St. Petersburg Times: Weekend

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Where shall we dine tonight?

[Times photo: Fraser Hale]
Todd Johnson, chef and partner of Mia’s in Tampa’s Old Hyde Park Village, has optimism for his newly opened restaurant.

By CHRIS SHERMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 27, 2001

It seems mothing will stop us from going out to eat. All the better then that we have so many new choices.

Between recession, competition, terrorism and war, hasn't this been a terrible time to start a restaurant?

Hardly. Veteran restaurateurs such as chef Todd Johnson almost don't understand the question. He and his partners had been planning for some time to come north to start a sleek bistro in Old Hyde Park Village.

They opened Mia's two weeks ago and, with its cool blues and greens, it's already one of the hot tables in town.

[Times photo: Fraser Hale]
Mia’s in Tampa’s Old Hyde Park Village is among the many new restaurants that have opened. Here, a dish of Gulf Coast pasta.
"We're pretty confident we're providing Tampa with something different," says Johnson. "We just hope that the strong survive."

Same with Richard Jurkiewicz. After shaking hands at the Don CeSar's Maritana Grille for three years, he opened his own Aqua Blue Grill on Christmas Eve. The Polish immigrant turned a drab corner of St. Pete Beach's Corey Avenue into a jewel box with precious price tags.

"I don't believe in bad business. Maybe they don't open the right restaurants; they're too ordinary. I don't see any problems. I see only the future."

Even at the end of a tough year, new restaurants and accompanying optimism keep popping up, from more French at Jack's Bistro in Palm Harbor and Le Bouchon in Belleair Bluffs to the promised stuffed peppers and cabbage of Cafe Jasmin in St. Petersburg.

There's a quasi-boom in the tech-happy, food-starved wedge city between Roosevelt and Ulmerton in mid-Pinellas, where Bascom's Chop House, Saute Cafe and Bellarte in the new Radisson have all opened since Sept. 11. Outback and Panera are headed to St. Petersburg's Fourth Street corridor. Independent impresarios are busy too, with Frank Chivas of Salt Rock, Boulevard Bistro and Island Way Grill planning to open on Treasure Island, and B.T. Nguyen is expanding to Howard Avenue in Tampa.

[Times photo: Scott Keeler 1999]
Doug Bebell, manager of Boulevard Bistro in Seminole, prepares oyster stew for a customer at the restaurant’s steam bar.
Although the economy may trim diners' budgets, the chief reason for empty tables is competition, not abandonment of restaurant dining. It would take more than a recession to get modern Americans to cook for themselves again. We may go for more casual meals, but we'll still leave the cooking to someone else, on too-busy weekday nights and particularly for special occasions.

This holiday season, restaurants are the site for more and more large family meals, parties and gatherings, and smart restaurants respond by providing super-size booths and tables for large parties.

And don't forget that as Americans shook off the paralyzing horror of Sept. 11, the biggest response, next to giving blood, was dining out at Oct. 11 benefits that raised $27-million for the victims of the terrorist attacks.

Besides optimism, Tampa Bay's restaurants are increasingly stocked with ingredients rarely seen here before:

  • High-flash design. Corporate restaurant budgets and inspired independents have raised the bar for appearance, from the table to the kitchen to the restrooms.
  • Better pantries. Goat cheese is here to stay and readily available. So, too, are frills such as foie gras and truffle oil, more duck, venison and such, as well as America's best homemade products, like Maytag blue cheese and Neuske bacon from Wisconsin. And you don't have to leave town to get good bread.
  • Better cooking. The restaurant boom has brought in and trained a new cadre of talent from prep cook to chef. Among them, we will find new stars. More kitchens are broadening their techniques, even beginning to master risotto.
  • High prices. Expensive restaurants that flirted with $30 entrees a year ago have backed off, but only a bit. Workaday lunches are rarely $5 anymore. On big nights out, appetizers often hang in the $8 to $10 zone, many entrees in the $20-$30 range. Savvy restaurants offer half orders and "smaller plates," but the market's not holding back places that want to charge steep prices; those that do have no excuse for not delivering.
  • What we get for our money is slowly changing for the better.

Fusion cooking that blends Italian, Asian and Latin traditions may be fading from favor in other cities but it is still the cuisine of choice in our best restaurants and has been copied by lesser establishments. We've also gotten stronger and more sophisticated individual tastes, especially those from the East.

Our first San Francisco-style Chinese restaurant, complete with live crabs and rolling dim sum carts, came this year at T.C. Choy's in Tampa, and in contemporary presentations at elegant Profusion and clubby Bamboo Club in International Plaza.

[Times photo: Thomas M. Goethe]
The Bamboo Club brought some Asian flair to the International Plaza in Tampa this fall.

The delicate flavors and artful presentation of Asia also showed up in non-Asian restaurants, such as the Island Way Grill.

Once-rare sashimi and makimono rolls are now found in sushi bars everywhere, in many fern bars, and in a sign of true Tampa Bay acceptance, all-you-can-eat buffets and supermarkets.s

Our menu broadened, too, with more Indian foods from South Asia, and intriguingly, more food from the Middle East and the Balkans. In the final conflict-ridden months of the year, at least three new restaurants opened, serving the ancient favorites of lands from Lebanon to Persia.

Familiar Latin food didn't get as much fancy presentation this year as Asian food, but the black bean finally put on a black dress and attitude at the Samba Room.

More exciting to the tongue, however, has been an explosion of less sophisticated restaurants, taquerias and tiendas selling authentic, rustic Latin foods. Clearwater now abounds with places to get tacos al pastor, caldos and fresh tomatillos, plus sources of Salvadoran pupusas and Colombian arepas. Tampa's North Armenia is a similar cafeteria of Mexican, Colombian and Peruvian delicacies.

Most important is the new availability of good bread. Forget the onslaught of the corporate bread bakers for a moment -- longer if you can. Tampa Bay now claims more Italian, Cuban and German bakeries, plus new generation artisan bakers reviving Old World traditions.

Chinese bakeries make steamed pork buns and almond cookies, and Mexican panaderias and tortillerias turn out prettily iced sweet rolls and fresh tortillas.

The chance to enjoy bread's honest ingredients and heartfelt labor may be the best start to better dining for customers and restaurateurs alike.

Like a beautiful piece of sushi or a hearty mole verde, it is food for optimism.

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