It's a very fine line

When it's good, the Kitchen is very, very good. But the gleaming yet still green spot has some growing up to do.
Published June 5 2012


Although there was a restaurant of the same name several years back in downtown St. Petersburg, the new Kitchen is in no way homage to that granola-crunchy lunch spot.

This Kitchen, Jeff Knight's latest restaurant component in the growing Jannus Live complex, is such a jumble of good and bad ideas that it will take a bit of ink to unpack it all. Bear with me.

First, the kitchen in question is gorgeous and gleaming, serving the Kitchen restaurant as well as MacDinton's and the concert venue itself. But it is literally open to the street, with two garage door bays revealing where servers congregate awaiting their orders. The totally unfettered access made me wonder about unwanted visitors — bugs, pigeons, even the rogue squirrel might zip in for an unauthorized bite.

The indoor-outdoor nature of the Kitchen is appealing, with the sidewalk of an entire block of First Avenue N taken up with tables and cushion-lined plywood banquettes. Very urban-cool, very South Beach. But bring that same plywood indoors to the small dining room and there are problems: Banquettes are way too deep and high for their tables (with a plywood lip that cuts where cheek meets thigh). Add to that chairs that are much too low for the tables and a trippy Alice in Wonderland vibe arises (one somehow reinforced by the servers' rent-a-cop costumes, complete with shiny name tags and a sheriff-badge-looking logo).

The outfits perplexed me at first, but in some ways the servers resemble real servers in the way rent-a-cops resemble the real thing: They lack the gravitas or effectiveness of the genuine article, but in a pinch you're willing to squint and say, "Eh, they're uniformed professionals." Servers are seriously green at the Kitchen, sometimes big of personality, but largely lacking in fundamentals and menu knowledge.

What's going on in the kitchen is the head-scratchingest part of all. Local chef Sean Squires was the opening chef, ousted after only a couple weeks of business. Lawrence Strickland has been brought on as executive chef, with James Ellis as executive sushi chef. After a couple of visits, I can say that appetizers and desserts are consistently unappealing and amateurish, but then entrees are as sophisticated and well-executed as anything downtown in St. Petersburg and most of the rest of Pinellas.

Greasy, squishy lobster fritters ($10) and sliders containing dry, gray pork belly or duck confit (3 for $13) give way to a spectacular tea-smoked black cod set atop lush cauliflower puree and accompanied by sauteed Swiss chard and a drizzle of mustard-bacon vinaigrette with a couple tiny dabs of fig jam ($24). This disparity wasn't an isolated occurrence. A ho-hum Caesar salad (overpriced at $10) or a visually fussy but unremarkable spin on a caprese salad ($7 small, $11 large) were the prelude to a really satisfying (and well priced at $18) rosy sliced hangar steak with expertly crusted potato wedges fragrant with truffle oil and citrus-tinged broccolini, the meat's juices given a buttery, sherry-zapped finishing sauce.

Look at the skill with which the roasted half chicken is prepared, its tarragon/star anise jus subtle, an elegant counterpoint to peppery mustard greens. Then compare it to the ham-handed Applebee-esque ice cream sandwiches ($6) and something doesn't add up. With the sushi, in order to compete with the growing number of competent sushi purveyors in St. Petersburg, the Kitchen will have to scale back on the Sriracha squiggles and "signature sauces" (read: mayo flavored with things) and focus on the quality of the fish and the care with which maki are rolled.

With a steakhouse on the way for the Jannus Live complex, Jeff Knight's growing empire has a lot of moving pieces. Most of them have the potential to act synergistically, drawing would-be customers for a whole evening of dining, music and late-night revelry. But it won't happen unless the fundamentals are in place. Someone in the kitchen of the Kitchen knows how to make stellar lamb chops with parsnip puree and roasted tomato vinaigrette. But if the ladies' room tends to be free of toilet tissue, these skills alone aren't enough to keep things cooking.

Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses.