By Laura Reiley
Times Food Critic
ST. PETERSBURG — I get a lot of e-mail asking me to decode the star system. How do I decide, and more pointedly, how can I give the Don CeSar's Maritana Grille three stars, and a week later give three stars to an inexpensive, unprepossessing newcomer like Bowled? Am I saying they are the same?
Nope. What I'm saying is that, compared with other similar restaurants (casual, fun, lunch for around $8, dinner for around $15), Bowled exceeded my expectations. Brought to life by veteran server Michael Cecere on a shoestring, in the location once occupied by Brown Dog Cafe, Bowled bowled me over. It's bold.
All right, enough of that. Cecere and staff are doing dozens of things right. Service is warm and efficient, moms and their toddlers feeling just as welcomed as business lunchers. The interior is cheery, with a caramel-chocolate-black color scheme, comfortable booths and easy-wipe tables.
I jumped the gun a little bit, my first visit while chef Matt Cummings (formerly at Cafe Ponte) was still getting his bearings. He seemed to have hit his stride on my second visit, impressive since the menu globe-trots all over the place, loosely organized by dishes that you can serve in bowls.
From his time spent at California Ciccio, Daily Eats and elsewhere, Cecere noticed that people are smitten with wide bowls cradling a single protein-starch-veg creation. Steam rising up, customers smile down into a pile of jasmine rice topped with quick-wokked bean sprouts, peppers and bok choy, atop of which ride a trio of fabulous orange-cashew-crusted fried shrimp ($8.95 lunch, $12.95 dinner). They get giddy at the prospect of soft polenta hidden beneath a fennel- and saffron-sparked tomatoey mess of little shrimp, calamari rings, white meaty fish, clams and mussels ($8.95 lunch, $11.95 dinner). And they leave hardly a forkful of a bowl of spicy red curry rice noodle topped with thin slices of flank steak and more stir-fried veggies ($8.95 lunch, $10.95 dinner).
Not everything is in bowls, but there's a family resemblance with all the food: veggie-heavy, bright, punchy flavors (not shy with the salt, either), pretty plate presentations in portion sizes that are sensible. Of the salads, the panzanella ($6.75) and caprese ($8.50) were my favorites, the former a sophisticated bread salad of rosemary focaccia, the latter featuring tasty little grape tomatoes. There's a mighty fine grilled cheese with tomato ($6.75), one of life's near-perfect foods, and at dinner a Mex-Italian lasagna ($11.95) reads like home cooking lent a little ritziness with an asiago-chipotle cream sauce.
A bottle of wine acts as tabletop decor and gentle nudge; the short list of beer and wine is pleasant but unremarkable. Blueberry lemonade ($2.49) and brewed iced tea ($1.99) are both keepers, and for dessert, although it doesn't come in a bowl, the white chocolate cheesecake with crunchy walnut crust ($6.25) is another example of how Cecere and crew are bowling close to 300 so far.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is 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.