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My standards: strict, not pricey

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

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

Not that it's easy. I go through spells -- as do you -- when restaurant after restaurant disappoints. Yet even when I've had a bad first meal, I optimistically hope for better next time.

In picking the best restaurants in the Tampa Bay area, I have looked at the places I enjoyed, revisited many and picked those that met my highest standards. Many did not, including some of our most expensive and many that pleased me in the past.

Here's what it takes to be the best:

1. Food. It may be anachronistic to some, but keeping food first quickly eliminates the pretenders.

Good cooking in restaurants, as at home, starts with good ingredients. They do not have to be prime steaks, foie gras and pea shoots. What counts is making sure whatever food is chosen is quality. Flying fish in from Hawaii is cool; making sure you get fresh local fish is just as important.

I want variety, too. The best restaurants have many cuts of meat, bone-in steaks, chops, shanks and leg quarters. The fish selection goes beyond salmon, sea bass and mahi to include amberjack, wahoo, tile fish, rock shrimp and big scallops, and the staff can tell you where they all came from.

Vegetables can be heirloom babies, or not: A kitchen that cares stocks hard squashes, beans, lentils, fresh corn and uses tomatoes only when they're ripe. If you want fancy, fennel's not expensive and Asian markets are full of fresh herbs and wing beans.

Good cooks do more than grill and saute; they can roast, make stock, fry tuiles, make sausage and their own ice cream. And of course bake. There's no better -- or cheaper -- sign of quality in a kitchen than bread, even if it's as simple as hot biscuits, or the chef knowing where to buy a loaf of crusty bread.

The best cooks make soups as rich as a full-course meal, they make smooth sauces as deep in flavor as a cabernet or as delicate as a rose. Whether they use recipes from Asian teahouses or American farmsteads, royalty or peasants, the essence of cooking is the same.

I have standards about drinks, too, and they often go unmet even at the best establishments. Coffee and espresso should be hot; water for tea should be hot and served in a ceramic pot. Wine lists ought to be understandable and more varied than cabernet, merlot and chardonnay; the best seek out syrahs, grenache, viognier, modest Italians, bargain Spanish and Oregon surprises. However large, the wine list should have a modest markup and a selection for less than $30 that's just as savvy as the higher-priced bottles. Beers ought to run from mainstream to microbrews, with the best locals. At the bar, clever martinis and big-bucks cognacs rarely wow me; a good range of Caribbean rums or a bottle of amontillado sherry does.

Service: The human ingredient is crucial. At the best restaurants, that starts at the door. Even if you're alone or without a reservation, you should be met with warmth, not attitude. At the table, you should meet the same friendliness and generosity plus knowledge of, and pride in, the food. The best servers have tasted everything, know what they like and how it's made.

They also have a special intuition of how much attention you need and can tolerate. And they package leftovers discreetly.

Great service, like food, can be found at any price level, and the hard-working counter help at a modest joint may have the edge.

Value: When I sort out the best, I don't consider high or low prices as much as value. The best leave you without complaint about the money spent, splurge or bargain. At least one-third of my best are places where you'll spend $15 or less for good food and better treatment than you find at many restaurants at twice the price.

Still, price does set a standard for me -- and for you. The more they charge, the tougher we are. Around the Tampa Bay area, when an appetizer hits $10 or dinner for two is $100, we expect the best and forgive little.

DECOR AND AMBIENCE: A matter of taste, of course, and mine is eclectic. In pricey restaurants, I enjoy sophistication and simplicity with smart color choices, live plants and striking photos and paintings. But I don't mind wacky '50s retro, tables made from old doors, or picnic benches under oak trees. Mostly, I like looks that reflect more personality than prepackaged concept. Whatever the style, it ought to be clean and in good repair. Otherwise, how can we trust in what's going on in parts of the restaurant we can't see?

Sharp decor and slick sounds, including those of an open kitchen, are an extra pleasure to me, although to many modern diners, they are not a priority. Recreating bowling-shirt New Jersey, prewar Little Italy, colonial Mexico or skate punk with Disney detail is now the chief triumph of corporate designers -- and a clear crowd-pleaser.

Crowd: I wish I could say that all my favorites had been rewarded with smart and lively trade, but that's not up to me. That's where you come in.

Or don't. We may have different standards.

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