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Pacific Wave finding its way

Downtown St. Petersburg's new Pan-Asian restaurant boasts a chic setting and polished service, but the exotic flavors don't always come together.

By CHRIS SHERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 21, 2000


The Pacific, its ocean of odd fish and its rim of 100 flavors, is a long way from St. Petersburg. Indeed, at times we seem a far piece from the excitement of the Atlantic's edge too. Yet the faraway is always alluring.

The latest restaurant to try to transport us to those fabled lands and waters is Pacific Wave. Its owners/chefs know the journey well: Joseph Chouinard helped open Redwoods, the sleek downtowner that gave us a taste of Pacific Rim cooking two years ago, and Peter Tahnavong came here first with Japanese steakhouses.

Diners know the way better too: Our appetite for Asian foods has grown to include sushi, pad thai, kim chee and lemongrass chicken. They are widely available, separately, in fusion with each other or with European and American traditions, and in uptown, upscale formats from Rice & Co.'s Pan-Asian mall food to Roy's, the chain that makes Eurasian a casual splurge.

That means the way may be long but it's also crowded. Cooking ostrich and Hawaiian fish, seasoning with vanilla bean and garnishing with orchids is no longer a novelty; it's a tough competition. In its early days, Pacific Wave's food will have to rise to meet it, although it already has good looks and a veteran staff of polish and finesse.

The aim is for a Pan-Asian place that's hip and affordable. Already it has given Gen Zen diners a contemporary place to start. Using more imagination than budget, owners converted a former chocolate bar/Italian restaurant (last Fettuccini's) into spare contemporary space perfect for modern Asian. The black scrim and white linens set off contemporary, polished metal sculptures and ancient Japanese earthenware; a gleaming foil medallion proclaims calm while a small Buddhist altar sits serenely above the grand piano.

So the Wave feels like a different, distant place, the kind of independent uptown energy we're desperate to see in downtown St. Petersburg (and anywhere!). Sounds different too: It can require a glossary as long as the menu to sort out your order. Yet for all those ingredients, food at Pacific Wave does not often taste as radically different as it promises.

Best dishes had simple, distinct tastes. Chirashi, an arrangement of raw fish both as pretty slices of sashimi and in salmon and tuna poke (Hawaiian fish tartare) with lively seaweed salad and rice, is an indulgent lunch or dinner, but still light.

Tempura shrimp were straightforward, big guys served whole not butterflied, with aioli and a noticeably smoky tomato sauce, not dramatic but a clean, enjoyable contrast. Likewise lobster "lollipops" with a pesto of basil and macadamia nuts.

A lobster bisque with vanilla was more European and certainly not light, yet its richness was classic and well executed.

Many of the menu's items advertised as much in a single dish as it does in a puu puu platter of a dozen appetizers, an intimidating challenge for any cook.

Meals offered as stir-frys or "Asian bowls" of noodles or rices had airs of an exotic bistro and came in lovely square vessels, but the flavors were lost in a muddle, not showcased in balance. Beef with udon noodles in "ginger, vanilla bean and porcini mushroom cream sauce" sounded like all my favorite things, but tasted like a warm hearty gravy with a spiciness as much like cinnamon as ginger. Another planned to combine salt-and-pepper calamari, rock shrimp and bay scallops over mochi rice; the seafood was soggy and indistinguishable, and the rice was sticky as promised but lacked the lime-y zing of kaffir. A veal rack stuffed with "Kobe beef and wild boar meatloaf" was decidedly underwhelming, more like a good boliche, despite the effort. Ditto Peking duck buns with porcini and truffle oil, little improved over potstickers.

Fish, the main attraction here, was best when ona (moonfish) was seared and served with a corn crab flan and a fresh bean salsa. But opakapaka and sea scallops with macadamias and jasmine rice were much too dry.

In desserts, stick to the tropics' own chocolate: the Krakatoa lava cake with molten bittersweet or the more mild-mannered milk chocolate tart with a delicate counterpoint of Asian pear.

Pacific Wave also knows Asian food goes with wine, not just export beer. A well-chosen list offers crisp rieslings and juicy reds like the DeLoach pinot noir that match these new combinations of flavors. Ultimately that challenge will become tougher, and more fun, when the kitchen focuses and delivers more of the exotic flavors that inspired it.

Still, the journey that leads to the Pacific is a long one, several thousand miles that begin with a single step. Pacific Wave must continue on the path.

RESTAURANT REVIEW

Pacific Wave

211 Second St. S, St. Petersburg

(727) 822-5235

HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m for lunch; 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

RESERVATIONS: Recommended

CREDIT CARDS: AE, D, MC, V

DETAILS: Full bar; smoking at bar only.

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Good

PRICES: Lunch, $7-$9; dinner entrees, $12-$22.

SPECIAL FEATURES: Live music Friday, Saturday nights; private room available.

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