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1999 on the restaurant beat

Like a microchip off the old block, SideBern's guarantees foodies a bright future in dining.

By CHRIS SHERMAN, Times Restaurant Critic

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 24, 1999

menuThe best aspect of dining around Tampa Bay this year has been the spirit of regeneration in our best restaurants.

Too many local plates and palates are decades behind the revolution of fresh flavor and quality in American cooking, but why curse the darkness?

We've got new bread bakers, new beer, more sushi and, at last, dim sum bringing us into the '90s. More important, our most forward-looking chefs and restaurateurs accelerated into fast-forward to serve us appetizers of the New Millennium.

We need not depend on out-of-town chains or celebrity chefs in Orlando for new ideas as long as we have at least a handful of local independents with imagination. From the owner of the Pep's Sea Grills and Salt Rock Grill came Boulevard Bistro, the first hip meal in Seminole. A Tampa group reinvented food-court Chinese to give Citrus Park a pan-Asian bistro a mall could love. Restaurants that introduced contemporary cooking 10 years ago aren't dawdling: Mise en Place has finally perfected a bistro spinoff and Palm Harbor's Blue Heron keeps evolving. Before its first birthday, Redwoods brought downtown St. Petersburg another trendy treat it has awaited for 20 years, a sushi bar.

Most dramatic transformation, however, is SideBern's, which has its roots in one of our oldest dining landmarks, the legendary Bern's Steak House, which seems unchanged from 1957. After a false start or two, SideBern's (2208 W Morrison Ave., Tampa; (813) 258-2233) reopened this year under chef Jeannie Pierola and David Laxer. They zipped Bern's through four decades in eight months and put a Bern's outlet on the social map of a new generation of big spenders.

[Times files 1997]
More important, SideBern's set a place where the whole region can see, taste and smell the future, down to the intoxicating aroma of fennel, without forgetting the past.

Ingredients and recipes are drawn from the full globe, fused in unprecedented fashion and served in Gen-Next formats. Yet they are cooked with classical skill and can satisfy the heartiest appetite. Chinese potstickers filled with foie gras and galangal or oyster mushrooms with plantain do not rattle my taste buds with the shock of the new. Rather, they seduce me with the lure of the unexplored, and the comfort and confidence.

To the hip pantry of Italian-Asian-Latin, SideBern's has added ancient flavors of the Middle East, like fiery harissa, sesame flatbread and preserved lemons. And there are down-home American onion rings, succotash and milkshakes with homemade ice cream.

For all the rare mushrooms, caviar and truffle oil sprinkled about, SideBern's gives new prominence to the former also-rans of the American plate, starches and vegetables.

Mashed potatoes flavored with horseradish and eggplant are just the beginning; rice becomes coconut rice cakes or escargot risotto; corn transmutes into tamales, plush polenta or boniato hash. Besides arugula and tiny tomatoes in the salads and fresh herbs everywhere, there's a bumper crop of ordinary vegetables, from roasted carrots and parsnips, fried okra, braised Swiss chard and cucumber-fennel slaw to a vegetarian entree of cauliflower and squash from the tandoori oven.

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Like a microchip off the old block, SideBern's guarantees foodies a bright future in dining.

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They can still accompany a big slice of beef -- but it pained me one night to see a party of eight scan this wonderland of a menu and six of them choose the same steak. How much more fun to try short ribs, sea bass, monster prawns or "rack of pork" (just one, but a big one). Sidebern's crew does sear, wok and grill but it has also returned to the slow joys of roasting, braising and glazing. Sauces can be delicately infused jus and broths or deep reductions that can stick to a fork. Anything from puck-sized scallops to apple slices can be caramelized to a warm brown sugar crust.

The results can be a stack of dim sum with more layers of flavor and texture for sharing than the Web. Or an entree of sea bass and lump crab melded into a perfect whole, with mushroom polenta, sweetly caramelized endive and a jammy red wine sauce as satisfying as meat 'n' potatoes ('n' gravy).

While SideBern's leans on Bern's cellar for its wine, the youngster sets an instructive course for the elder in brilliant breads and world-class desserts. Unfortunately the handsome youth of SideBern's white-tee service has yet to acquire the relaxed polish of Bern's pros, who get everything right and on time without getting in the way. In return, the grand old steak house is sure to acquire some of SideBern's sophistication in decor and side dishes as it puts on a bit of 21st century style next year.

What is most encouraging may be that Bern Laxer set a standard for quality long ago. Perhaps we do have the stuff of the future in us.

If so, let tomorrow come and may a thousand new years dawn. I'm hungry, and not just for steak.

* * *

BEST GOLDEN NEWIE: Blue Heron, Shoppes at Cloverplace, 3285 Tampa Road, Palm Harbor; (727) 789-5176.

Ten years old, this comfy spot is still pioneering New Pinellas cuisine. Whether the dishes borrow from Southeast Asia or the American Southwest, original or classic sauces are perfect, as good as the fanciest entree on the plate.

BEST COMBINATION OF FIRE AND SMOKE: Fred's Famous Bar-B-Q and Brewery, 4351 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 822-3733.

Pork ribs, chicken, corned beef, turkey legs, and whatever comes out of the magic ovens is barbecue at its best, with a groaning table of spoonbread, collard greens and other Southern sides.

BEST BLUE PLATE REMAKE: New City Diner, 1002 N Himes Ave., Tampa; (813) 877-2088.

The old joint's almost 50, but it ain't looking back. A modern menu gleams with updated meatloaf, great fish, clever sides, decent wine and mini rack of lamb for brunch. Only the lines are retro.

BEST CREME BRULEE TRIO IN A FORMER CHICKEN JOINT: Boulevard Bistro, 8595 Seminole Blvd., Seminole; (727) 399-1800).

BLT pizzas, fire-roasted peaches and Asian spring rolls turn up in the strangest places. Great catches in fish, art and chefs set the snazziest table in middling Pinellas.

BEST PLACE TO PRETEND GREAT FOOD IS EVERYDAY EATING: Mise en Place Market, Bistro, Wine Bar and Catering, 2616 S MacDill Ave., Tampa; (813) 839-3939.

Mise en Place French and American comfort food, from steak frites to chicken pot pie, if you want, or lobster cocktail and pate you can eat without getting dressed up. With a good-to-go selection of gourmet entrees and wines.

BEST $30 STEAK IN PINELLAS: Julian's at the Heritage, 256 Second St. N, St. Petersburg, (727) 823-6382.

St. Petersburg's big spenders get their own top-dollar steakhouse, where the booths and bills are as the same size as the steak. A swell indulgence.

BEST CANH CUO TOM, LOBSTER IN DUBONNET AND, OH MY, JUST EVERYTHING: Cafe B.T. French Vietnamese Cuisine, 3324 Gandy Blvd., Tampa, (813) 831-9254.

High style comes in a tiny boite. French and Vietnamese flavors meet with flair in stunning soups, meat salads and classic entrees. Fresh herbs and flowers are as luxurious as the duck and lobster. Best service of the year.

BEST HOPE FOR ITALIAN COOKING: La Vigna Ristorante, 17807 Gulf Blvd. Redington Shore; (727) 392-8001.

A polished setting for southern Italian food with rare authenticity, rustic sausage with rapini, genuine ricotta cheesecake, proper pastas with classic sauces and imported pleasures.

BEST REASON TO TURN OFF FOOD TV, FILL THE CAR WITH CASH AND DRIVE TO ORLANDO: Emeril's Orlando, 6000 Universal Boulevard, at Universal Studios CityWalk, Orlando, (407) 224-2424.

Plenty of bam for the buck even if you don't run into the star of TV, cookbooks and five other restaurants. Proof of Lagasse's skill is in from-scratch Creole cooking of everything from root beer and Worcestershire sauce to wild mushroom bread pudding or quail with oyster stuffing. Stunningly tasteful decor despite the Googie setting of a post-modern theme park.

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