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Redwoods takes root

A new chef gives the St. Petersburg restaurant, which has struggled with its menu, a much-needed focus.

Published January 1, 2004

[Times photos: Lara Cerri]
Jason Orchard, the new chef at Redwoods, holds a “small plate” dish: Confit of Duck, Sweet Vermouth, Wilted Greens and Basil Oil.

Seared Yellowfin Tuna, Black Pepper Caramel, Napa Cabbage, Mango Relish and Miso.

ST. PETERSBURG - Redwoods opened with a flash of Hawaiian fusion five years ago, instilling hope that downtown St. Petersburg might support a truly modern restaurant.

It did not, and Redwoods drifted around the Pacific Rim for a while, then got lost in a Nuevo Latino menu mishmash. But start the buzz again. The newly revamped Redwoods is the slickest effort yet from downtown dreamers Emmanuel Roux and Franck Bouvard.

Newly arrived chef Jason Orchard has installed a shorter menu of only seven entrees, focused on modern standards, but with cool, subtle riffs. It's rather like the best straight-ahead jazz: stuff you know and like, and it's simple enough to be done well.

Plenty of restaurants serve swordfish, but how many stack a couple of medallions on a hash of corn fresh from the skillet and set it off with a scoop of avocado whipped lighter than air? Or do up a filet mignon with Swiss chard and a jam of caramelized shallots? Or pair a crusty pork chop with cheese grits, charred tomato and a sage sauce?

This cooking falls into what might be called New/Old American cuisine. It strives for sophistication as well as comfort by giving old favorites touches of gourmet skill (or at least infused oils) and borrowing lightly from the cookbooks of Asia, Europe and Latin America. And it comes at moderate prices (the pork chop and chicken are $17).

There's also a creamy paint job and an engaging gallery of Marlene Christiano's found-object assemblages. Only in place a month, the revised Redwoods already is drawing an appreciative crowd.

Orchard's Redwoods is not perfected, but the themes are clear and promising enough to celebrate the start of 2004.

He adds an Atkins-sensitive emphasis on greens, beans and other potato alternatives and has fun with original dressings such as soy consomme, gazpacho butter and black pepper caramel (I wish he were even bolder and more generous with them). The kitchen plates most dishes in lusty stacks rather than too-pretty-to-eat arrangements.

My best appetizer was an appropriately creamy risotto punched up with grilled fennel and bright, fresh pesto and then gilded with truffle oil. Hot tuna tartare was handsome but not as exciting, despite an endless ribbon of marinated cucumber and a touch of fiery siracha chili sauce.

In salads, go for the greens with crispy fries and skip the spinach; it wasn't warm or generous with Maytag blue cheese, bacon or apples and wasn't worth $7 by half.

For a great twist on holiday meat and potatoes, have the roast duck breast (get it medium rare) on a snowy mountain of mashed parsnips, with bit of fresh cranberry and a touch of eggplant salad; the last would be better if it were more tender as in caponata, but it still beats cherries and oranges.

Salmon also gets a refreshing revamp in something of a clambake, baked and served over squash and carrots with a broth of mussels, and a dash of truffles. The swordfish and corn was a clever juggling of old American themes, but it would have been more to my liking with one thick steak instead of two slabs; that way you can char it without losing the juice.

Redwoods still needs good bread and a more imaginative run of desserts. Servers were short-handed on my last visit, but the kitchen and the valiant one-man effort on the floor kept food moving swiftly nonetheless.

Eventually there will be nightly specials and, soon, a revised menu for Appeteasers, Redwoods' annex of sushi, tapas and other small plates.

But I've already tasted enough to toast Redwoods as a sign of a happier new year.


247 Central Ave., St. Petersburg

(727) 896-9118 Hours: 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 5:30 to 11 p.m. Friday, Saturday.

Reservations: Suggested

Details: Full bar, credit cards, wheelchair-accessible; no smoking.

Prices: Entrees, $17 to $27.

[Last modified December 30, 2003, 09:40:59]

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