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Restaurant review

Get used to the unexpected

Fresh fare inspired by savory innovation makes the menu at Z Grille a welcome surprise to the taste buds.

By CHRIS SHERMAN, Times Food Critic
Published May 26, 2005

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[Times photos: Lara Cerri]
Imagination and zest are two vital ingredients Zack and Jennifer Gross mix into the meals at Z Grille.

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An entree of fried whole yellow-tail snapper is one of the savory dishes served in St. Petersburg’s new gourmet Mexican restaurant, Z Grille.

ST. PETERSBURG - The best tastes are often unexpected, like the beer cream on the grilled shrimp at Z Grille. And while your taste buds sort out that thick, punchy foam, the cumin will sneak up for a second swift kick.

That's sharp cooking: not fancy, but smart and smooth. That too is unexpected, for Z Grille seems like one more basic lunch spot in a not-so-lucky slot on Central Avenue. It serves pretty good tacos, but pushes past the $5 lunch border.

That's only a start and barely a hint of what's here: Perfect sea bass, kickin' cole slaw, creme brulee with earthy Mexican chocolate and - surprise! - one of the best-cooked steaks I've had in a long time.

This is how St. Petersburg's downtown will improve its menu: in slow, small bites, produced by cooks with more passion than budget. In this case, it's a young mom and pop, Jenny and Zack Gross, late of San Diego. He's the one in shorts, ball cap and Maori tattoos who put the Z in Z Grille.

Together they make good culinary decisions, especially at dinner, as they remake a dull spot on Central. It still has a modest diner kitchen behind the counter. No one calls it exhibition cooking, but it's all the better to see that this is serious cooking.

The menu is short, yet the ingredients and technique at the center of the plate and on the side are first quality. In fish, the sea bass was perfectly done, luscious white flakes with a crisp edge of skin, and paired with risotto so rich it could have been oatmeal (I mean that in a good sense). It would have been too much without tortilla crisps and grilled asparagus.

Swordfish and black-corn may sound familiar, but they are rarely this good. The key is more corn, fresh white corn, and fewer beans, plus cilantro so that it's light. Add a passionfruit sauce, again a good one, light, bright and not so sweet, and there's nothing trite or trivial about it.

I like pork in my tacos and Z Grille slow-cooks it, tart with lemon and spunky with garlic. I can't complain about the fish tacos, which they do in West Coast surfer style, logs of fresh fish turned to gold in the fryer. The best addition is the cole slaw, a spicy cabbage that is closer to vinegary curtido, the tangy pickle and sauerkraut of Latin American.

If you stop at tacos, however, you'll miss a lot; you'll see that when a chop or steak goes by. This is a great pork chop, an inch thick, as juicy as you want it (make mine medium-rare), but with a fired-up barbecue sauce. Mine came with freshly sauteed spinach, grape tomatoes and horseradish mashed potatoes. I'd cut back a bit on the mash's zowie; a little horseradish goes a long way.

The real treat is the well-marbled rib eye, charred, remarkably juicy and glistening with Gross' seasoned house butter. This is one place where I'll leave steak cooking to a pro.

A few tastes were too ordinary: Chefs need to explore Mexican bakeries for tortillas with more grit and character, for instance, and tacos need to go beyond fish. Yet any disappointments were outweighed by the pleasures of corn bread freshly baked with jalapeno and creamy pinto beans.

Then there was the creme brulee made with Ibarra, a Mexican chocolate laced with cinnamon. It takes pudding to a daring border between lush sweetness and spicy mischief. That dessert could make me forget any slights.

I doubt you'll find many. Z Grille looks small and plain, but the service is friendly and the kitchen cares about everything on the plate and in the glass. Cool chairs and hip marketing will come later. But the food is here now.

Chalk up another delicious effort by the little people.

Surprise.

- Chris Sherman dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays for all expenses. A restaurant's advertising has nothing to do with selection for a review or the assessment of its quality. He can be reached at 727 893-8585 or sherman@sptimes.com

Z GRILLE

269 Central Ave.

St. Petersburg

(727) 896-3101

Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner, 5 to 10 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday.

Details: Credit cards, beer, wine; smoking only at outdoor tables.

Prices: Lunch, $5.95 to $7.95; dinner, $7.95 to $19.95.

[Last modified February 1, 2006, 12:03:49]


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