TAMPA — The term busman's holiday dates to the late 1800s, probably before there were restaurant critics. The idea is, a bus driver taking a long bus ride on his day off either doesn't show much imagination or he really, really likes his job. • People ask me about my busman's holidays all the time. As in, where do you go out to eat, just for fun? I don't mind the question, but I'm a little sheepish about my answer. I like to go to Restaurant BT in Old Hyde Park Village. Yes, it's because the food and service are good. But more important, it's a place where I never have a bad time, the company is invariably scintillating and I always seem to be having a decent hair day.
There aren't many restaurants like that, ones that are hip without being too trendy, where the menu is reliable but still apt to pleasantly surprise you. BT just did it again, launching a new, reasonably priced bar menu.
Many of the new items are squarely Vietnamese, as opposed to chef/owner B.T. Nguyen's signature French-Vietnamese cuisine. Where the regular dinner menu entrees stretch from about $18 to $25, this new bar menu can have you slurping up a bowl of pho or salmon and soba noodles for around $15.
I'm not saying it's cheap — you can go to plenty of mom-and-pop Vietnamese restaurants for less, but they don't have the ambience, soundtrack or stylish cocktails of BT. Pull up a stool and sip a kaffir lime-lemongrass martini ($11), its exotic fragrance something you're tempted to dab behind each ear, and look around. There's B.T. herself in her super-cool glasses ministering to the glamorous older couple in the corner, or a bevy of young Hyde Park moms at the sidewalk tables.
The new menu lends itself to sharing: Dip your chopsticks into a plate of tuna tai chanh ($11) a delicious variation on BT's famous bo tai chanh ($12), diced ahi taking the place of rare filet mignon in this party of ginger, sesame, crispy shallot and garlic and deep purple shreds of opal basil. It's got pizzazz, so maybe follow that with an equally flavorful order of five-spice pork skewers ($9, shrimp skewers are $12, chicken are $8.50, all new items). Then take it down a notch with a cool and crunchy cucumber salad ($4), its sweet rice vinegar putting out all fires.
A trio of fried duck dumplings ($12) is another newcomer easily shared — ginger and shiitake mushroom elegantly contrasting the dusky duck meat — whereas a bowl of miso broth kicked up with lemony ponzu, swirled with earthy soba noodles and topped with a plank of moist Alaskan salmon ($16) is more of a hold-your-own dish. Generally, the kitchen's soups are superstars, from my longtime favorite, a coconut milky broth cradling hunks of soft pumpkin flavored with galangal, scallion and peanut ($8.50), to two new ones: classic French leek and potato ($9) glossed with truffle oil, and Dungeness crab and asparagus ($10) with herbal high notes of cilantro.
The soups hint at what B.T. is trying to do with the new menu. More affordable, they are nurturing without scrimping on the glamor that has made Restaurant BT one of Hyde Park's most long-running success stories.
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 Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.