ST. PETERSBURG — The beginning of this decade may be remembered fondly by local foodies. Sure, unemployment numbers are still high, the economy not yet quite on terra firma. But it has been an exciting time for new restaurants with St. Petersburg's Beach Drive and Tampa's Seminole Heights positively dense with new and notable independents. It may also be remembered as a time when our roster got filled out. Certain cuisines heretofore missing were introduced gracefully into the lineup. Moroccan? We've got it now. French brasserie? In spades. • Few restaurant openings have been as anticipated as Cassis American Brasserie, opened last month at the base of the Ovation tower on the downtown waterfront. Cementing Beach Drive as the "it" spot in St. Pete, and giving the also-new St. Pete Brasserie at 539 Central Ave. a run for its money, it has snuck into local conversation ahead of the Rays and just behind the weather. Everyone's talking.
The decor itself is worth quite a bit of blather, but stunning about sums it up: Yellow walls, unimpeded sightlines across the generously portioned restaurant to the lovely bar and out to the umbrellaed sidewalk tables. A black-and-white checkered floor that has that Parisian je ne sais quoi. It's got a gleaming stainless kitchen to make the avid home cook pant with envy.
And the food? It's mostly great.
Born in Macon, France, executive chef Jeremy Duclut worked in Philadelphia with George Perrier from Le Bec Fin for 12 years. Duclut was recently awarded the title of Chopped champion on the Food Network show presided over by Ted Allen. His culinary approach at Cassis is savvy. Lunch and dinner, brunch on the weekend, open all day, with housemade breads and ice creams (an adjacent bakery and ice cream parlor is set to open this summer, giving a grab-and-go outlet for this part of the menu). He doesn't stray too far from brasserie staples, but where he does it's to introduce American comfort foods like macaroni and cheese ($5) and burgers ($10.50). The only item that sticks out like a sore thumb is a Philly cheesesteak springroll ($8.50), which I was told was a winking homage to Philly, where the restaurant's ownership team met.
The duck confit is better over at St. Pete Brasserie (Cassis' version, $19, is overcooked in its own fat, rendering it a little greasy and tough), and I'd take the other brasserie's Alsatian onion tart over Cassis' wan tomato tartelette ($7.50; better tomatoes would perk it right up). Otherwise, Cassis has started strong. Steak frites ($17) charms with its brown paper bag of fries, the skirt steak rosy and juicy, a little herb butter swinging it toward lushness.
Several of my all-time fetish foods are done with aplomb at Cassis. A disc of steak tartare ($10.50 and $20) is near-perfect, chopped not too fine, not gummy, and punchy with onion and mustard and served with thin, splintery baguette toasts. A classic Lyonnaise salad ($8) brings frisée and lardons of bacon with tiny cubes of fried potato, drawn together with a just-slightly-aggressive sherry vinaigrette, over which a poached egg presides. A single tine prick releases its warm yolk and the salad becomes a rich meal.
Similarly successful is the house-smoked salmon ($9), its smoke faint enough and the fish plush enough to read like gravlax, paired quite stylishly with a grainy mustard sauce and little pops of briny caper and red onion. Served on a skinny rectangular plate, it's elegant in its simplicity, sophisticated in flavor. A roasted beet salad ($8) will also turn heads, panko-rolled fried goat cheese balls a crunchy, warm counterpoint to orange-inflected greens with roasted red and golden beets. It's a sensibly sized portion that still allows the possibility of a hearty dinner entree.
In general, portion sizes are spot-on; only ice cream balls accompanying warm desserts can seem a little skimpy. A disc of molten chocolate cake — not too sweet, a nice contrast of crisp edge to gooey center — gets a tantalizingly tiny ball of lively espresso ice cream. To scratch the ice cream itch, head for the over-the-top strawberry melba ($7.50) in its tall, old-fashioned sundae glass. Strawberry sorbet meets vanilla ice cream over a bath of chantilly cream, strawberry coulis and whipped cream. As big a party, the banana split ($7.50) is elevated by caramelized bananas and candied walnuts.
I've been mum so far on the service. That's because it's all over the map, from slickly competent to I-just-started-today-and-know-nothing. It will take a few months for service to settle into a groove, but for now it's a crapshoot, the service either enhancing or detracting from what is already one of St. Petersburg's best dining options.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Read her blog at tampabay.com/blogs/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.