All of a sudden S MacDill Avenue in Palma Ceia is starting to look like a bona fide dining district. It's the introduction of Bistro Bleu back in May that seems like the tipping point. Pane Rustica, Byblos, Restaurant BT, Datz and Osteria Natalina — it's a heady array of cuisines and price points, all dynamic visions from independent owners. Bistro Bleu follows suit, taking the place of the relatively short-lived Moroccan Marrakech Restaurant.
It's the next chapter for longtime local restaurateur Tina Hurless and her new partner, Tomas Carrasquillo. Hurless and former partner Jessica Raia-Long owned the NoHo Bistro for seven years, a charming spot kneecapped by its tiny size, lack of windows and slightly dicey location on Armenia Avenue. Raia-Long sold her portion of NoHo to Hurless a while back to spend more time with her family. Then Hurless and Carrasquillo jumped at the chance to move the business to a larger, more promising location.
It's a good fit. A comfortable dining room is divided by a generous horseshoe bar; a covered outdoor patio promises great seating once the summer swelter has dissipated. On Wednesday nights a couple of guys play gentle versions of guilty-pleasure classic rock and servers quickly orient you on the superb craft brew list (lots of stylish local suds from Cigar City).
It's a neighborhood place, which means Bistro Bleu values its local customers as well as its local vendors, paying tribute on the menu to Urban Oasis Farm in Carrollwood, Sammy's Seafood in St. Petersburg, the Ravioli Company and Buddy Brew Coffee, both in Tampa, and other local farms and food purveyors. That said, the culinary focus is geographically restless. My last visits at the NoHo I felt that chef Hurless had a slightly more rigid French palette, the walls' Parisian street scene trompe l'oeils perhaps hemming her in. In the new setting, flavors draw equally from Latin America and Southeast Asia in dishes that are often familiar but with an unexpected zing.
The signature soup is a homey sweet potato apple puree (perhaps a little heavy for this time of year; $7 at dinner) given verve with a swirl of tangy creme fraiche and a few nubs of spicy-sweet candied ginger. A duet of perfect crab cakes (not a lot of filler, crisp exterior; $10) get squiggles of an aioli that tasted of floral lime leaf and a little sly heat, and a fluff of Cahaba Farms' fabulous microgreens. A nod to 1950s luncheon fare, a shrimp- and crab-stuffed half avocado ($10) is straight-up American, all ingredients playing nicely in a dish that feels luxurious but still somehow light and refreshing. Our only head-scratching starter was a fried calamari dish ($9) rendered limp with a cloying orange sauce and paired with braised endive, its bitterness no friend to the mild squid.
Entrees remind me slightly of what Greg Baker is doing at the Refinery in Seminole Heights — it's food that's gutsy and generous and fun, food that alludes to national culinary preoccupations without being "trendy" or breaking the bank. My favorite dish is a new one, a sultry slow-braised pork "confit" set atop a pool of creamy stone-ground grits flavored gently with shallot, the whole thing paired with lengths of tender-crisp broccolini ($19). Comforting but still sophisticated, a description that also held true for housemade gnocchi ($16) swaddled in creaminess dotted with bacon, Gorgonzola and wisps of spinach and caramelized onion.
The kitchen has an especially deft touch with scallops (the risotto; shrimp and scallop pasta). The brief wine list, even the reserve section, stays mostly in the affordable, under $40 zone with a nice range of varietals and countries of origin. And with friendly, laid-back service, Bistro Bleu adds one more tempting choice to the impressive lineup along MacDill.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. She dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.