Mark Marone had decisions to make, and none of them were easy. In 2005 he bought the Pepper Mill Restaurant in Clearwater. It had been there for nearly 20 years accumulating devotees, well-wishers for whom "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" is a tidy summary.
His new Belleair Grill and Wine Bar is a case study in how to infuse an old restaurant with new tricks. He started slowly: kept the old name at first, renovated the interior, rebuilt the bar, improved landscaping and the bathrooms. Then he and chef Cathy Peplowski tinkered with the menu. They kept some of the old pleasers, maintaining the early bird favorites. But then they added sophisticated sides, small- and large-plate options, certified Angus beef and sustainable seafood. From there, Marone turned his sights to the wine list, offering tasting flights of interesting varietals and savvy bargains.
At the end of February, things were different enough that a name change was in order: Belleair Grill and Wine Bar was unveiled, with new sign and menu. It's a concept that will appeal to newcomers and to longtime fans — no small feat. Think of the menu at Stonewood Grill or Bonefish, but with an added layer of sophistication and focus on details.
Get out of the humdrum chard/cab rut with something a little more off the beaten path: Begin with a glass of Nobilo sauvignon blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand ($7.25 glass). Wine writer Oz Clarke once said the character of the varietal hailing from these parts was "cat's pee on a gooseberry bush," but this tastes more like cut grass and grapefruit pith. Or perhaps opt for a Matchbook Blockhouse 2004 ($8.50), a blend of syrah, tempranillo, malbec and petit verdot from California that will knock your socks off with its spicy nose of brambly fruit and cured meat. The wine list's prices are modest enough to experiment a little.
Then wade into the appetizer list. A quartet of fried risotto balls ($3.50) is an absolute bargain, their molten asiago center a nice foil for a ramekin of acidic tomato sauce. Risotto gets a lot of play on the menu, its acme achieved with a wild mushroom and duck version ($5 small, $9.50), deep, earthy flavors elevated with a swirl of white truffle oil.
For something lighter to start, several salads really showcase what the kitchen does best: one with watercress, baby spinach and radicchio ($5, $9.50) and another colorful showstopper featuring marinated artichoke hearts, cherry tomatoes, olives and shaved red onion and asiago. What distinguishes salads here is that they are carefully tossed in balanced vinaigrettes (one lemony, one sherry vinegar), each leaf kissed with just the right amount.
In light of a worsening economy, Marone has opted to tamp down prices. Portions are generous (not absurdly large; doggie bags are not common), so it's hard to explain how a Maryland crab cake paired with a stylish fennel slaw and a dab of grainy mustard aioli, weighs in at only $11.50, as does the gorgonzola-filled grilled pork tenderloin dotted with dried cranberries and accompanied by garlicky mashed potatoes.
Still, kick in a few more bucks for the grilled wild salmon ($17), a gorgeous piece of fish capped with frizzled leeks and married with a bacon-smoky pile of slow-cooked French lentils. This dish says a lot about the chef's philosophy and her simple but exacting preparations. You're going to recognize all the ingredients, and they're all there in capably executed harmony.
Pepper Mill fans may not warm up immediately to a classic panna cotta ($4), a kind of tangy Italian gelatin pudding paired with a fig sauce, but a wedge of refined, mascarpone-rich tiramisu ($5.50) does what Marone intends: brings diners up to date without leaving anyone behind.
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.