By Laura Reiley | Times Food Critic
ST. PETERSBURG — It's why there are dress rehearsals, it's why there is an on-deck circle. Everybody needs a little time to get in the groove. With a restaurant, you try to work out the kinks before opening day, cross your fingers and seat the first customer.
The Table was a little wobbly at first. For people familiar with the original Table in Sarasota, expectations were high. I ate at the new location a few weeks after it opened in April and decided to wait on the review for a while. Glad I did.
In two recent visits, the meals more closely delivered on the promise of the ambitious menu. Owners Rafael Manzano and Pedro Flores have wowed Sarasotans for four years with what they call "Atlantic Rim" cuisine.
The restaurant and its Mesa Lounge have a glammy-Miami feel. Gauzy curtains billow in between tightly set tables. Twinkly chandeliers and pendant lamps throw moody light. A curtained-off nook in the back is all romance, complete with low couches. It's not huge, built on an intimate scale with a few sidewalk tables out front. Still, it feels like a dress-up spot, suitable for date night or a must-impress business meal. Prices correspond, making it difficult for a party of two to get out below $30 for lunch or $90 at dinner.
That the Table aims to be different is apparent from the outset. The restaurant's bread plate brings little round puffs made of yuca flour and fresh mozzarella, yielding a golden, buttery exterior with a spongy interior. Imagine a Pillsbury biscuit mated with a marshmallow.
Wacky. Even table settings have a cool factor, with wavy rectangular plates (impossible to balance a knife on, but stylish) and salt shakers you can't help but fondle. Wahoo ceviche cones ($4.50 each at lunch) bring whimsical ice cream cones of crisp blue tortilla cradling a scoop of citrus-charged cubed fish, very fresh. A stack of juicy watermelon squares sandwich fresh goat cheese and curls of Serrano ham ($11.95 at lunch) — a bear to eat neatly and with too much basil kiwi vinaigrette on the plate, but something that is bright and fresh on the local scene.
The menu has an intimidating number of unrecognizable food words and country-specific sauces (Incan aioli, Machu Picchu vinaigrette). It can verge on pretentious, but when it works all is forgiven, as with tuna sashimi ($13.95), its top-notch fish paired with a sleek avocado wasabi emulsion and what they call rocotto soy vinaigrette. Evidently some kind of Brazilian pepper, this last thing really amounts to a tangy ball of citrusy, herbal granita that pairs beautifully with the fish and wasabi.
Pork tenderloin ($22.95) comes with "shallot Spanish virgin oil yuca mash, banana pepper sofrito and Asian pear chayote slaw." Whew, a mouthful; what you need to know is moist slices of pork on what tastes more or less like mashed potatoes, lent interest with mild peppers and sweet, crunchy slaw.
Other restaurants could take lessons from the Table's juxtaposition of textures. Limey jicama provides a crunchy counterpoint for "fish and chips" ($22.95), a plateful of fried tilefish, mussels, jumbo prawns and logs of yuca. Softly braised pot roast-like beef and a slather of avo are contrasted with crisp fries on a short-rib sandwich ($8.50, yes, the fries are on the sandwich).
Cocktails may be the most exciting part of the Table, despite a thoughtful wine list (well-priced, with nice albarinos and other offbeat varietals).
Mojito and caipirinha cocktails are offered in a thrilling array of flavors (passion fruit, cucumber, blood orange, watermelon). I'd opt for this last, in lieu of dessert. While certainly eye candy, the sweets have to catch up to the rest of the menu. A chocolate sampler ($6.95) brings a ball of fudge, a leadenly chocolate soup in a tiny glass (curiously, the bottom of the glass sitting in a pool of raspberry coulis) and, the best of the three, a warm molten chocolate cake dabbed with vanilla ice cream.
Still, call it Atlantic Rim, call it what you will — this St. Petersburg newcomer certainly brings something new to the table.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, can be found at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The St. Petersburg Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.