By Laura Reiley
Times Food Critic
Despite it all, you're going to do it tomorrow, aren't you? The economy's ongoing dishevelment and the threat of crowds have not dimmed your enthusiasm for checking out the new Shops at Wiregrass. You're ready to catch some bargains and get a jump on holiday shopping.
Much has been written about the shopping center's savvy use of outdoor space, its townlike construction of sidewalked streets. It doesn't have the swanky anchor stores to compete with International Plaza or WestShore, but it's a lovely place to wander, its Barnes & Noble alone cause for great jubilation. Once the shopping is done, however, it is time for the sustenance. There are some familiar options — nationals like Moe's Southwest Grill and regionals like GrillSmith and Yamato Japanese Steak House — but some new faces prompted recent investigation.
After observing staffers assemble a quarter of a million LED lights and a 1,000-watt sound system for maximum holiday cheer, we stopped in at the Brass Tap for a tipple. Somewhat strangely, it serves no food, but one may order delivery service from GrillSmith next door. The Brass Tap is all about the brew, with 40 thoughtful suds on tap, another 300 import, domestic and local craft beers in bottle. Pluses: Beers are served gloriously in their proper glassware and there's a cigar menu, which can only be indulged in on the front patio. Minuses: The wine list is an utter afterthought and the interior is somewhat cold and antiseptic.
From there, we headed down a couple of doors to the area's first Cantina Laredo. It's a Dallas-based concept launched in 1984, long before salsa was this country's favorite condiment. Served in an attractive and lively dining room, it's upscale Mexican with some regional touches, with nothing too exotic or spicy to spook shoppers. Our margaritas ($8) were disappointingly sweet, without a lot of tequila flavor, but an order of guacamole ($9.49), made tableside, with just-fried chips, was laudable, as was an evening's special of grilled swordfish ($17.79) with sweet-heat salsa. House platters like one called the Durango ($13.49), which pairs a fat cheese chile relleno, chicken mole enchilada and spinach enchilada, suffer from a homogeneity of textures and flavors — get something crunchy or crispy on the plate and we're talking.
One review in the News-Press of Fort Myers noted that "Cantina Laredo is to Mexican what P.F. Chang's is to Chinese." That's about right, with what it lacks in complete verisimilitude made up for by pleasant accessibility.
Another Wiregrass adventure led to a quick stop at Cosi, a publicly traded concept growing by leaps and bounds.
It's dominated by a big stone slab oven, from which emanate pleasant flatbread pizzas (you've seen these pizzas: grilled chicken breast with barbecue sauce, smoked Gouda, red onion and cilantro, $7.39 small, $12.99 large, similar in topping combos to chains like California Pizza Kitchen). The rest of the menu is bright, well-conceived sandwiches (grilled chicken Parmesan melt with oozy mozzarella and marinara, $6.79) and salads, like the signature one that features Gorgonzola, grapes, pears, pistachios and dried cranberries with mixed greens ($7.19).
Imagine the cool furniture of your favorite Starbucks morphed with the cheery, quick-serve vibe of Panera. Speedy and inexpensive, it will get you back out there stimulating the economy with holiday enthusiasm in no time.
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.