ST. PETERSBURG — Louisiana Creole is back. The second of Craig Chapman's ambitious three-restaurant plan for downtown St. Petersburg is open for business. (The first, Grillside Central, opened a couple of months ago; the third will be a soul food restaurant at 400 Beach Drive NE.) • Louisiana Cajun restaurants have come and gone in these parts, powered by Emeril Lagasse and Paul Prudhomme and similar theme restaurants heavy on the zydeco and Tabasco. Creole food tends to be a little more subtle, its underpinnings more classical French.
That's certainly Chapman's take on things. There are fancy mushroom duxelle and marchand de vin sauces along with crawfish etouffee and shrimp Creole. His touch is subtle, never a whoosh of heat where a tickle might do. Some dishes might be overly restrained, but a bigger question is whether the dining public is discerning enough to see the nuances of all these similar concepts dotting Central Avenue — straight-ahead Southern food is already covered nearby at Grillside and Savannah's, and right next door to Chappy's, Central Avenue Oyster Bar feints at Cajun with its sauces and blackened steaks. Plus, a soul food restaurant with its similar culinary heritage is planned a few blocks away.
Chapman has done his utmost to reinvent the space that was Redwoods. The sushi bar has been turned into a more formal white-tablecloth dining room, a private dining room carved out of what used to be office space. At the restaurant's front, high-top bar tables lend the space a casual barroom feel, perfect for a faux absinthe cocktail named after voodoo queen Marie Laveau.
In a couple of visits I didn't see anyone ordering from the long list of bayou-inspired cocktails, but it's nice to know they're there. In the kitchen, the trick has been how to present some of the same dishes served at Grillside Central — shrimp and grits; red beans and rice — but bring a new sensibility to them. He has mostly succeeded.
Chappy's shrimp and grits ($9) bring architectural logs of griddled grit cake napped with a classic Creole sauce (basically chunky tomato infused with the onion, celery and green bell pepper ''trinity,'' a dash of cayenne and seafood stock) and four shrimp. Though the shrimp were overcooked, the overall dish is balanced and pretty. The red beans ($3.75), offered among a bunch of successful sides, seem cooked longer than their counterpart at Grillside, rich in flavor. Of the other sides, our favorite was the simple, snappy French green beans ($3.50) and our least favorite was the creamed spinach ($4), struggling under a heavy, biscuitlike cap.
The Creole sauce appears in numerous guises, from a pompano in parchment ($15) to shrimp ($12), chicken ($12) or snapper ($19) Creole, all served over appealing dirty rice. If you like things spicy, the kitchen can amp up the Creole sauce, no sweat. Our favorite entree, filet mignon duxelle ($21), brought a lovely 9-ounce steak, medium rare and topped with finely chopped and sauteed button mushrooms and a swirl of intense demi-glace flavored with red wine.
Chapman has assembled a staff of veteran restaurant workers, all at ease with the ebb and flow of meal pacing. They'll chat if you want, or graciously leave you to your company while silently anticipating needs.
Chapman's Louisiana roots and French techniques coalesce at Chappy's. Let's hope, in a rough economy and an increasingly crowded downtown playing field, this culinary patois doesn't blend in too much with a variety of nearby offerings.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] 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.