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Eating international

Swooning from all that power shopping? Darling, sit down, take a bite of Saigon lobster with lemongrass, a nibble of BLT pizza, a sip of noveltini. They'll give you the strength to shop on.


© St. Petersburg Times, published September 13, 2001

Swooning from all that power shopping? Darling, sit down, take a bite of Saigon lobster with lemongrass, a nibble of BLT pizza, a sip of noveltini. They'll give you the strength to shop on.

TAMPA -- California, here we come.

Well, not quite, and 20 years late, but the wild mix of flavors that made California cuisine famous -- designer pizzas, Japanese eggplant, Middle Eastern hummus, Thai peanut sauce and sushi -- will be the homodenized staples of shopping mall dining when International Plaza opens this weekend.

So what if Wolfgang Puck himself is not here? At least four restaurants will have brick ovens toasting pizzas topped with goat cheese and caramelized onions. And there will be a steady drumbeat of rim shots from around the Pacific, seared ahi tuna and chilled spring rolls everywhere.

Instead of Berkeley chef Alice Waters and rustic daily specials, it will be chain-trained line cooks filling open kitchens to crank out the New American standards -- chopped salads, pot stickers, quesadillas, tricolored greens, apple tarts and crackling calamari with slick service, dramatic decor and dynamite restrooms.

For all the pizza and pasta of Italy and the fajitas and tortillas of Mexico, the flavor of Asia may be strongest, from all-you-can-eat sushi to the upscale Pan-Asian paired with French wines.

In many ways International Plaza is just one more mall-with-meals and one more wave of new restaurant chains in an era of dining corporately. Could it be the sixth or seventh installment of new restaurants since Centro Ybor and BayWalk opened with a flash of hip Italian lights last fall?

For diners and rival restaurateurs, both small independents and the big-money ventures that were stars just a few months ago, the march of still more new kids around the block seems endless.

What distinguishes International Plaza is that restaurants have swollen from a food court and a pair of anchors to an instant wet zone almost the size of Downtown Disney, with more than a dozen sit-down restaurants throughout the mall.

Many of the chains come from California (three from Beverly Hills alone) via south Florida's Gold Card Coast. There, malls with three and four department stores are common, and people have been standing in line at the Cheesecake Factory for hours for years now. Other chains are relatively new to the state.

The most promising restaurants, however, are newer, smaller and hail from other parts of the world, like the pan-Asian Profusion from Montreal or Bamboo Club from Phoenix. Most interesting California pizza may come from South Florida's Prezzo.

Although crews were still unloading metal palm trees and managers were training staffs off-site last week, when International Plaza's Bay Street restaurant zone gets cooking it will be another chance to check out the state of the restaurant industry with some of its biggest corporate players.

They are driven more by decor and theme than idiosyncracies of chefs or markets. Although most will keep prices low enough to eat for $10 to $20 a person, the corporate wealth is evident in the wow of their stage set design and the size and esprit of their staffs. The Bamboo Club's team will be in black, Cheesecake Factory's will be all in white; California Pizza kitchens' staff will be in black pants and white shirts -- and buzzing yellow ties.

The result is Restaurant Row as a brand-name theme park in a simulated city, which may be where modern diners want to eat. Before you spend your time or money, here's a clue to what is known about the choices.

Bamboo Club. Pan-Asian concept cooked up by TGI Friday's franchisee in Phoenix, it'll have a sleek two-story spot in center of Bay Street, with moody mysterious decor. Broad menu steams, sizzles and woks, cooks with ginger, garlic, Thai and Vietnamese spices, tops out at Saigon lobster with lemongrass. Think Samba Room for Suzie Wong.

Garnish: Umbrella drinks.

Blue Martini. Palm Beach drinkery that stirs up a Baskin Robbins rainbow of noveltinis at $11 a shaker -- or sells Ketel One by the bottle, with a short list of munchies, including seared tuna and goat cheese pizza.

Garnish: Baby blue for servers, cobalt for lighting.

Cheesecake Factory (will not open this weekend). King of the three-hour line will keep Tampa waiting until it completes Factory 40-something at Bay Street's main entrance. Most Factories have dramatic space, happy staff, a bar full of martinis and mojitos, with six-seater booths and fern-bar fun cranked to the max. Besides 50 cheesecakes, kitchen doesn't miss a trend: sliders, Thai chicken, rasta pasta, tamale cake, Caribbean steak with black beans and plantains. Prices are cheaper than you'd think.

Garnish: Large take-home bags.

Gallery Bistro Tampa. Veteran Jacksonville food court operators went upscale with a sleek new American spot-art gallery in Jax's Tinseltown and now bring it here. Look for pan seared sea bass and filet mignon dolled up with boursin from a chef-driven kitchen. Won't be cheap, but could be one of Bay Street's most original.

Garnish: Works by local artists for sale.

Hollywood Java. A local invention will marry the coffee bar to E!-obsessed fans with a sweet tooth. Coffee drinks, pastries and do-it yourself s'mores.

Garnish: Oscar, Grammy ceremonies on big-screen TV.

Kahunaville: If Johnny Rocket went native and partied hearty in the Rainforest Cafe, that would be this concept, born in Wilmington, Del., and road-tested in Buffalo and like markets. Tampa is the first tropical test. Menu covers coconut shrimp, wraps and such with occasional spice like sugar cane tuna and wasabi mashed potatoes.

Garnish: "Surf's up" every hour and staff hangs ten. Prezzo: Most promising Cal-Italian may be this small chain from South Florida where pizzas come with shrimp scampi or baba ghanoush, mashed potatoes are truffled and linguini tossed with grilled pencil asparagus and roasted garlic.

Garnish: Upstairs balcony to watch faux Street life.

Profusion. Sharing the entrance with Cheesecake is this elegant East-Wester with three menus drawn from the Mah family's Profusion and Le Piment Rouge cq means red pepper in FR in Montreal, Ma Soba in Boston. Look for French-Asian versions of veal chop with porcini, traditional Hunan dumplings and designer sushi.

Garnish: two-story glass wine cellar and jazz bar.

TooJays. The Palm Beach chain that brought rugalach, egg cream and turkey sandwiches back to downtown St. Petersburg puts hefty deli favorites out among the bistros and trattoria set.

Garnish: With pastrami on rye, you want garnish too?

Ville du Pain. Pitched at the new American interest in fresh bread, a French bakery from Lyons is opening its first American branch here selling baguettes, croissants, pastries and sandwiches.

Garnish: Dreams of a U.S. bakery chain.

Elsewhere in the mall

Garnish: Buzz and clatter of an uptown lunch counter

Nordstrom Cafe Bistro. The pride of Seattle has its E-bar with latte smoothies and Nordstrom water on the ground floor. Bistro upstairs has an open kitchen making salads, sandwiches, hot entrees and, surprise, wood-fired pizzas. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Garnish: Memories of trips to the tearoom with Mom.

Todai. (Not yet open.) Big disappointment for big eaters: They'll have to wait awhile for the chain that bills itself as "mother of all seafood buffets." All you can eat sashimi and California rolls, tempura, teriyaki, noodles and more may sound like assembly line fare, but the fast-growing chain wows bargain eaters of all heritages in a dozen California spots.

TGIFriday's. The original concept restaurant, now 35 years old with more than 600 locations in 52 countries, opens another one. Happy-talk staff delivers potato skins, Cajun pasta, fajitas and fried chicken salads, and bar showoffs flip Jalapeno Marys and Nutty Accountants.

Garnish: Silly hats and silly pins.

Food Court

The mall's Portico Cafe is indoors, with a sweep of fast-food stalls surrounding a seating area in surprisingly calm and neutral colors. Panda Express, Chick-fil-A, Charley's Steakery, Haagen-Daz and Suki Hana are familiar mall fare.

New ideas in quick service:

Richie's Neighborhood Pizzeria. Another chain started in Beverly Hills, it brags on New York-style pizza served by the slice, but with toppings like rigatoni and chicken parmagiana they don't serve in Brooklyn.

Frank & Stein. If we have to spell this out, no beer for you (and no hot dogs either). Menu includes others of the world's wurst, fries and Belgian waffles.

Le Petit Bistro. Recently opened in WestShore Mall as well, it sells French-style sandwiches, salads and a small selection of hot entrees.

Tango Grill. Parradilla style of Argentine beef, a steakhouse concept that never made it to the Tampa Bay area, makes its debut in the food court, complete with flan and crepes.

Food shopping

Like all malls, International Plaza has pretzels (Pretzel Twister and Wetzel's Pretzels) and cookies (Mrs. Field's). Its biggest addition in food shopping is an abundance of chocolate, with Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory fudge, Godiva's well-known Art Nouveau salon of chocolate and the newly arrived Belgian chocolatier Neuhaus with an array of truffles, manons and pralines.

Coffees and teas will be sold by local coffee roaster Joffrey's, as well as Starbucks and Nordstrom's.

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