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Old World charm and food

Six Tables opens in Gulfport with its most picturesque setting and a standard Continental menu that doesn't take advantage of opportunities to punch things up.

By CHRIS SHERMAN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 6, 2003

GULFPORT -- Maybe in Gulfport's Gilded Age -- the town must have had one -- dining was like this, pure old-fashioned white tablecloth dining. Maybe when the Bayview Hotel and the last century were new and the town was still Veterans City, or when the Gulfport Casino roared through the '20s and swung into the '30s and '40s.

But dining wasn't very often like this: six courses on antique china on white linens in a private dining room with the chef and host at your table. And it certainly hasn't been like this very often now.

Which is what inspired Roland Levi, a veteran private chef who retired to Dunedin to create the first such establishment five years ago: six tables, six courses, one price (now $60), all diners seated at once. It was somewhere between a Titanic dinner (remember them?) and a large dinner party hosted by Roland and his wife, Gail.

Six Tables has grown to four locations, confirming that big spenders in the Tampa Bay area have an appetite for Continental food and traditional ways. And there's certainly a new hunger for exclusivity. (The restaurant serves many private parties and corporate functions.)

The newest restaurant has the most charming setting. Lots of hard labor has transformed the Bayview from boarded-up eyesore into the Peninsula Inn & Spa (and in a bit of silliness, an embassy of the fictitious Kingdom of Mandalay). The new/old hotel, decked out in white shingles and striped awnings, is a proud presence at the center of Gulfport's reborn art district.

Down a first-floor hallway is a small parlor (perhaps a salon, although the swinging door to the kitchen suggests saloon) and six tables of varying size.

The toughest part is trying to clone the charm of the Levis, who can welcome guests with a hint of a European accent, avuncular grace and tales of feeding the rich and famous (and, by extension, you).

Playing the role of the Levis in Gulfport are chef Tommy Sapp and host Lance Vorberg, who tell more modern stories. Sapp is a St. Petersburg native who worked for Emeril Lagasse in New Orleans and cooked at the Fairmont in San Francisco before heading to Redwoods in St. Petersburg. Vorberg is a Canadian pastry chef who came to Florida and also worked at Redwoods. They're thrilled to be at the hotel, piloting its yacht and showing off $149-a-night suites.

I don't know how their bonhomie plays to a crowd because on the night of my visit, other reservations had fallen through, and they devoted all their energies to two privileged diners.

Their more modern experience does not come through in the food, except for a crusty lavender bread and Sapp's favorite bottle of moscato d'Asti after dinner. The meal follows the basic Continental outline, already retro when Six Tables started.

Main courses do include rack of boar and venison, but the rest are much tamer stuff: duck a l'orange, rack of lamb, chateaubriand and salmon with lemon and capers. It's disappointing to see young restaurateurs saddled with such a menu. A place this small could seek out fresh local fish, source nifty produce and make clever sauces.

But if you think that modern culinary creativity is out of hand, are bored with fusion and rustic flavors, you'll be glad to be back on solid ground. The fun at Six Tables is in the parade of courses and the trimmings, constantly changing plates, silver crescent dishes for bones and, wow, Laguiole knives for slicing your meat. (My inner yuppie doesn't need a $350 set of handmade French cutlery, but I could work up a lust for these.)

For us it began with a Sapp lagniappe, a cute spoonful of mildly curried chicken with sliced apple, followed by a thick lobster bisque, one of the most luscious tricks in the Continental canon.

Salad was romaine and asparagus with grated Romano, a near Caesar dressing and a Thai orchid, succeeded by a sherry glass with a scoop of lemon sorbet topped with lime zest. Both refreshing and pretty to look at, but old-hat stuff easy to update.

I had to have boar, a rare treat served on long Frenched ribs. Firm and almost red, it was tender to the tooth with a lean, savory edge, more like venison than beef or pork. Green peppercorn sauce, served on the venison as well, was a dull pairing. I'd have tried something woodsier, maybe with rosemary, juniper or good mushrooms. Duck was a solid version of the standard, crisply crusted and orange sauce not cloyingly sweet, but it still was a tired choice for me.

More disappointing was that duck and boar came with the same two slices of roasted potatoes, carrot sticks, florets of broccoli and cauliflower. Good kitchens match better sides to each dish.

About the time you hit the two-hour mark, the cheese plate arrives, the best part of classic dining for me. Six Tables serves cheese at the right temperature, although the selections that night were pedestrian. For grand style, I'd offer a wedge of Roquefort with a knife instead of a chunk of Danish bleu, and I'd skip the walnut cheese.

Dinner's not over until you get a small plate of Belgian puff pastries filled with ice cream. They're a tribute to founder Levi's homeland, and they're delicious with fresh berries and hot caramel sauce that just might stick to your fingers when no one's looking.

Yet, this is a night for decent manners and nice clothes, to match the good china and the serious bill. Throw in wine (a few are from $30 to $40, including bright southern Rhones) and tip, and it'll cost more than $150 for two.

That's a big ticket, but if you dream of grand old ways and intimate dining, it buys a trip to a time and place we rarely visit.

Six Tables

at the Peninsula Inn & Spa

2937 Beach Blvd.


(locations also in Dunedin, Largo and Tampa)

(727) 346-9806

Hours: One seating nightly at 7 Tuesday through Saturday, by reservation only.

Details: No smoking; wine in restaurant, full bar available in hotel. Wheelchair accessible.

Prices: $60 per person, plus wine, tax and tip.

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