Chez Bryce, Tampa

Chez Bryce's sophistication is apparent in every course, so savor your starters and main course - then splurge.

By Laura Reiley, Times Food Critic
Published February 21, 2008

Chez Bryce

238 E Davis Blvd., Tampa

(813) 258-8100

Cuisine: French/Mediterranean

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday brunch; 6 to 10 p.m. weekdays, until 11 p.m. weekends

Details: Amex, V, MC; reservations accepted; full bar

Prices: Dinner appetizers $8 to $9; dinner entrees $19 to $29; desserts $5 to $6



Chef and mentor Michel Rostang said, "All my cooks should be able to make desserts." And it was so. Bryce Whittlesey, who spent two years with Rostang in Paris and then another several years elsewhere in France for good measure, knows his sweets. It shows gloriously at his cozy Davis Islands restaurant, Chez Bryce.

Many chef/owners or executive chefs get to where they are by working their way up the line, in the middle of the heat and mayhem that is the kitchen's grill or saute station. Very few of them own or run restaurants via pastry bravura. Many restaurants here cannot afford a designated pastry chef. The upshot? Most restaurants make a few desserts a creme brulee, maybe a chocolate mousse, but purchase cakes and pastries.

This means the same desserts crop up all over town. Meanwhile, Whittlesey is whipping up a classical vacherin (it's a meringue softened lusciously with juicy sweetened strawberries and chantilly cream), tarte Tatin (like a caramel-addled upside-down apple tart), a bittersweet chocolate tart and another of tangy lemon curd, or a sophisticated chocolate pot de creme (a not-too-sweet baked pudding with the texture of satin). These are archetypal French desserts, ones you get tested on in culinary school.

My guess is he got good grades at the Culinary Institute of America. The Tampa native opened his own restaurant last year at the site of Native Seafood and Caprice Bistro on Davis Islands. The space is big and quirky, with a fountained courtyard that will be the height of romance as the weather sweetens. Inside, the main dining room is spare (how about getting local artists to fill those empty walls?) with a black ceiling that somehow makes it seem basementy. Still, it's a pretty room with an open kitchen and inviting raw bar at the front.

Service can be a little chicken-without-a-head on busy nights, but all of the servers are personable and seem to have tasted their way through the menu and offer thoughtful advice.

Decisions will still be tough. You could go for the utterly fabulous house smoked salmon salad ($6 half, plenty big, $9 whole) fragrant at five paces with the scents of Meyer lemon and fresh tarragon, a perfect vinaigrette napping endive and watercress, and plush swaths of salmon. Iced stone crab claws beckon from the raw bar, and a charcuterie plate ($8) brings great salty meats with smoky grilled baguette and cute little pickles.

An array of individual Puckish (Wolfgang, not Shakespeare) pizzas ($10-$12) come gussied with thoughtful toppings (fennel, goat cheese and more of that smoked salmon), but it seems a shame to forgo entrees in favor of these. Maybe share one before embarking on the sweet pan-seared diver scallops ($25), elegantly balanced by candied endive, fennel and orange. Or, more substantial, the flavorful grilled hanger steak ($23), which stunned me with its side of nutty, sweet roasted sunchokes and caramelized shallots. I'm gushing now, although not every entree is perfect (nix the avalanche of bread crumbs on the cassoulet, and the braised lamb shanks needed a little more pizazz).

But now, without further ado, it's time for dessert.

Laura Reiley can be reached at (727) 892-2293 or lreiley@sptimes.com. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, can be found at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.