WHAT'S YOUR FAVORITE RESTAURANT? It's a hard question to answer, because there are so many factors involved. What do you like? What do you want? Did you just have Italian last night? Do you care about white tablecloths? Does anything make you happier than a good taco? How far are you willing to drive? I get asked for recommendations a lot, and even if I don't take any other mitigating factors into account, my favorite restaurant can swing wildly based on little more than my mood. Right now, as I think about what the answer might be, I'm swayed by the memorable meals I've had recently at the Refinery in Seminole Heights. Historically, Cafe Ponte is my answer. But rather than pinpoint the singular "best" restaurant in the bay area, let's look at it in terms of a big tasting menu. A fantasy progressive dinner that we can dream up, unbound by the grim realities of traffic and caloric allowances. And at a moment in time, when I was there having these dishes, any of these places could have been counted among my favorite restaurants.
Jim Webster, Times food critic
CORN-FED PEACH SOUR, ET AL
Ciro's Speakeasy and Supper Club 2109 Bayshore Blvd., Tampa; (813) 251-0022
It is fair to say that there are restaurants — decent, popular restaurants — that put far less thought and effort into the production of their food than Ciro's puts into any one of its cocktails. The staff is ready with a backstory on the specifics of each ingredient in any drink on the extensive menu, including how early the bartenders come in to start working on housemade mixers and ice. Deferring to the personal nature of cocktail choice, I'll offer that my favorites were the Corn-Fed Peach Sour and the Georgia Julep.
THE FOUR BUTTERS
Maritana Grille at the Don CeSar Beach Resort 3400 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach; (727) 360-1881
A lot of factors have conspired to kill bread service in restaurants. Part of it was low-carb diets. Part of it was the economy. Not only does that complimentary bread basket cost the restaurant, but it also fills up diners. And filled-up diners order fewer desserts. But Maritana Grille still offers up a thoughtful selection of Asiago, olive and nine-grain grain. Best, it comes with four butters, unsalted and flavored with different salts or herbs. It's a refreshing attention to detail.
Alternate option: Seaweed zeppole at Casanova (811 Cleveland St., Clearwater; (727) 733-5449).
Editor's note: This next restaurant has closed.
Chouinard's Cuisine, 9617 Bay Pines Blvd., St. Petersburg; (727) 329-8717
The first time I went to Chouinard's was at the end of a run of going to places that featured lobster, and I hadn't been impressed by any of it. When I went in and saw all the lobster on Chef Joe Chouinard's menu, I braced myself and ordered this salad. Not only did it erase my short-term shellfish memories, but it evoked hyperbole I try to avoid: It was among the best lobster I've had. Perfect texture, every bit cooked just right.
Alternate option: Chicken and sweet corn soup at China Yuan (8502 N Armenia Ave., Tampa; (813) 936-7388).
PEANUT BUTTER-STUFFED JALAPENOS
Love's Artifacts Grill 4914 S MacDill Ave., Tampa; (813) 831-3273
It sounds like the kind of thing that you might order on a dare, but the punch line is: You win. Sweet, spicy, creamy, crispy. The four major food groups.
Alternate option: Lobster pot stickers at Roy's (4342 W Boy Scout Blvd., Tampa; (813) 873-7697).
Editor's note: This next restaurant has closed.
FRIED GREEN TOMATO PARMESAN
Jonny Primo's, 33180 U.S. 19 N, Palm Harbor; (727) 772-7874
This one is such a secret that the restaurant didn't even know about it. Months ago, a friend told me about the special she had here. The idea of using fried green tomatoes in a standard Parmesan sounded great to me. So when I went, I described it and asked when it might be available. "Never heard of it, but we can make it now," I was told. To my taste, green tomatoes work in this application for all the reasons that I've never cared for eggplant.
Alternate option: Well, not pasta, but rice: Any paella at Tapas Garden (321 Gulf Blvd., Indian Rocks Beach; (727) 595-4321).
FISH AND CHIPS
Queenshead, 2501 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; (727) 498-8584
Chef Chris Greer fries haddock with a tempura batter that is only thick enough to provide a nice crunch, then gets out of the way of the fish. And the secret to the fries is an overnight soak in malt vinegar, a flavor enforced by the reduction on the plate. Minted peas brighten up the plate and the palate.
Alternate option: How about a simple piece of grilled gulf grouper at Guppy's (1701 Gulf Blvd., Indian Rocks Beach; (727) 593-2032)?
TAMARIND TURKEY SKEWER
Seasons 52, 204 N West Shore Blvd., Tampa; (813) 286-1152
The menu may change with the seasons here, but the turkey skewer is almost always there. "People order that the day after Thanksgiving," our server tells us. A good guess that no one had that tangy tamarind glaze on their holiday bird. It's worth mentioning that the entree is only 470 calories. Wait, no, that's totally irrelevant. It's just delicious.
Alternate option: The fried chicken and waffles at Datz (2616 S MacDill Ave.; (813) 831-7000).
PORK OSSO BUCO
Max & Sam's, 1700 Park St. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 360-6525
Literalists weren't happy to learn about an osso buco that wasn't veal. But when someone serves me a pork shank that has been melting in an oven for untold hours, and its juices are soaked into a bed of rice, I simply don't care what they call it.
Alternate options: The crispy pork belly bites at SHOR (301 S Gulfview Blvd., Clearwater; (727) 373-4780).
Cassis American Brasserie 170 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg; (727) 827-2927
The obvious option here would be the venerable Bern's, but if you're looking for beef flavor, you're better off ordering a muscle that does some work. Chef Jeremy Duclut uses a cut called bistro chuck that is well marbled yet tender, and sauces it with a rich, meaty red-wine demi glace.
Alternate option: Okay, okay. We can go to Bern's (1208 S Howard Ave., Tampa; (813) 251-2421) and get a Delmonico.
FLOURLESS CHOCOLATE CAKE
Cafe Ponte, 13505 Icot Blvd., Clearwater; (727) 538-5768
This dessert has been a menu staple for years. I bet there are other desserts on the menu that are good, but it is almost impossible to order anything else. The cake is a bittersweet mainline of chocolate, and the accompanying burnt caramel ice cream echoes the bitter and the sweet.
Alternate options: The cream cheese flan at Habana Cafe (5402 Gulfport Blvd. S, Gulfport; (727) 321-8855)
LATE- NIGHT SNACK
The Refinery, 5137 N Florida Ave., Tampa; (813) 237-2000
Chef Greg Baker featured an original take on the Quebec diner favorite — classically a basket of fries with brown gravy and cheese curds — each week on the regular menu, but recently retired it, at least temporarily. But the build-your-own poutine is still a staple in the upstairs bar area . . . after 10 p.m. A basket of Yukon gold fries is topped with your call on gravy, peppers, cheese.
Jim Webster can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8746. He dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.