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BayWalk's Banbu, Grille 121 lack punch

ST. PETERSBURG

Ask people why they don't eat at BayWalk and they'll say there are too many young toughs milling about. Or too many tourists. Or both.

On four separate visits recently — day, night, weekday, weekend — there was a dearth of toughs, tourists and most everybody else. Nearing peak spring break time, Wet Willie's wasn't booming and Gratzzi, Tokyo Sushi, TooJay's, Ammazza Pizza and Johnny Rockets weren't at capacity. Unfortunately, the two newcomers to the complex aren't packing them in either, largely with good reason.

Grille 121 opened in February at the site of Dan Marino's. New owner Mike Carcaise is the longtime vice president of operations for the former restaurant. And Banbu opened about the same time at the site of the defunct Dish on the opposite side of the complex. Of the two, Banbu needs the most work, but they both have a long way to go before they deserve to be thronged.

Create your meal

Banbu operates by the same concept as Dish. Diners pay one price ($14.95 for unlimited soup and salad and one trip to the "market"), filling a red melamine bowl with stuff and a ramekin with sauce, then handing it over to the cook. The whole lot is sizzled and tossed, stir fry-style on a round flattop griddle.

Cooking of this variety has challenges. Diners may have absolutely no cooking talent or ability to marry particular ingredients with sauces. The hibachi cooks, as one told me, have no training.

Not surprisingly, the results can be mixed. As manager Raphael Machado said, many people take their plates back and start over. Having heaped in chicken, shrimp, marinated rib-eye and a pile of miscellaneous veggies, then concocting a mad scientist's brew of sauces is risky behavior. Meats don't cook for the same amount of time, some things are better left uncombined.

Beyond that, Banbu has other problems. While diners do a lot of the work themselves, sometimes servers are nowhere to be found for drinks and other details. The melamine plates and bowls look smeary and chipped (I know why on the bowls: the cooks empty them onto the grill and fling them into bussing tubs.) The accompanying fried rice and coconut rice cakes ($3.50) are lackluster, and at dinner the a la carte, largely pan-Asian dishes are inexpertly made, from the greasy spring rolls ($7) to the dry and uninteresting satay trio ($10).

Wednesday through Saturday, Banbu is transformed into a nightclub, with an ultra lounge and private booths. Wednesday is "Salsa in St. Pete" with a Latin deejay and salsa classes; Thursday is college night with Top 40, hip-hop and dance; on Friday WFLZ-FM 93.3 broadcasts live out of the restaurant; and on Saturday DJ Kev spins house music. This may be a more successful use of the large space.

Devil in the details

At Grille 121, service can be similarly problematic. It's hard to get the attention of the bartender to order. Would-be diners can be left standing too long in the foyer; menu questions are inadequately answered. Overall, it's a lack of attention to service.

The food is largely a holdover from Marino's. I was excited to learn that the restaurant has planted a patio garden from which the kitchen will draw its herbs. Surely this signals a seriousness of intent.

It's hard to tell. One night's spinach artichoke dip ($8) had the graininess of a heavy flour roux. A chicken Caesar salad ($13) came with huge planks of grilled chicken that was unnervingly pink inside, over a bed of limp romaine, its dressing lacking any punch. Buffalo chicken fingers ($8) fared better, nicely juicy, crispy and with sinus-clearing oomph.

Seared tuna ($11 small, $19 large) comes with the same Hokkien noodle blend as the Thai lettuce wraps ($11). In both cases they were too soy-salty and the ginger overwhelmed all other flavors. Prime beef tips ($12 small, $17 large), on the other hand, came ladled with undistinguished brown gravy that prompted my dining companions to talk about airplane food and school lunches. With a menu this far-reaching, it's easier to miss the mark with details.

BayWalk may not have landed two major draws with these additions. Still, the complex has a lot to offer — no reason for locals to cede it to phantom toughs and tourists.

Laura Reiley can be reached at (727) 892-2293 or lreiley@sptimes.com. 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.

.REVIEW

Banbu

197 Second Ave. N, Suite 200,
St. Petersburg

(727) 209-0616

Cuisine: Hibachi

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday and Tuesday; 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. Wednesday to Saturday; noon to 1 a.m. Sunday

Details: Amex, V, MC; reservations accepted; full bar

Prices: Lunch one trip $8.50, dinner one trip $14.95, lunch unlimited is $11.50, dinner unlimited is $17.95

Grille 121

121 Second Ave. N, St. Petersburg

(727) 822-4413

Cuisine: American

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, until midnight Friday and Saturday

Details: Amex, V, MC; reservations accepted; full bar

Prices: Appetizers $9 to $13, entrees $11 to $23

BayWalk's Banbu, Grille 121 lack punch 03/26/08 [Last modified: Sunday, March 30, 2008 9:35am]
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