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Bowled, a new casual restaurant in St. Petersburg, hits the right notes

Bowled features a variety of one-dish meals, including the Asian Bowl, left, a mix of orange-cashew-crusted shrimp with soy ginger glazed vegetables and lime-coconut jasmine rice, and the house salad (baby spring mix with candied pecans, Gorgonzola and raspberry vinaigrette).

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

Bowled features a variety of one-dish meals, including the Asian Bowl, left, a mix of orange-cashew-crusted shrimp with soy ginger glazed vegetables and lime-coconut jasmine rice, and the house salad (baby spring mix with candied pecans, Gorgonzola and raspberry vinaigrette).

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 lreiley@sptimes.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.

.Review

Bowled Restaurant

3451 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg

(727) 895-2695; bowledrestaurant.com

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; 5 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Details: V, MC, Dis, Amex by this weekend; reservations accepted; beer and wine

Prices: Lunch $5.50 to $8.95; dinner $9.95 to $17.95

Rating out of four stars:

Food: ★★★

Service: ★★★

Atmosphere: ★★★

Overall: ★★★

Coming Nov. 27 in Weekend: We look at the restaurants in the new Wiregrass Commons in Wesley Chapel

Bowled, a new casual restaurant in St. Petersburg, hits the right notes 11/19/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 25, 2008 6:02pm]

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