What's cooking: Food with a flourish

The namesake of Brian's Place would rather do it well - creative Italian-Spanish dishes - than churn it out. Picky palates in Hernando Beach are happy about that.

Published June 17, 2005

HERNANDO BEACH - Brian Alvarez can't wait to get into his kitchen each morning. By the time he unlocks the door to his bistro, he already has several ideas cooking that he's eager to put to the stove.

"For me, the true fun of cooking is experimenting. Nothing on my menu is ordinary," says the 28-year-old Tampa native who moved to Hernando County to start his first restaurant two years ago.

Since then, Brian's Place has won the hearts of many a Hernando resident, especially those who value creativity and a little adventurism in their dining experience.

Although the restaurant has been serving breakfast and lunch (and offering private catering) for about two years, a year ago Alvarez decided to offer nighttime dining Thursday through Saturday.

"I didn't want to overwhelm myself with the responsibility of running a place that would distract me from what I do best," he said. "The way I see it, I owe my customers the best I can give them. Everything that comes out of the kitchen is my own creation. To put myself in a position where I couldn't do that just wouldn't be worth it."

The menu contains just 15 full-time items, but Alvarez makes the "Italian-Spanish fusion" cuisine distinctive, using seasonings common in traditional European and Latin cooking.

My recent visit offered just such an experience. First up was the "soup of the moment," which happened to be roasted onion saffron, a delicious and creamy concoction flavored with chorizo. For the entree, I chose the grilled chipotle salmon ($14.99) - one of two specials offered that day.

I was bowled over by Alvarez's creative take on an item that many restaurants take for granted. His recipe calls for rubbing the fresh fish with smoked jalapeno peppers and citrus juice before searing it.

The plate is then "painted" with a red wine and mango sauce, allowing the diner to blend the spicy and sweet. Served with a whipped sofrito and potato mash, with what was probably the most perfectly cooked asparagus I've ever had in a dining establishment, made for a truly wonderful meal.

Ordering from the menu, my dining partner chose the Cuban-derived palomilla steak and shrimp skewer ($14.99), which featured a generous portion of sirloin and six medium shrimp. The grilled potatoes and sauteed asparagus that came with it were exquisite as well.

Afterward, we shared a slice of Alvarez's delicious guava cheesecake, one of about 10 cheesecake varieties he rotates throughout the week.

While the food may be somewhat upscale, Brian's Place is pretty laid back and casual. The outside is modest, but the inside is homey and decorated with paintings and sculptures from local artists. While Alvarez works his magic in the kitchen, his father, Bob (who just so happens to concoct a tasty homemade sangria), holds court out front with the customers.

Alvarez says he has great plans for his restaurant. By summer's end, the more well-received specials he has developed over the past year will become regular menu items. He also hopes to expand seating from the current 50 to 60 to about 75, with additional outside dining on a raised deck overlooking the water.

But what comes out of the kitchen is what matters most to this chef.

"For me, cooking will always be my top priority," he said. "This is what I've wanted to do all my life."

Logan Neill can be reached at 352 848-1435 or lneill@sptimes.com


Throughout the year, we are running a feature called "What's Cooking," a periodic look at some of Hernando County's favorite dining spots. We welcome recommendations from readers. So if you have a place in mind for us to visit, please drop us a line at What's Cooking, Hernando Times, 15365 Cortez Blvd., Brooksville, FL 34613, or e-mail your suggestion to lneill@sptimes.com Be sure to include the name and address of the restaurant and a brief description of what you like about it.


Brian's Place, 3306 Shoal Line Blvd., Hernando Beach, is open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. The restaurant is closed on Mondays. 597-5101.