SEMINOLE — Lucky for us, Bob Spoto's retirement was short-lived. After opening 12 restaurants in the Tampa Bay area, it was time to relax, maybe take a vacation. Plus, he's getting up there (75, although on the phone he mentioned something about helping George Washington get across the Delaware). • But then lucky No. 13 beckoned. Near the beginning of July, this seasoned pro opened his latest venture, Grill 131, on the site of a restaurant he opened back in 1991. Certainly a tricky time to open a new restaurant (just this week Spoto's Italian Grille on Park Street in St. Petersburg, one he sold a while back, may have closed for good), but right out of the gate Grill 131 is doing everything right. • Servers need a few more weeks to absorb all the menu details (they're a little hazy on what's in the sauces, which vegetables come on what dish), but they're clearly serious professionals who know the drill. • This jibes with everything else. The remodeling on what was most recently Vincent's Italian Restaurant in the Portobello Square shopping center is superb. Attractive without being busy or precious, it's a big restaurant (4,000 square feet and more than 150 seats) that manages to feel intimate. Its adjacent bar is sleek and clubby, easy to imagine filled with stylish hoards (it wasn't on either of our visits, but this is a tough time of year for restaurants).
Longtime Pinellas diners may remember Bob Spoto most fondly for his baby back ribs. He has brought them to the party on Restaurant 13, but that doesn't really define what the menu is trying to do here. This menu is smart: At the high end, it's a splurge (top entrees approaching $40), but there's a density in the $20 range, with appetizers hovering around $10, many of which could make a light meal with a salad (most salads are around $5). But that's not really the brilliance of the menu. It's that this food is familiar, heavy on the steaks, chops and fillets of fish, but every single dish has a fillip of something unexpected or something au courant.
I'll give you an example. Thinly pounded beef carpaccio ($9.90) is lush with truffle oil and topped with a pouf of microgreens, but it's memorable for its sprinkling of smoked sea salt, each individual grain a pop against the plush Angus beef. Carpaccio's Asian cousin, bluefin tuna sashimi ($9.90) is similarly successful, the swaths of quality fish elevated by a little spoon of tangy Thai pepper granita.
An Asian accent here, a deep nod to the Mediterranean there, but underneath it all is recognizable food, competently prepared. Flash-fried calamari, bay scallops and shrimp ($9.90) are perfectly tender under their mantle of greaseless batter; a generous rib eye ($22.90) is prepared as ordered and plated with a riot of juicy sauteed sweet onions and roma tomato wedges. One evening's grilled chicken paillards ($16.90) looked as if they might have spent a little time in the window waiting to migrate to the dining room, but the basic ideas were sound, pairing feta, sauteed spinach and olives with a cream sauce kissed just faintly with ouzo.
The one-page wine list gives a strong hint about what Bob Spoto aims to do at 131. A great range of varietals and viticultural areas in both Old and New World, almost all hovering between $22 and $35 a bottle. Not cheap wines, but good value wines, in a crafty balance of predictable crowd-pleasers and something new.
For now, desserts seem a bit of an afterthought, the New York cheesecake and the apple tart (no desserts made in house) lacking the thoughtfulness of the rest of the menu. But I trust Bob Spoto will tinker with that. For a man who has just come out of retirement, he has come out swinging.
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.