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Emilio's Bistro tries its luck in downtown St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG — Let's not rush to declare Emilio's Bistro, Bakery and Bar as the magical incarnation that is going to be a success at 437 Central Ave. For its sake, let's not do that.

That space has seen a lot of concepts come and go over the past few years, and a lot of them looked promising. But the lifetime of most of them could be measured in months.

So, why might Emilio's be the place that breaks the hex?

Well, the place is brighter. It got a makeover that seems to include more lighting and brighter colors. Local artists' work hangs on the walls. The addition of ceiling fans has improved the ventilation, making the dining area more comfortable than before.

The infrastructure has been upgraded. The open kitchen still awkwardly eats up half the space, leaving a weird row of two-seat high-tops down one wall that diners have to pass to get to the dining room. But the kitchen equipment was replaced or rebuilt, and convection ovens were installed, which means baking is now a possibility.

Baking is something that chef Emilio Brandl has made a cornerstone of the operation. In addition to desserts and pastries, he makes the croissants that he sells for breakfast and uses at lunch for sandwiches. He gets his baguettes and panini bread from Tampa Bay Bakery. All those breads make the good sandwiches better and they are a bright spot on the ones that aren't so great.

Let's start with the best one.

The sandwich with the longest name on the menu is the Not Your Ordinary Smokey Chipotle Meatloaf Baguette ($8.99). Frankly, I'm not really familiar with an ordinary smokey chipotle meatloaf baguette, so this was going to be new territory for me anyway. The thick slice of housemade meatloaf is baked in such a way to maximize crust, giving most bites a bit of the crunchy exterior and smooth interior. Emilio's makes the spicy chipotle sauce, adding a solid kick.

A honey chicken salad croissant ($8.99) was another excellent lunch offering. The mayo dressing is sweetened with honey, and the chunks of chicken breast mixed with pecans, celery and grapes. All made better by the buttery croissant.

A lot of attention is paid to burgers ($9.99, or $10.99 stuffed). The concept is that they are stuffed with any number of items, some of which can cost an extra $1.50. It's a fun gimmick, sure, but here's what happens: There are two thin patties, and the "stuffing" is put between them, so the burger will be well done, no matter how it is ordered. It's quality beef and it stands up to the extra cooking, but it's disappointing to see all the gray meat. An upside is that the edges get crispy.

There were misfires. A turkey and roasted red pepper panini ($8.99) promised a lot, but the turkey was drab and the peppers … well, there were no peppers. None. There were unadvertised tomatoes, but no peppers. A croissant jambon ($6.99) suffered a similar fate: The menu said ricotta and pesto. There was a dab of ricotta and a slight green tinge of pesto that could be seen but not tasted. And the ham wasn't any better than the turkey on the panini. The bread was the star of each sandwich, and that made me wonder how much better the sandwiches would be if the turkey and ham were roasted in-house.

There is a rotating cast of sides that come with the sandwiches. The best and most interesting we tried were the vanilla-scented sweet potato fries and a Peruvian potato salad.

At dinner, the menu is streamlined, keeping a few of the sandwiches and adding a handful of more substantial entrees. We tried the half roasted chicken ($9.99), which was excellent despite the fact that it really should be called a roasted half chicken. Just so no one gets nervous.

On one visit, our server told us about a pineapple gazpacho ($4.99 cup or $5.99 bowl) that sounded like a neat idea, but they didn't have it that day. Luckily, they did on another visit. It was a cold mix of pineapple, mango, strawberry, avocado, onion, pepper and cucumber, an interesting combination that worked well. That $4.99 seemed a little steep, though, for a small martini-glass full.

Desserts are on display in a bakery case up front and change regularly. A house-made rustic apple galette ($5.99) was tasty but screamed for a scoop of ice cream. Same with a flourless chocolate cake ($5.99), which comes from St. Petersburg's Gateau O Chocolat.

Before Emilio's, the space was home to Tedesco, Grillside Central and Diner 437. All had elements that suggested success. So does Emilio's. Lunch crowds have been impressive so far. And that's what it is going to take to make the spot a success.

Jim Webster can be reached at jwebster@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8746. Webster dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.

Emilio's Bistro, Bakery and Bar

437 Central Ave., St.
Petersburg; (727) 258-4891;
emiliosbistro.com

Cuisine: Sandwiches,
salads, bakery

Hours: 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday and Tuesday; 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 11 p.m. Friday; 8 a.m. to midnight Saturday.

Details: Amex, V, MC;
beer and wine

Prices: Entrees $6.99 to $10.99

Rating out of four stars: Food: ★★ Service: ★★ Atmosphere: ★★

Overall: ★★

Emilio's Bistro tries its luck in downtown St. Petersburg 08/31/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 1, 2010 6:30pm]

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