By Laura Reiley
Times Food Critic
LARGO — The movements were so deliberate they read like ritual. She sat in front of a roast beef sandwich on whole wheat ($6.19), hefting one triangular half, biting, setting it down. No drink. Nudging her lunch plate, a smaller plate held a perfect cylinder, an individual banana rum cake ($3.50) that she glanced at often.
The sandwich half vanquished, she slowly pulled the cake toward her, taking inventory of its snow-white, coconut-flaked exterior. In unhurried forkfuls, she ate exactly half. The remainder, along with the other half sandwich, went in a spiffy pastry box for later. The elderly woman spoke to no one, but I could tell she was a regular. In fact, most of the lunchers at Frida's Cafe and Bakery seemed like regulars.
One of the unexpected pleasures of reviewing restaurants is the chance to observe worlds previously unknown. Frida's world is filled with devotees. Lingerers take up residence on the couch and small clusters of comfy armchairs. Longtime employees enthuse about the pecan bars ($1.69) and hum along with the already-Christmas soundtrack. Frida Kahlo's caterpillar eyebrows glower from a framed print on the custard-yellow wall, but the more salient Frida is Frida Alipour, who has owned the bakery/cafe with her husband, Jeff, for almost five years.
The couple used to sell baked goods wholesale to local hotels; before that, they owned a Dunkin' Donuts — all good experience for this project, an ambitious bakery that has slowly added a menu of laudable hot panini, cold sandwiches and salads. It's an interesting blend of old-timey neighborhood coffeehouse and new technology, with a scrolling LED sign hawking the goods outside and handheld pagers buzzing when orders are up.
Dishes come with a cakey wedge of coconut bread, sweet enough to sub for dessert, but with a nice nutmeg kick that goes equally well with a cup of bacon-studded potato soup ($2.99) or a delightful winter salad of mixed greens, toasted pecans, dried cherries and little fluffs of goat cheese all in a nice raspberry vinaigrette ($6.49).
Of the sandwiches I tried, top honors went to a veggie panini ($6.49), pressed on crunchy-edged housemade bread and filled with roasted green peppers, tomato and molten smoked Gouda (delicious, but resulting in a cat's cradle of elastic cheese strings not advisable on a date), and a stacked sandwich called "La Torta" ($4.49 per slice). This was a wedge, really, of bread slices, chicken salad, sprouts, cuke and tomato. Simple, but wholesome and flavorful.
The pastry options are more high-flying, with petit fours that look like mice, mousses swirled into tulip-shaped chocolate shells, fancy little European cookies and birthday cakes so pretty one hesitates to mar their surface with candles. All fit for company when loaded into pastry boxes and hauled home, but it's a lovely time out to linger over one of Frida's rich espresso drinks and a coconut-shaggy banana rum cake, even if you eat only half.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com 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.