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Restaurant review

Contemporary in look and taste

By CHRIS SHERMAN
Published September 21, 2006


TAMPA

After two decades and untold millions of dollars to dress up the waterfront, downtown finally has a taste of the most elusive of treats: a room with a water view and contemporary food.

Cafe Dufrain is a small modern bistro and slick hideaway in a clump of urbanesque condos on Harbour Island. It started out as a deli three years ago, but owners Ferrell and Andrew Bonnemort, whose mother has a restaurant in Paris, had higher ambition.

To the view of hotels and hockey they have added badly needed sophistication, a splash of contemporary painting and a global menu.

I wanted to say that Cafe Dufrain dipped its peekytoe crab cakes into the cool water of culinary fashion but the restaurant was out of this trendiest of crabs on my visit. Still the cafe is one of the few who are hip to the Maine rock crab, and the menu abounds with other contemporary tricks.

Chef Britt Golson has pulled flavors from around the world and the American comfort kitchen to update and upscale: red curry soup, pork tamales with ancho honey, shrimp tempura salad with kim chee, wild mushroom meatloaf and Brazilian fish-coconut stew.

It's a tall order, yet Cafe Dufrain does well by most of them and stumbles on a few.

The best meal for me was rice and mushrooms in a lush risotto porridge with crisp green beans and a glistening pool of butternut squash. I needn't have splurged for the fired-up jumbo shrimp. Rice was never so robust.

Carnivores would be surprisingly happy with the grilled vegetable stack, the best grilled squash I've had, alongside a tomato sauce with a licorice lick of basil.

Meat eaters do get goat-cheese stuffed filets, and a classic Argentine skirt steak, which I tried in a beefy focaccia sandwich with mushrooms and caramelized onions.

For starters, big sea scallops with a red wine balsamic syrup and a bird's nest of fried leeks were fun but sadly, there were only two. Shrimp toast, which doesn't usually get this far out of a Chinese restaurant, makes better finger food for a table. Fiery, fatty and spiced with ginger jam, it should be shared.

The wine list is short but quite savvy, from a Toad Hollow's husky Erik the Red to Pine Ridge chenin blanc as well as Royal Tokaji after dinner. It makes for a handsome wine bar and a smart young crowd.

Halibut with clams on a white bean stew with rapini would hit many of my heartiest buttons, but the fish was undercooked, a rare mistake. Duckling with a Thai glaze was a smart idea too but sabotaged with too much heat; the skin was limp, not crispy, and the peanut basmati rice was soggy. House gazpacho was truly fresh but needed a richer broth to carry the corn relish, avocado cream and dollop of lobster.

Service varied too, from polished to inexperienced, and though wellstaffed, servers left dirty plates on the table through several passes. Miscues can happen, but consistency is crucial with $12 lunch entrees and market price dinners.

You can depend, however, on the apple tart, fresh apples smartly turned out in flaky phyllo.

The river view is here to stay as is a loyal crowd of neighbors and explorers. I only hope the skyline will someday be as bold and adventurous as the cooking across the way.

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

Cafe Dufrain

707 Harbour Post Drive, Tampa

813 275-9701

Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday; dinner, 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday (kitchen open until 11 Friday night).

Details: Credit cards, beer, wine, outdoor seating.

Prices: Lunch $8 to $18; dinner entrees $15 to $26.

[Last modified September 20, 2006, 09:56:00]


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