuccine Alfredo and linguini with clam sauce. Ralph Sitero and Steve Cook make them fresh and right without stinting. They also set new standards for antipasto, panna cotta and cannoli.

BEST UPSTAGING BY THE NEW GENERATION

photo
[ Photo courtesy SideBern’s]
SideBern’s is hip with a global outlook. Credit chef Jeannie Pierola.

SideBern's

2208 W Morrison Ave., Tampa; (813) 258-2233.

A block down the street from the venerable Bern's Steak House, its wild-eyed offspring is where Jeanie Pierola has filled bread baskets with harissa and kalamatas, stacked up new-age dim sum and patented her Global Cuisine. Behind the galangal, truffles, macadamia and mint, the kitchen does the basics -- fish, risotto, killer desserts and even beef -- handsomely. Wine, too, is up to the parent's standards, a smaller list but just as smart.

BEST REASON FOR LOCALS TO EAT IN A HOTEL

Rusty's

Sheraton Sand Key Resort, 1160 Gulf Blvd., Clearwater Beach; (727) 595-1611.

While tourists go for the buffet, we know -- or should -- that the unsung chefs here crank out the most creative seasonal fare on the beaches. Sea bass is done up with fennel and lentils, and filet mignon gets a silky corn sauce. Do nibble around the edges; the house pates, souffles and martinis all have the distinct style of John Harris and team.

BEST IMITATION OF CHINATOWN

T.C. Choy's

301 S Howard Ave., Tampa; (813) 251-1191.

With dim sum carts rolling daily, live fish in tanks next to the kitchen and Peking duck on demand (no 24-hour waiting), this is as Chinese as it gets short of Chinatown on either coast. It combines the fresh supplies of the vast Oceanic grocery with white table cloths, blond wood and slick lines.

BEST TASTE OF HAWAII AND FRANCE WITHOUT JET LAG

Roy's

4342 W Boy Scout Blvd., Tampa; (813) 873-7697.

So it's not local, but we can be glad such a chain landed here. The islands' celebrity chef paired with Outback to give its hometown a delicious lesson in modern cooking: great fish from opakapaka to sturgeon, vibrant Asian spices, a radical wine list. It's smoothed out by aloha service, sauces made from classic French technique and a worldwide pantry of ginger, stout, poppy seed, nam pla and more. Rice never tasted so good.
photo
[Times photo: Jamie Francis]
Pacific Wave bowls you over with dishes such as chicken lo mein stir fry with cashews, shiitake mushrooms, baby bok choy and Asian noodles.

BEST PACIFIC RIM SHOTS OFF THE GULF

Pacific Wave

211 Second St. S, St. Petersburg; (727) 822-5235.

Off the main drag, Peter Tanhnavong gives downtown slices of St. Petersburg's secret hip side as sharp as the sushi and sashimi and as rare as Hawaiian nairagi. From smoked beef tataki to crab cakes and the dangerous chocolate lava cake, it's beautiful food you want to eat. Service is equally smooth.

BEST INTERSECTION OF CLASSIC FRENCH CUISINE AND U.S. 19

photo
[Times photo: Jim Damaske]
John and Cathie Koch are the J-A-C-K behind Jack’s Bistro in Palm Harbor.

Jack's Bistro

31876 U.S. 19 N, Palm Harbor; (727) 784-1881.

The plainness of the name underscores that French cooking at its best is simple food done well, like a steak with mashed potatoes enriched with creme fraiche. Jack's delivers bouillabaisse, poached pears, chocolate pate, good soups and slick sauces, and it's not even on a charming country road.

MOST IMPROVED DINING: MIDDLE EASTERN

Byblos

2832 S MacDill Ave., Tampa; (813) 805-7977.

Hummus, kebabs, yogurt and such we've had, but never as refined as they've been installed in this handsome restaurant in a tony shopping/dining district. Homemade yogurt, labneh, fava beans, fattouch salad, grape leaves and lamb get the first-rate presentation they deserve on the plate and in this minimalist jewel box of a restaurant.

BEST NEW RESTAURANT OF 2003 -- AND THE BEST MID PINELLAS HAS TASTED IN YEARS

photo
[Times photo: Michael Rondou]
Chris Ponte, the chef and proprietor of Cafe Ponte, toasts his featured dish, Moroccan Lamb Shank, which is made with apricots and sesame-seed dates.

Cafe Ponte

13505 Icot Blvd., Suite 214, Largo; (727) 538-5768.

Ten years after Chris Ponte left Clearwater's Pepper Mill for the bright lights and stockpots of the best of Paris and New York, he has returned with a triumph you can taste. The room is spare and suave, the wines sophisticated and the cooking smooth. Other menus may have coconut shrimp, sesame tuna and lacquered salmon, but not with such grace and flavor. Ponte's walnut-crusted lamb with butternut squash, truffled mushroom soup, roasted beet salad and fig tarts are specialties.

BEST FRENCH BISTRO, BLACKBOARD AND ALL

photo
[Times photo: Carrie Pratt]
Braised Lamb Shanks, foreground, are always on hand at Le Bouchon, a decidedly French bistro.

Le Bouchon

796 Indian Rocks Road, Belleair Bluffs; (727) 585-9777.

Peter Leonavicius and Dominique Christini have painted their bistro sunshine yellow but kept the essentials: open all day long for coffee, pastries, sandwiches, crepes, pastes and heartier daily fare. Lamb shanks, duck confit, stuffed chicken and French sausages are always on hand; steak au poivre and coq au vin are there when you're lucky. The best of the wines are from Christini's southern France.

BEST MONUMENT TO THE GROUPER SANDWICH

Dockside Dave's

13203 Gulf Blvd., Madeira Beach; (727) 392-9399.

This is the little sandwich place that could. The grouper is big and boat-fresh, cooked in front of you with big tomatoes, great fries and equally warm service. If we ever need to ration grouper, this place stays, screen doors and all.

THE CAL RIPKEN AWARD FOR CONSTANTLY CHANGING MENUS

Mise en Place

442 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa; (813) 254-5373.

Menus that change with the chef's ingredients and whims daily or weekly were rare when Marty Blitz started 15 years ago, and they still are. Yet, through thick and thin, his imagination has nevered flagged. The slim set can count on spa fish with grilled vegetables and salads of couscous and who-knows; carnivores rely on the mixed grill. The rest of us take wicked pleasure in two dozen starters and entrees that weren't there before: tuna with charred tomatoes, vanilla-rubbed scallops, duck with cactus and zinfandel, with a jungle of fruits, veggies and grains in a world of constructions. Latest sighting: orzotto.

BEST RESTAURANT IN A TAKE-HOME BAG

The Ravioli Company

2202 W Platt St., Tampa; (813) 254-2051.

Two of our best culinary talents, chef Dwight Otis and pasta diva Lauren Otis, don't really have a restaurant, just a few seats outside. But it's still a gourmet destination. If you can boil water, take home her lobster ravioli or lemongrass linguine cut to order. If you can't, get his sirloin lasagne. Call ahead -- and bring a cooler.

BEST CUBAN FOOD YOU CAN DANCE TO

Pipo's Latin Cafe

238 E Davis Blvd., Tampa; (813) 258-8100.
photo
[Times photo: Krystal Kinnunen 2001]
Mystic Fish stands out in North Pinellas on the strength of dishes including, clockwise from middle, baked scallops on the half shell with dynamite sauce, South African lobster tail and grilled Chilean sea bass.

A steam table at any Pipo's in town has a marathon of juicy roast pork; the oven never stops. Pipo's latest spot adds outdoor dining and drinking in the evening brisas at the center of Davis Islands and on weekends dancing under the stars to the best Latin band this side of Buena Vista Social Club.

BEST SEAFOOD IN THE SUBURBS

Mystic Fish

3253 Tampa Road, Palm Harbor; (727) 771-1800. Contemporary decor, a small but smart wine list and a local catch of amberjack, hog snapper and such make Mystic stand out in North Pinellas. Yet, you can still depend on bouillabaisse, lobster and sherried fish chowder from veteran restaurateur Eugen Fuhrman.

BEST OF MANY REASONS TO EAT REAL MEXICAN FOOD

Mexico Lindo

812 Court St., Clearwater; (727) 443-5892.
photo
[Times photo: John Pendygraft 2000]
The grill is filled with tortillas being warmed for tacos during the lunch rush at Mexico Lindo Market in Clearwater.

This grocery squeezes in a few booths and folding chairs between aisles of salsa and norteno CDs, and its tacos are overstuffed with authentic flavor, too. You can get tacos packed with lamb, chicken, chorizo and all kinds of beef and pork, plus stews and sopas on weekends. Stop here or at any of the taquerias, bakeries and butcher shops feeding our booming Mexican community in Clearwater and beyond. You won't want the other stuff again.

AS CLOSE TO NEW YORK AS YOU DESERVE

Lucky Dill

2800 Alt. U.S. 19 N, Palm Harbor; (727) 789-5574.

477 N Ashley Drive, Tampa; (813) 222-3455.

You want clatter, clutter and kvetching, you'll get it here. And monstrous corned beef and pastrami, chopped beef, big bowls of matzo ball soup and a case full of fresh pastries you shouldn't think of touching. It all moves faster than the A train, especially at Lucky Dill's newest stop in downtown Tampa. You want better? Not in this town.

MOST UNLIKELY HOME FOR A BISTRO

photo
[Times photo:
Scott Keeler 1999]
Chef James Shields prepares tuna at Seminole’s Boulevard Bistro, where the menu is smart and casual.

Boulevard Bistro

8595 Seminole Blvd., Seminole; (727) 399-1800.

Yet, after almost four years, smart casual food -- oyster stews, Cuban Reubens, lavash and hummus, steaks with chimichurri -- are at home in this forlorn stretch. Frank Chivas and chef James Shields have a place where service is sharp, prices easy and wines inviting. Locals stop in lunch, dinner, inside, outside all day. Plus, the fries are crisp enough to call French.

BEST FRESHNESS IN FISH -- AND IDEAS

Keegan's

1519 Gulf Blvd., Indian Rocks Beach; (727) 596-2477.

The most unassuming place on the beach has the most imaginative chef in Michael Garcia. Have your beer and Buffalo shrimp, grouper sandwich linguini and clams, or go way beyond. Check the blackboard for wahoo with a banana crust or new tricks with amberjack. There's always good gumbo, ceviche, octopus with feta, Jamaican jerk seafood in foil, and Parmesan mahi and black bean salsa. Fisherfolk eat here; so should you.

BEST PRIX FIXE, LEAST PRETENSE BARGAIN

La Cachette

321 Gulf Blvd., Indian Rocks Beach; (727) 596-5439.

Continental cooking survives on the beach with charm in this intimate restaurant, where the Jacksons still cook with cognac and brioche, like dinner with your aunt the gourmet. Make reservations, bring cash and your own wine, and $35 buys three courses of goodies such as duck confit, lamb chops and pork encroute, rare treats of lamb kidneys and sweetbreads, or heriloom butter pie from Canada.

BEST STIR FRY OF ART AND HOME COOKING

Green Springs Cafe and Gathering Place

122 Third Ave. N, Safety Harbor; (727) 669-6762.

An artsy small town deserves an art restaurant. Paul Kapsalis' cooking -- old Greek pizza, roasted chickens, salmon-lobster "sacks," thick soups and cobblers -- are made with care, not fuss. They show as much warmth and whimsy as the big green dragonfly bike rack out front and the rest of the art.

BEST STEAKHOUSE WHERE YOU LEAST EXPECT IT

Salt Rock Grill

19325 Gulf Blvd., Indian Shores; (727) 593-7625.

You could come for seafood, but high fliers and smart snowbirds come for beef steaks. Even the meatloaf stacked with onion rings wows you. That 1,200-degree fire pit has as much flash as the broad view of the Intracoastal Waterway and the wildest modern design on the southern beaches. Look for bone-in cuts and pluck grilled corn, chimichurri sauce, lobster tails and upside down apple pie from the sides. The wine list is long, fair and supported by a see-through cellar; the bar stocks five-star rums, two dozen single malts and cognacs up to $125 a pour.

BEST REWARD FOR AN UNDERGROUND GOURMET

Ben Thanh

2880 34th St. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 522-6623. If you like to eat with fingers, explore endless menus, frequent dreary strip centers and save money, Ben Thanh has a banquet for you. Here the fresh, playful flavors of Vietnam go well beyond pho soups and bun salads. Glazed quail, veal, frog legs and catfish stew have spark, salt, sour and sweetness. Plus, there's a playground of appetizers wrapped in leaves, rice noodles and crepes. Try something new.

BEST RESTAURANT FOR PINELLAS TRAIL RUNNERS IN BLACK TIE

Black Pearl

315 Main St., Dunedin; (727) 734-3463.

This intimate room feels like a snug fit of gray flannel. The china is pastel depression glass, but the food is fresh and modern. Mark Hrycko indulges in Asian and Italian flavors while keeping classics from duck to calves liver in polished sauces. Count on personal service. And don't miss the black ice cream.

MOST STYLE ON A BUDGET

Cafe B.T.

3324 Gandy Blvd., Tampa; (813) 831-9254.

This is the home base of B.T. Nguyen, a one-woman powerhouse of style who has put flair and matching flavor on our Asian menus. Here it's a black and white boite where French and Vietnamese dishes wear gourmet dress, from lobster in Dubonnet to canh cua tom. She also does earthy Pan Asian tapas in a feng shui triumph at Yellow Door and will soon offer her take on a staple at Noodle Lounge.

BEST REASONS TO STAND IN LINE IN GULFPORT

Backfin Blue Cafe

2913 Beach Blvd. S, Gulfport; (727) 343-2583.

The first would be the namesake crab as Harold Russell fashions it into crab cakes, chowder and crab anything-else. The second would be prime beef more than an inch thick for the less crabby among your party. Other charms include meatloaf, fine vegetables and the best eatin' front porch in Little Bohemia by the Bay.

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