Arts & Entertainment
tampabay.com
Print storySubscribe to the Times

Flair and flavor

Lots of Tampa Bay restaurants thrill the eye but not the palate. Here are the most mmmmmarvelous of 2004 - the ones that prove themselves on the plate, where it counts.

By CHRIS SHERMAN, Times Food Critic
Published January 13, 2005

photo
[Times photo: Scott Keeler]
Restaurant of the year: At Kiku Japanese Fine Dining in Clearwater Beach, Daniel Chong takes unusual ingredients and turns them into works of art, including this monk fish pate with miso sauce.
Guestbook: Share your opinions on our best restaurants


  photo

[Times photo: Scott Keeler]

At Lincoln Heights Bistro in Safety Harbor, Dawn Algieri soothes your inner soul-food-loving child with fried chicken, collards, corn fritters and the like. For that, her place wins best new restaurant in Pinellas.
photo
[Times photo: Douglas R. Clifford]
The best new restaurant in Hillsborough is Pelagia Trattoria, where chef Fabrizio Schenardi offers a fresh taste of the Mediterranean amid eye-popping shapes and color.

photo
[Times photo: Stefanie Boyar]
Michael Martin, owner of The Music Spot, offers a bistro where the food’s fetching, but so are the tunes: 45s, tapes and CDs for sale, and in back, live jams and piano.
photo
[Times photo: Lara Cerri]
Redwoods in downtown St. Petersburg has a new chef, Jason Orchard, and a new mission: classy comfort food. Try the confit of duck, sirloin with truffle mash, or sage-squash ravioli.
photo
[Times photo: Ron Thompson]
The Crystal River Wine & Cheese Co. pairs modern food, such as grilled tuna and rack of lamb, with affordable and clever wines.
photo
[Times photo: Chris Zuppa]
Vizcaya Restaurante & Tapas Bar in Tampa offers the best taste of Spain, like this lobster-stuffed merluza served with three garnishes: seafood bisque, calamari ink and caramelized leeks.
photo
[Times photo: Maurice Rivenbark]
Farmer John’s Pancake House in Brooksville wins the best-stack award. If you manage to snag a table, the rewards are ample.

The most important ingredient in the kitchen may be the hardest to find in modern restaurants: human skill. Although new chains and independent restaurants open in flashes of burnished metal and cobalt blue daily around Tampa Bay, fine chefs, good cooks and bakers are still scarce.

More often, menus and recipes are written in corporate kitchens, ingredients ordered by the truckload and expensive talent hired for the decor scheme, not the vegetable medley.

Too bad.

The hands and knowledge, the wit and sweat, the burned fingers and fried nerves of chefs, line cooks and counter crews who do the cooking define the best taste of our restaurants.

They can be as sophisticated and precise as Daniel Chong, a sushi master whose palate is as sharp as his knife and as wickedly imaginative. If you know only supermarket sushi, you have not met the elegance of bluefin tuna or ethereal white tuna of Hawaii, the gentility of monkfish liver, the lush beauty of Hokkaido scallops or the purity of a whole bay flounder.

After decades, Chong is wise enough to treasure these flavors. For Kiku Japanese Fine Dining, he finds these rarities and presents them with respect, only a little lettuce here or a sprinkle of tobiko there, always in the right order and with the right sake, cold and dry.

This is the delicious lesson a sushi master and all the best chefs teach - a human respect for the work of cooking and the pleasure of eating.

A few local chefs have the Cordon Bleu savoir faire of Chris Ponte, who trained in New York and Paris. At his Cafe Ponte, he sauces with polish, values simple English peas and adds an exquisite dash of sea salt to a bite of chocolate.

Sometimes, the savvy is in the wine buying, as with Rodney and Jennifer Carr at Crystal River Wine & Cheese Co. Or it could be in the ancient baking skills that Alfredo Goncalves brought from Lisbon and works into his dough at Bon Appetit Bread. Or the barbecue savvy of the pit crew at First Choice Southern Bar-B-Que, the duck smokers at China Yuan, and the old country fusion of a Vietnamese sandwich on French bread at Thuy Cafe. Or maybe the guy who throws out bad tomatoes at Dockside Dave's.

But we need more of these, and they need better rewards from their bosses and the public if Tampa Bay is ever to have a big city menu that draws new chefs and encourages young ones to stay.

If you imagine a restaurant kitchen as a place where culinary poets rhapsodize on flavor fantasies, dream on.

What good chefs and cooks contribute daily is more important than fanciful menu descriptions. The first is finding good ingredients - and rejecting the bad. The second is knowing how to cook them.

That shows up on the plate and is the work of the kitchen, not the designer or ad director.

Although the restaurant scene seemed stagnant in 2004, it only tasted that way. There was plenty stirring the pot.

Chains, homegrown and imported, added the most tables. Mama Fu's and Paul Lee's opened the first local branches of their new-generation Chinese with heavy takeout accents. An Orlando group rethemed the Samba Room in Old Hyde Park Village from retro Havana to the retro Chicago Timpano.

Dinner malls added chains high and low, from Bar Louie or Champps at International Plaza to the Signature Room Grille at Channelside. Also at Channelside, the wacky themesters from Stump's have done their most imaginative work so far in Sally's Alley and Tinatapa's. Local operators also kicked off RattleFish, Grillsmith and Courtside Grille with more flair than flavor.

More chains are on the way this year with Chipotle Grill bringing more burritos to St. Petersburg's Fourth Street N, and Capital Grille installing high-end steaks at the gateway to International Plaza.

Not surprisingly, some favorite old independents and brave upstarts did not survive the year.

Stone & Prichard's Elegant Bistro, a bold effort at a gourmet steakhouse in downtown St. Petersburg, failed. The MacDill Avenue stretch of South Tampa dining lost Palio's, Lola Jane's Crawfish Inn and, a personal favorite, La Fonda.

Yet heart-warming and palate-pleasing cleverness did spring from independent brains: a restaurant in a music store John Cusack would love, a reborn soul food restaurant in Safety Harbor, a New Mediterranean bistro in St. Petersburg and a wine bar in Citrus County.

Local heroes thought big, too. Armani sous-chef Massimo Patano struck out on his own, taking uptown eclecticism to Palm Harbor. Pane Rustica moved into breathtaking new space with plans for daily dinners. And flavor stylista B.T. Nguyen has closed Yellow Door in preparation for her next and biggest project, Old Hyde Park's new glassy anchor.

Less noticed but much appreciated is the spice and energy of immigrant entrepreneurs who have added south Indian idlis and dosas, Bosnian bread and basturma, Colombian banderas and feasts of the Mideast. And, of course, our long-standing main course, low-cost and home cooked black beans, Cuban sandwiches, and chicken and yellow rice.

Next year should see continued diversity and growing sophistication in downtown St. Petersburg and, possibly, improvement and realignment at BayWalk. Indian dosas, Hawaiian barbecue, Spanish tapas, fresh sushi, Portuguese, Colombian and Moroccan dishes are more available than ever.

Plenty is missing, as anyone who travels outside the Tampa Bay area knows: simple rustic Italian places, seafood restaurants that serve fish more local than salmon, casual bistro French, fresh-flavored Chinese, and steakhouses that pick sides as carefully as meat.

More of that kind of cooking requires more chefs and cooks - and more customers. For 20 years a dedicated core of fine chefs and generous cooks have given us their best.

Here's Tampa Bay's best of 2004. May their numbers increase.

BEST RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR

Kiku Japanese Fine Dining, 483 Mandalay Ave., Suite 214, Clearwater Beach; (727) 461-2633.Sushi is now commonplace and streets seem paved with seared tuna, but sushi masters like Daniel Chong are and should be rare. Finding him among Clearwater Beach's T-shirts and tacky thongs is Zen justice. Enter his small garden, surrender to the cool grace of humility and all pleasure will be revealed: Hokkaido scallops, monkfish, ocean trout, baby flounder and bluefin tuna. Ask for a bagel roll or fried grouper and you will miss the best fish of your life. Say "omakase" instead, trusting fish and sake to Chong's knife and palate. You should be so lucky once.

BEST NEW RESTAURANT (PINELLAS) and BEST COLLARDS

Lincoln Heights Bistro, 603 Elm St., Safety Harbor; (727) 726-4210.

Soul food got a luscious update when an Italian chef from Brooklyn brought a forgotten neighborhood restaurant on the outskirts of Safety Harbor back to life. Gourmet teacher Dawn Algieri went to school herself on country ribs, carrot cake, squash casserole and vegetables with pork fat. She learned her lesson well and will expand her dinner hours this year. A gift to a neighborhood that needs one.

BEST NEW RESTAURANT (HILLSBOROUGH) AND BEST HONEY AND CHEESE

Pelagia Trattoria, Renaissance Tampa Hotel, 4200 Jim Walter Blvd., Tampa; (813) 313-3235.

Pelagia gives a fresh taste of the Riviera and the Amalfi Coast even if the sea outside is asphalt. Inside, it's eye-popping shapes and color and bold flavors from chef Fabrizio Schenardi. Ancient foods like Manchego cheese and honeycomb, crunchy fried olives, quail with lentil salad, mussels and merguez and lamb with figs are refreshingly new to us.

BEST FOOD VALUE, DOLLAR FOR DOLLAR; BONUS: MOST EUROPEAN EXPERIENCE

Pane Rustica, 3225 S MacDill Ave, Tampa; (813) 902-8828.

Glass cases and open kitchen counters laden with bold and rustic foods seem as infinite as the seating: long refectory tables, banquettes, round pedestals and tiny cafe tops. Crusty breads and crisp pizzas with brilliant toppings (zucchini and caviar, steak and egg) star, but carbo-phobes get world class soups (white bean and sausage) and salads (mesclun grilled tenderloin, blue cheese and onion straws). That's just for breakfast and lunch; this year Pane Rustica adds dinner. Warning: Sunday mornings can be a yuppie PlayPlace; bring your own toddler for self-defense or a counteroffensive.

BEST MEDITERRANEAN MEATBALLS, PISTACHIO, PARSNIPS AND POLENTA

Cafe Alma, 260 First Ave S, St. Petersburg; 727 502-5002 or www.cafealma.com Might as well call the place something friendly like Alma. How else to fit all the earthy pleasures of southern and eastern Europe and an aromatic slice of the Middle East in one name? But the kitchen, with Tullie Carlton and Scott Stone taking over for Christian Briner, packs lamb meatballs, preserved lemons, walnuts, pancetta, duck couscous and more into the most savory restaurant in downtown St. Pete.

BEST FUSION SINCE JIMI HENDRIX MET FRANCIS SCOTT KEY

The Music Spot, 1902 S Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa; (813) 259-2559.

Forget the Hard Rock. The Music Spot serves up genuine oldies and edible goodies. The store stocks years of '45s, tapes and CDs while, in the back, a for-real restaurant and nightclub serves smart piano, live jams and lively food. Start with gorgonzola tomato bisque. Be good with Thai lettuce wraps or wicked with a New York strip in Cognac and truffle butter.

BEST HOME COOKING FOR HOMES IN ARCHITECTURAL DIGEST

Redwoods, 247 Central Ave., St Petersburg; (727) 896-5118.St. Petersburg's pioneer uptown downtown eatery is back on track with reinventive American food. Prime sirloin with truffle mash, escolar with mustard greens and sage-squash ravioli and bacon are pretty and clever, yet still close to the land and woods.

BEST HAWAIIAN, HOLD THE UKELELE

Roy's Restaurant, 4342 W Boy Scout Blvd., Tampa; 813 873-7697, www.roysrestaurant.com

Credit Outback for bringing Roy Yamaguchi, one of the smartest celebrity chefs, to the chain dance and letting him call a high-class tune. In the Tampa kitchen, Rand Packer oversees the most elegant, creative Asian around the bay. First-grade fish, Gulf and Pacific, show off in luscious French sauces and exotic infusions. Or try Roy's filet satay or patented sushi - starting with the tuna-hamachi rolls.

BEST SMALL-PLATE SURF AND TURF

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

The prime rib buffet keeps tourists happy at the Sheraton Sand Key resort, but three trips though the line can't satisfy me as much as one small appetizer from John Harris' brilliant crew. Consider a perfectly seared three-bite scallop on a bed of pulled short-rib beef. Think ropa vieja glazed with Coca-Cola. They also cook with quinoa and Silver Queen corn, leeks and lentils, wild mushrooms and house marmalade. Vacations rarely taste this exquisite.

BEST MAC SALAD AND CORNED BEEF

First Choice Southern Bar-B-Que, 10113 E Adamo Drive, Brandon; (813) 621-7434.

Be early, smell, salivate and yell. Making barbecue here is as noisy as it is original. Besides chicken, ribs, beef and such, First Choice likes turkey, corned beef and sausage in the pit, red-hot fire in its mac salad (you read that right) and apple-pie spice in the beans. You should, too. And don't forget the fritters; cornmeal and pork never tasted so good.

BEST MAC SALAD AND SPAM SUSHI

Ly-Ly's Hawaiian BBQ, 2510 McMullen-Booth Road, Clearwater; (727) 712-1988.

Where else but Hawaii could heartland classics meet up with tempura and fried rice and make for an unashamed plate lunch beloved of steam tables and breakfasty joints across the islands. Now imported to Tampa Bay as the strangest and most familiar of barbecues.

BEST REASON TO BUY A COOLER, NOT A PASTA MACHINE

The Ravioli Company, 3413 S Manhattan Ave., Tampa; (813) 254-2051.

All the world loves food in pockets and pillows. Few hold such delicious surprises as the Ravioli Company's, stuffed with squash, shrimp or four cheeses. Laurin Otis makes fresh pasta in many flavors and cuts as wide as you want, from angel hair to lasagne. Add husband Dwight's fresh sauces and take-home gourmet blue plates, pretend-cooking and fine dining at home were never easier or cheaper.

FASTEST PASSAGE TO INDIA - AND MOST EXCITING CAULIFLOWER

India Garden, 2950 Gulf-to-Bay Blvd., Clearwater; (727) 797-8074.

The glorious aromas and feasts of rich flavors never tasted so invigorating as at this pink confection of a restaurant overseen by veteran resort hotel chef Khalid Sohail. Vegetables are fresh, breads are miraculous and curries, vindaloos, et al., have true vibrancy, not just Crockpot maturity.

BEST DINING IN A LIVING WINE LIST

Crystal River Wine & Cheese Co., 734 U.S. 19 S, Crystal River; (352) 795-0008.

You can't beat selection or price when you're dining in a wine shop, a treat that makes most of the bay area envy Crystal River diners. Owners Jennifer and Rodney Carr aim for affordability and clever wines to match light modern food. It's worth standing in line to raise a toast.

BEST TOP-DOLLAR ITALIAN WITHOUT HAND-KISSING

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

Skinny place, small tables, plain settings, yet it's a wait to get a table. Food is not Spartan, just classically simple. Try bitter greens, fine Parmesan, meltingly thin tenderloin in olive oil, big grilled prawns or pastas of Emilia Romagna made by the owner's mom.

BEST ITALIAN YOU COULD EAT BY CHIANTI-LIGHT

VINCENZO, 2454 N McMullen-Booth Road, Clearwater; 727 726-5558 or www.eatatvincenzos.com

Tuscany's wine doesn't come in straw baskets, and warm neighborhood Italian isn't just on red checked tablecloths anymore. Vincenzo's has a pizza oven, busy bar and homey hospitality, but the dining room menu runs from traditional bolognese, eggplant and punchy puttanesca to the heights gilded with porcinis, artichokes and truffle oil.

BEST MISSPELLING (A HUGE CATEGORY) AND MOST-LONG-LIVED

Sangwich Block, 9291 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 577-0888.

Folks have stood in line here for 20 years for something beyond the mere sandwich. The Awful Awful triple decker choices would stump Dagwood: turkey, roast beef, ham and two cheeses? Or the tuna salad, hard-boiled egg, ham and cheese? Both come with cole slaw. Plus subs, burgers, fries and spinach pies. You want more? Shame, shame.

BEST NEW WAVE ITALIAN

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

Veteran Armani's chef and local gourmet champ Massimo Patano now takes high-end eclectic swings at his own intimate place. He sears scallops with fennel, pairs lobster cakes with apricots, makes frito misto with rice flour and sauces sweetbreads with sweet peas. An original blend of Italian, French and Asian with brilliant sauces and lots of luxe.

BEST FISHING ON THE GULF WITHOUT WETTING A LINE OR YOUR FEET

Keegan's Seafood Grille, 1519 Gulf Blvd., Indian Rocks Beach; (727) 596-2477.

Keegan's is almost like sitting at a picnic table at a tourist camp, but it's the one place to hook into wahoo, cobia and escolar, fish that came from a boat, not a truck. Netting the best, most varied catch is treat enough; owner-chef Cesar Labrador knocks out smart sauces of wine, spice and fruit plus good pastas to go with it.

BEST PLACE TO TRY A MEZZE - AND SMOKE A HOOKAH

Byblos Cafe, 2832 S MacDill Ave., Tampa; 813 805-7977 or www.bybloscafe.com

You can make a Levantine sampler of snacks (mezze) here out of the favorites of the Middle East from grilled lamb, kebabs, raw beef and wheat to fresh yogurt, cheese and hummus. They get no better presentation anywhere. Stay late and finish with intoxicating bellydancing or a dreamy draw on the water pipe (hookah).

BEST TASTE OF SPAIN AFTER CALDO GALLEGO

Vizcaya Restaurante and Tapas Bar, 10905 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa; (813) 968-7400.

Modern Spanish food in Tampa is still rich, but the likes of pheasant with mushrooms and brandy cream or merluza in seafood bisque is still far from the steam table. Credit Felix Piedra with setting our table with chorizo, clementines, clams and a love of Spain's wines and decking the place with modern color. Oxtails in sherry are all you need to know about tapas.

BEST PLACE TO SPONGE UP THE FLAVORS OF THE AEGEAN AND FORGET GROUPER

Mykonos, 628 Dodecanese Blvd., Tarpon Springs; (727) 934-4306.

As crowded and crazy as any place on the docks, Mykonos' taste of Greece and smell of the sea draws locals as well as tourists. Fill a big table, order a platter of homemade dips and feast on whole fried porgy, sand perch and smelt or shrimp and kalamaria charred on the grill and tossed with olive oil and lemon. Plus there's a rare selection of modern Greek wines.

BEST DOUBLE THREAT TASTE OF ASIA

Thuy Cafe, 5944 34th St. N, St Petersburg; (727) 521-6406.

A tiny slot in an Asian strip center has only two items, banh mi sandwiches and bubble tea, but both are rare, great fun and bargain priced. The Vietnamese sandwich uses traditional French bread, pate and cheese with an Asian zest for peppers, cilantro, carrots and rice vinegar. Boba is the fruity/smoothie tea from Taiwan with the big-straw bubbles of giant tapioca. It's takeout only, but with the hippest waiting area on U.S. 19.

BEST HOUSE WINE (HOMEMADE, TOO)

Bob Heilman's Beachcomber & Bobby's Bistro, 447 Mandalay Ave., Clearwater Beach; (727) 442-4144 Beachcomber or (727) 446-9463 Bobby's.

Foxy Rock stars on a wine list already long on pinot noir, Burgundian and homegrown. The new label - and 7 hillside acres of grapes that the Heilmans now grow in Oregon - are the latest addition the Heilmans have made to a half-century landmark. It should go well with prime beef or the classic skillet chicken.

BEST PACIFIC RIM STEAK FETCHED UP ON THE GULF COAST

Island Way Grill, 20 Island Way, Clearwater Beach; 727 461-6617 or www.islandwaygrill.com

A T-bone sweetened with Korean barbecue is the equal of the restaurant's boat-fresh fish, raw bar and sushi. Best dishes have clever Asian accents, like baby bok choy in sake and fish crusted in wasabi peas or crushed fortune cookies. Smart management misses few tricks: early birds for the neighbors, oyster shooters, boatload brunch on Sunday, world-class bar stock, brilliant wine selection, all-weather patio seating with a marina view, or indoor dining with Duncan McClellan magic glass.

BEST STEAKHOUSE FAR FROM THE TAMPA CATTLE CHUTE

E&E Stakeout Grill, 100 N Indian Rocks Road, Belleair Bluffs; 727 585-6399 or www.3bestchefs.com

Eugen Fuhrmann's place in its days as a lobster parlor and nuevo Southwest cantina has served the gentry of Belleair Bluffs, ancien regime and nouveaux, for years. Lucky them. Steaks are well-bought, well-aged and pepper seasoned, with as much flavor as tenderness. Wine is affordable, stone and wood trim is artfully primal. Don't let the regulars have all the fun.

BEST SHORTCUT TO PROVENCE FROM THE GOLF COURSE

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

You want fine soup, fresh pate, great wine discoveries, a French accent and no airfare? It would be grand to have such an all-day menu at a bistro on every corner, but we'll have to make do with one fine serving. Lucky Belleair Bluffs is the one place you can try it all. Don't miss the soup, fresh pate or rilletes; for a bigger meal, have duck and bon marche wine.

BEST COLLECTION OF SALT, PEPPER AND MARTINI SHAKERS

Kelly's for Just About Anything and the Chic-a-Boom Room, 319 Main St., Dunedin; (727) 736-5284 or kellyschicaboom.com.

Just rocking good. Wild, whimsy and savvy palates churn out three smart meals a day that you can't call squares: banana bran pancakes, Roast Beef Ridiculous clubs and veal chops with mushrooms and blueberries. Plus sharp wine list, silly 'tinis and white chocolate pecan pie. Outdoors or in.

BEST WINE CELLAR WITH RED SAUCE ON TOP.

Domenic's Capri, 411 Mandalay Ave., Clearwater Beach; (727) 441-1111.

Enter this beach joint and you're literally in the barrel; it's dark, woody and smells of wine. Domenic Forlini is old school: Food is hearty pasta with homemade sauce, sometimes local seafood, and always improved by red wine and family warmth. Savvy regulars - and Domenic - enjoy the deep, award-winning cellar.

BEST YO HO HO WITH A FRENCH ACCENT

St. Bart's Island House, 1502 S Howard Ave., Tampa; 813 251-0367 or www.stbartsislandhouse.com

Gordon Davis tropicalized the area's oldest French restaurant in 2002, refreshing the menu with more seafood, livening up the spices and installing the area's best list of rum, rhum and ron, dark, aged like cognac and silly enough for a parasol. Sauces still have classical polish; service is big-house grand.

BEST STACK WITH COUNTRY HAM OR GRAND MARNIER

Farmer John's Pancake House, 1171 Howell Ave., Brooksville; (352) 544-0909.

Buttermilk, blintz, French crepes and Dutch babies are all here with too many sides. Consider the possibilities while you're waiting in the parking lot; barely 40 pancake lovers fit inside, and few seats are empty for long. The sorry few immune to pancakes can make due with skillets, omelets, sandwiches and crackling crisp homefries.

FRESHEST TASTE OF LONGEVITY IN YBOR

Bernini, 1702 E Seventh Ave., Tampa; (813) 248-0099.

Seven years isn't old compared with the nearby Columbia, now a centenarian, yet it's a long time for a modern restaurant to be both comfy and hip. Bernini's flash is now at ease in the old bank building, the wood-burning oven well-seasoned, osso buco and garlic pizza old standards, and robust flavors a given. They show in charred pork, seared scallops, rich risotto and crisp brocolini and asparagus, rare tastes of modernity - with old-school service.

BEST PLACE TO PRETEND A PENTHOUSE IS A BEACH COTTAGE

Crazy Conch Cafe, 1110 Pinellas Bayway S, Tierra Verde; (727) 865-0633.

The condo crowd can feel warm and fuzzy over short ribs, gumbo and squash souffle and still feel stylish at this hideaway. It's Michael Peel's neighborly home for home cooking with a water view. The menu mixes Southern and coastal dishes and no-carb blowouts like a $30 T-bone on greens and Parmesan. Wines are just as clever.

BEST LUNCHES (AND DINNERS) FOR LADIES WHO LAUGH - AND GENTS TOO

Zante Cafeneo, 13 N Safford Ave., Tarpon Springs; 727 934-5558 or www.zantecafe.com

Eating in this antique-y shop is not quaint but quirky, a jumble of treasures where lovin' spoonfuls spill in all directions. Brad and Elizabeth Sullivan serve an only-in-America fusion of local Greek, Italian, New Orleans, hearty breakfasts and big deal dinners. All garnished with a brood of youngsters.

BEST MEXICAN FOOD THIS SIDE OF VERACRUZ

The taquerias of Clearwater.

The area's largest Mexican community has endless sources for tacos of lamb and pork, posole on weekends, tortillas fresh off the press, baker's racks full of palmiers and pastries. A trip along Court Street, Drew Street, Cleveland Street or Missouri Avenue will have you eating and cooking south of the border.

BEST MEXICAN FOOD EAST OF CLEARWATER

The taquerias of Tampa.

True tacos, gorditas and ceviche are best found north of downtown, heading up N Armenia Avenue and along Waters Avenue. Favorite stops are Mi Mexico, which starts cooking the good stuff before dawn, or the old schoolbus rechristened El Taconazo and parked where it can deliver authentic tacos to old Seminole Heights.

MOST INTERNATIONAL FOOD AT INTERNATIONAL PLAZA

Gelateria del Duomo Milano, Bay Street at International Plaza, 2223 N West Shore Blvd, Tampa; 813 877-7771 or www.gelateriadelduomo.com

Italy's most delicious ice cream-making tradition has been imported to a mall, as if shopping wasn't guilty pleasure enough. They make it luscious and intense as if the berries or nuts were crushed while you wait. Even a tastelet on a tiny neon spoon is a wow. You must try a couple, say pistachio and canteloup, before yielding to cioccolata.

BEST PEA GREENS, WHITE-SKIN CHICKEN AND RED DUCK

China Yuan, 8502 N Armenia Ave., Tampa; (813) 936-7388.

This homey spot has the best Chinese decor possible: smoked poultry, pork and squid glistening in the case. If whole fish makes you squeamish, you can still fill a table for a happy family (and friends) with fresh greens, salted eggplant hot pot and the best-ever shrimp wonton soup.

BEST WAY TO CELEBRATE REOPENING OF COMMERCIAL GROUPER FISHING

Dockside Dave's, 13203 Gulf Blvd., Madeira Beach; (727) 392-9399.

Dave's is a dive as close and clannish as a fishing boat. The payoff is appropriate: big slabs of the freshest grouper around, perfectly fried and ripely tomatoed, with crisp fries. For creature comforts or a faux fishing village, go elsewhere; this is real.

BEST UPTOWN DINING FAR FROM A DOWNTOWN

Mystic Fish, 3253 Tampa Road, Palm Harbor. 727 771-1800 or www.3bestchefs.com

There's seafood, yes, including local finfish on lucky nights. The creativity of Doug Bebell and veteran Eugen Fuhrmann raid the Asian pantry, resort cooking and modern smarts. They're revealed in sea bass with ginger, crabcakes and lemongrass, bison and horseradish, pork osso buco and sherried chowder. Also custom veggie plates and fair wine prices.

BEST WAY TO LIVE BY LUNCH ALONE - IN HIGH STYLE ON GANDY

Noodle Lounge, 3324 W Gandy Blvd., Tampa; (813) 835-1434.

B.T. Nguyen's style is sleek and smooth, feng shui in action. This lunch spot in a former Little Caesar's is her simplest and best venture so far with traditional Asian salads and bowls with noodles made in house, the most polished service and decor of sensual minimalism. Her next opening in Old Hyde Park Village will be the foodie event of the New Year.

BEST LITTLE PIECES OF HEART AND OTHER REASONS TO LOVE CHINESE FOOD AGAIN

T.C. Choy's Asian Bistro, 301 S Howard Ave., Tampa; (813) 251-1191.

Lunch or breakfast on the glorious dumplings and other tiny treats of the biggest dim sum parade around the bay. For dinner, start with jumbo oysters or clams and move on to claypots, scallops or no-waiting Peking duck. Thank a hardworking crew in a beautiful kitchen and owners with the best connections possible: Oceanic Oriental Supermarket.

BEST LUXURY TOUR OF THE PACIFIC (WITH DETOURS FOR GOAT CHEESE, TRUFFLE OIL AND RISOTTO)

Pacific Wave, 211 Second St. S, St Petersburg 727 822-5235 or www.pacificwaveonline.com

Fish and Maui are Hawaiian, lumpia are Philippine, and we know where lobster bisque and sushi come from. The combination of all those elements, however, is pure Peter Tanhnavong: tiger shrimp, proscuitto and kaffir lime sauce; boursin stuffed chicken with shiitakes; and rack of lamb with pineapple and roasted garlic. Don't skip dessert. The kitchen makes its own ice cream and knows macadamia, Kona coffee and chocolate lava cake.

BEST DIM SUM DESCENDED FROM A STEAKHOUSE AND BEST MUSHROOM SELECTION

Sidebern's, 2208 W Morrison Ave., Tampa; 813 258-2233 or www.bernssteakhouse.com

The kid sister of Bern's, the legendary beefeater, trotted the globe and came home with a backpack full of spices and throughly modern ideas. Under Jeannie Pierola, a big talented staff lets loose on a great selection of fish and game with exotic mushrooms, Asian spices, Mediterranean lemons and chickpeas, great cheeses and clever wines. If it's too much in a bento box, dim sum tower or a single plate, order anything with short ribs or Okinawan sweet potatoes.

BEST EATING ON A SCREEN PORCH

Backfin Blue, 2913 Beach Blvd. S, Gulfport; 727 343-2583 or www.backfinbluecafe.com

These shady old streets are the perfect setting for backporch cooking done with care and generosity. Chef Harold Russell keeps his plateful of funky Gulfport perfectly simple - lump crab cakes, big prime rib, meatloaf and grouper - and remembers to get fresh vegetables.

BEST GOURMET SPLURGE IN AN OFFICE PARK OR ANYWHERE ELSE

Cafe Ponte, 13505 Icot Blvd. facing Ulmerton Road, Clearwater; (727) 538-5768 or www.cafeponte.com

My choice for best restaurant of 2003 continues as the finest European cooking here and the best food Ulmerton Road never dreamed of. Chef Chris Ponte samples a world of flavors, yet his Paris training blends them into smooth, rich versions of updated classics. Creamy bisques, beet salad or glistening quail are great beginnings, and it only gets better with lamb, duck and diver scallops and the most beautiful of companions, from butternut squash to sweet peas and microgreens. Wolfgang Puck comes here when he's taping at Home Shopping Network; you should too.

BEST STEAK SANDWICH THAT'S NOT ON THE MENU

Bern's Steak House, 1208 S Howard Ave., Tampa; 813 251-2421 or www.bernssteakhouse.com

The landmark palace of red meat and red wine has installed a new-era kitchen within a kitchen, but people who can afford to be regulars at Bern's often drop in to eat in the bar/waiting room. They skip the endless menus, new and old, and order a clever appetizer (quail, grits cake and blackeyed pea stew) or a steak sandwich. It's not advertised, fancy or fast, but tasty: two steak slices, lettuce and tomato, onion rings or fries on the side, $7.95. For a newfangled edge, add house potato chips with truffle cream; for old pleasures, scour the huge wine list for vintage Rhones, Italians and old zins under $50. Save big steaks and the full-course to-do for another night.

BEST HUEVOS CON HOT CHOCOLATE, FISH TACOS AND FILET MIGNON

Red Mesa, 4912 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 527-8728.

The Veytias and chef Chris Fernandez crowd updated Latino, nuevo and regional fare and a seafood tradition into a popular family spot. Dinner has the widest range with spice-rubbed pork, filets and fish with sauces from mole to mojito; Sunday breakfast matches eggs and burritos with as many sauces. You can always get good tamales and fried oysters.

BEST LAVASH, NUESKE'S BACON AND OYSTER STEW IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD

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

Good bread, great soups and friendly service make for a great local spot. Boulevard goes beyond with good wine deals and chefs whose diner grill knocks out spicy steaks, smart sides and sauces. More? BB now has breakfast pizza and buttermilk biscuits and gravy and Benedicts with fresh Hollandaise. Affordable food like this is about friends as much as trends.

BEST SPANISH FLAVOR FOR A DATE WITH PLACIDO DOMINGO OR PEDRO ALMODOVAR (TIE)

Sangria's Spanish Tapas Bar & Restaurant, 315 S Howard Ave., Tampa; (813) 258-0393.

Spain Restaurant, 513 Tampa St., Tampa; (813) 223-2831.

Taberna-hopping for snappy tapas can now be done in style. Hit Sangria's for a lively crowd and lovely puffs of perfect cod fritters washed down with pitchers of the namesake in three flavors, including sparkling. Stop in at Spain for exceptional grilled, salted prawns and a stunning taste of stylish modernismo: clean lines, crisp colors, Barcelona cool.

[Last modified January 12, 2005, 17:16:43]


This Weekend

  • Flair and flavor

  • Art
  • Art shows
  • Hot Ticket: Of time and the Thames

  • Cover story
  • Best big bucks, cheap eats, new restaurants, breads and pastries and homegrowns

  • Dine
  • Food and wine events
  • I'll have another ...

  • Film
  • Family Movie Guide
  • Indie Flicks: Motion without emotion
  • Opening Friday: Electricity becomes Elektra
  • Opening Wednesday: Lost in the translation

  • Film review
  • 'Coach' has one winning quality: Jackson
  • 'Stripes' has solid showing
  • Business becomes a pleasure
  • Horror briefly checks into 'Hotel Rwanda'

  • Get Away
  • Four-legged stars try out for top dog
  • Get Away: Down the road
  • Let the battle begin

  • Music
  • Hot Tickets: All that Brazilian jazz
  • Music: Coming soon
  • Ticket window

  • Stage
  • Stage: Down the road

  • Video / DVD
  • New releases
  • Upcoming releases and current rankings

  • Weekend Insider
  • Weekend Trivia
  • Back to Top

    © 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
    490 First Avenue South • St. Petersburg, FL 33701 • 727-893-8111