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Intoxicating dining at MJ's Martini Jazz & Tapas Lounge in St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG — Domenica Macchia is curious, engaged and energized by the culinary world at large. The chef at the new MJ's Martini Jazz & Tapas Lounge, she's doing exciting work that speaks to trends one sees in metropolitan areas around the country.

She's brining and slow-braising humble cuts of meat (very "Slow Food" movement). She's using luxury ingredients in playful guises, like Kobe beef hotdogs or potato chips redolent of truffle oil. She believes in a small plate concept (nothing over $12) that is unabashedly American and in cocktails that are contemporary but harken back to gentler times (think floral Hendrick's gin with muddled cucumber or a Maker's Mark manhattan). And she's making sweet bacon brittle (in New York, bacon has cropped up in desserts all over town).

Owned by Jennifer and Mark Scott, MJ's is among the most thrilling restaurants to open in 2008. Live piano music gets the place going each night between 5 and 8 p.m., and on the weekends there's jazz that starts out tame and dinner-friendly and revs to dance-worthy. Low lighting, a date-night-dressy crowd, sleek service and a partially open kitchen complete the glamor.

Still, it's going to be a hard row to hoe. In a building that was originally a Steak and Ale (and subsequently other pipe dreams that never came to fruition), it sits behind a closed Bennigan's just off Fourth Street N at 99th Avenue and far from any concentration of hipness. Opened during a particularly tricky time for restaurants, and only for dinner, MJ's will have to be a destination restaurant — no pedestrian traffic, no impulsive pit stop.

I'm predicting that it will be successful, with Macchia, formerly the chef at Redwoods, adding some verve to the local dining scene.

Having eaten my way through everything on MJ's menu, there are overt and subtle nods to what other chefs are doing nationally. But you don't have to know about any of that to appreciate what Macchia is cooking.

Eat in waves, a few dishes from the "land" section, a handful from "sea," with a healthy array of "accessories." Pick the essence of richness, wine-braised beef short ribs ($12) or gently Moroccan-spiced lamb spareribs, each paired with a dollop of buttery mashed potatoes. Or opt for the punchier sauteed shrimp ($11), rosy with chili oil, its mashed potatoes sinful with mascarpone.

Potato chips come three ways, barbecue ($3), with a bowl of Gorgonzola sauce ($7) or tossed with truffle oil and grated Parmesan ($5), this last my unequivocal favorite. Equally good were fried guacamole ravioli ($7; fried avocado — another national trend Macchia's been tracking), crunchy and plush-centered. Though vegetarians here don't have scads of dishes from which to choose, they won't be disappointed by the goat cheese- and spinach-stuffed portobellos ($6), or the roasted asparagus paired with a grilled length of ciabbata and a softly poached egg ($8), its yolk luxurious as hollandaise.

Thyme-spiked ratatouille comes capped with a spectacular little Parmesan polenta cake ($8), buttery and crunchy. Still, my favorite dish of all brought just a couple of perfectly seared diver scallops accompanied with a tangle of dressed greens, a drizzle of avocado sauce and a length of sweet-salty bacon brittle ($12), all flavors and textures fitted together delicately like Swiss watch workings.

I ate my way through all the desserts, too, settling on a sophisticated, just-sweet flourless chocolate and almond cake ($6) as my favorite, a lemon zest-powered cheesecake ($6) the runner-up. Still, I could have hunkered happily with a plate of bacon brittle.

MJ's can get a little noisy (no tablecloths or upholstery to muffle), and the wines-by-the-glass list is pricey (there should be a few more offerings under $10), but the restaurant has so much to recommend that any quibble seems like nitpicking.

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, can be found 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.

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MJ's Martini Jazz & Tapas Lounge

445 99th Ave. N

(One block south of Gandy Boulevard, just off Fourth Street N), St. Petersburg

(727) 329-6600

Cuisine: American small plates

Hours: 4 to 10 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, until midnight Wednesday and Thursday, until 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday

Details: Amex, Visa, MC; reservations accepted; full bar

Prices: $7 to $12

Rating out of four stars:

Food: ★★★★ Service: ★★★ Atmosphere: ★★★

Overall: ★★★ 1/2

Thursday in Weekend: The new Thirsty Marlin in Largo

Key: Extraordinary ★★★★

Excellent ★★★ Good ★★ Fair ★

Intoxicating dining at MJ's Martini Jazz & Tapas Lounge in St. Petersburg 09/30/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 2, 2008 3:49pm]

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