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Fine dining at the bar

At these top bay area restaurants, culinary excellence extends to the bar, where the grazing is very good.

By John Bancroft
Published February 22, 2007

Rhonda Woida, a bartender at Bella Brava in downtown St. Petersburg, serves regulars Cole and Annie Oliver dinner at the bar. The St. Petersburg couple had Rollata Di Mozzarella with prosciutto, roasted peppers, basil and tomatoes, and Carpaccio Di Tonno — seared Ahi tuna with cucumber and fried capers.
[Times photo: Scott Keeler]
[Times photo: Daniel Wallace]
Diners in the bar at Restaurant BT in Tampa, presided over by black-and-white photos of customers and staff, enjoy the same delectable French-Vietnamese cooking and crisp service as dining room patrons.

There should be more to a really good restaurant than impeccable cooking and flawless service. As Mario Batali proved conclusively at Babbo in New York, the modern culinary temple must feature a bar where the mood is relaxed, the service smart and intimate, and the grazing first-rate.

Here are three bay area restaurant bars that fill the bill.

Bella Brava

From outside among the sidewalk tables, where well-mannered dogs and owners are now welcome, downtown St. Petersburg's Bella Brava looks awfully inviting. Accept the invitation, especially to happy hour at the bar. Begin with a glass of the house chianti and a "Beat the Clock" pizza, so named because the earlier you arrive, the less you pay.

On a recent visit, our crisp white pizza affumicata (thin-sliced roasted chicken, Kalamata olives, rosemary, fontina cheese and plenty of garlic) cost $6.03, rather than the regular menu price of $10.95, because we arrived at 6:03. Cool.

Next came a beautiful plate of rosy carpaccio blessed with a sprinkle of fried capers and just enough good shaved Parmesan. Beside it was served a heaping fritto misto, or mixed fry, starring absolutely the best calamari I've tasted in a long time, supported by a pair of perfect shrimp and a tasty clump of tempura vegetables.

And for dessert? A dainty, round torta di ricotta (sort of a Tuscan cheesecake) for me and a chocolate panna cotta eggless custard topped with ripe black cherries (a daily special) for my delighted grazing companion.

Restaurant BT

Near the top of my list of best dining rooms in Tampa is Restaurant BT in Old Hyde Park Village, a svelte gem of an establishment, dedicated to the very personal, very inventive French-Vietnamese cooking of owner and chef BT Nguyen.

The stainless steel and blond wood bar, watched over by three ranks of companionable black-and-white photos of customers, staff and other friends, is as welcoming and satisfying as the rest of the place.

Everything here has zing to spare. Take as one excellent example the bo tai chanh appetizer, a spicy Vietnamese turn on steak tartare, featuring finely minced filet mignon perfectly flavored with peanuts, chilies, lime juice, ginger, shallots and herbs. This just-right dish leaves a heavenly, lingering heat on the tongue, setting us up nicely one recent evening for three more appetizers, accompanied by an excellent Truchard pinot noir and a shared dessert of snappy ginger creme brulee.

The duck dumplings, a special, were perfectly greaseless and yummy, and the pair of well-named fresh rolls from the standing menu each wrapped a lovely, sweet steamed prawn with noodles, lettuce, a piquant peanut sauce and more fresh mixed herbs.

But the evening's big winner was another daily special, this one showcasing a rich, warm scoop of Dungeness crab and shiitake mushrooms in the center of a steamed artichoke arrayed on the plate like an open lotus blossom. The whole was liberally drizzled with white truffle oil and black butter sauce. Wow.

The Haye Loft

Eric Bell, a transplanted Canadian who knows his way around the boites and bistros of Montreal, presides with baronial good humor over the Haye Loft, the nautical upstairs bar at the grande dame of Longboat Key restaurants, Euphemia Haye.

The "Famous Roast Duck" has long been king of the dining room here, and you can get the full-blown dish in all its crisp and fruity goodness at the bar if you're really hungry. We usually go for smaller but just as tasty plates, often in the vain hope of saving room for some sweet monster from the dessert room next door.

As often as not, we begin with the admirably garlicky, lemony Caesar salad, another unfailing standard here, and move on, perhaps, to share a pizza. Sometimes we build our own from a well-chosen list of ingredients - goat cheese and green olives being a favorite combo - and sometimes we go for a little taste of that duck, this time barbecued and combined with caramelized onions and garlic and shiitake mushrooms.

Other excellent choices are smoked salmon over warm Russian-style buckwheat crepes garnished with caviar, sour cream, onions, capers and fresh dill, or an appetizer portion of the luscious, almost staggeringly rich tagliatelle alla carbonara, in which the pasta luxuriates in a creamy sauce sparked with crispy bits of bacon.

Still have room for dessert? Really? You astonish me.

John Bancroft, a former food critic in Arizona, is a freelance food writer based in Bradenton. Until a replacement for Chris Sherman is named, Weekend features guest critics.



Bella Brava

515 Central Ave., St. Petersburg

(727) 895-5515


Restaurant BT

1633 W Snow Ave., Tampa

(813) 258-1916


The Haye Loft at Euphemia Haye

5540 Gulf of Mexico Drive, Longboat Key

(941) 383-3633



[Last modified February 22, 2007, 11:07:10]

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