DUNEDIN — There's a lot going on at La Maison Gourmet. On Tuesday and Thursday evenings there's all-you-can-eat pasta nights for $6 with half-price house wines and draft beers. On Wednesdays women drink free with the purchase of $10 in food. During the year there are nine-week culinary skills classes; in the summer kids can go to cooking camp. There's also a new weekend brunch menu and a dog-friendly patio.
None of this would mean much if chef John Lewis didn't deliver the goods at his 11-year-old La Maison Gourmet. He's also resident chef for Daytime on WFLA-Ch. 8, but still, the lion's share of his considerable energies goes to what's on the plate.
It started as a retail kitchen store, then shifting to include cooking classes and food service. Then in 2005, Lewis stuck a toe in the water, opening as a restaurant a couple nights a week with an exclusively small-plate menu. The water must have suited him, because he took the plunge and went full time as a restaurant, with the school's exhibition kitchen smack-dab in the middle of the room.
Although the patio and bar area are nothing to sniff at, it's the clank of pots and sizzle of garlic tossed in hot oil that make the kitchen room the most atmospheric. It's like being on the set of a TV cooking show, the smells and bustle adding to one's anticipation. The menu has grown to include large plates as well, but an evening spent grazing through La Maison Gourmet's 35 tapas — 10 of them new, 15 priced at $8 or under — is time well spent.
These days the kitchen is largely presided over by Joel Lopez, who has made deft additions like a rich mole sauce burnishing moist chicken thighs, this set atop a plop of simple Parmesan-assertive risotto ($7). Winter comfort food, but with plenty of sophistication, as holds true for a tapas-sized portion of tender, slow-braised pot roast ($10). The kitchen's affection for chipotles is infectious: Housemade potato chips ($5; a welcome trend, they seem to be popping up all over) get a drizzle of lush chipotle goat cheese cream sauce; french fries come with chipotle mayo ($5); and quick-sauteed shrimp ($12) pick up the gentle heat and shimmer of chipotle butter.
One of the more visually arresting dishes brings a trio of pan-seared sea scallops, sliced and layered with spinach and a mushroom ragout ($12). Lovely also is spinach that is offered just sauteed with a bit of garlic, pine nuts and dried cranberries ($7, one visit suffering from a surfeit of oil and salt). A quartet of lamb chop "lollipops" ($12) are simple in preparation, their delicious flavor not requiring much in the way of accent, and another foursome of sliders ($9) — one salmon, one crab cake, one beef and one chicken — were a satisfying and sharable nosh (disposable sauce ramekins their only inelegant touch).
A pouf of undressed mesclun mix is often employed as a bed or garnish on the small plates. Unnecessary mostly, but the sherry walnut dressing on the house salad ($6) is the kind of balanced, elegant vinaigrette that shows off mixed greens to best effect. Salads in general are carefully conceived, from a mixed seafood salad ($12) to a steak salad ramped up with blue cheese and red onion ($12). These are big, best shared if one aims to finish with dessert. Which one should.
The restaurant's service staff is warm and efficient, but especially impressive when devoted to the task of whipping up bananas Foster tableside ($12 for two). Yes, it's a big gob of butter, a whole lot of brown sugar, but the finished caramelized sauce studded with soft, hot banana rounds and ladled over vanilla ice cream certainly feels wholesome.
La Maison's wine list seems in keeping with the restaurant's mission — most bottles $25 to $35, with a couple of big-ticket offerings for a wild splurge, and loads of by-the-glass options that are out of the ordinary (Earthquake zin, a lovely Martin Codex albarino). As one would expect from a cooking-school-turned-restaurant, it aims to edify as it satisfies.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org 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.