Let me confess that this review was supposed to be about Anita's Restaurant, a sweet, sleekly modern, subtly elegant bistro off Spring Hill Drive near the Suncoast Parkway.
I'd been there before, and even though it was late May "shoulder season," I knew to leave a reservation request on the answering machine to assure a table. Then I'd gotten all gussied up for a night of dining in an atmosphere that wouldn't feel out of place in any sophisticated city.
Imagine my shock when we drove into a prime parking spot right by the door, only to see that the windows had been covered in brown paper and all the lights were out.
Yup. Like so many other special places on my lamentably short "Unique Dining Experience" list for this area (Cafe Grand in New Port Richey, Ile de France in Hudson, and Water's Edge in Weeki Wachee come to mind), Anita's had closed.
So there we sat, tummies growling, all primed for some Parmesan-panko-lemon-encrusted flounder or seared ahi tuna with wasabi cream — two of Anita's specialties — and the doors were locked as tight as my throat felt at that precise moment.
We rolled out onto Spring Hill Drive, wondering if this meant still another night at one of the good ol' predictable chain gangs, when I remembered many moons ago dining at a super-special place a few blocks west. It was 1994, to be exact, but I still salivated when I remembered how extraordinarily scrumptious those meals had been.
Could I dare hope that Nouvelle Cuisine would still be open 17 years later?
We inched along looking for the name when my friend spotted it: a beige and brown building on the north side of the street, about a quarter-mile west of the Mariner Boulevard intersection, with a white tattoo parlor on one side, a tall chain link fence on the other, and a scruffy-looking patch of weedy dirt filled with cigarette butts in front.
Not impressive on the outside. But what about inside?
After three remarkable meals, I now wonder why I haven't made Nouvelle Cuisine a regular stop on my dining-out agenda.
The Belgian-French menu, quietly elegant decor and leisurely pace (count on at least two hours for dinner) are the closest I've been to a true European dining experience since … well, since I've been in Europe.
Credit chef Jan Kinds and his wife, Isabelle Roos, natives of beautiful Bruges, Belgium, and owners of the place since 1999. Kinds grew up in a restaurant family and runs the kitchen. Ms. Roos oversees the 60-seat dining area with a composed manner and voice that create a feeling of stylish serenity. The background music of opera, symphony or jazz encourages soft speaking, giving a feel of privacy, even when most tables are full.
The forest green wainscotting, gold-embossed wallpaper, and gold curtains and tablecloths are set off by dark wood trim and black tableware that make diners forget that busy Spring Hill Drive is so close.
Still, it is the food that makes Nouvelle Cuisine a fine destination, whether for lunch or dinner, from the crusty homemade bread to the lighter-than-French Belgian sauces with many of the entrees, or the grand finale, a generous creme brulee topped with a sheet of caramelized brown sugar ($9, enough for two).
Out of 10 dishes I tried, my favorite is the firm, moist monkfish (Ms. Roos says it's called "poor man's lobster") with a mild yellow curry sauce and caramelized onions ($24). Like all entrees, it comes with soup or salad, two nicely flavored vegetables, and gratin dauphinois made of thinly sliced potatoes with rich Gruyere and secret spices, baked to crispness on top and tender inside.
A pork tenderloin with bordelaise sauce ($21) took its name seriously, being fork-tender and slightly pink in the center to keep it moist and flavorful. The pan-seared Lake Victoria perch ($20) with Dijon mustard sauce had a rich, piscine taste without being the least bit fishy.
The one semi-letdown was quail with blackberry sauce ($22), just right for a small appetite (you really have to work to get a mouthful), but mine arrived just a tad dry and stringy.
The soup of the day on all three visits was a broccoli in broth — no cheese, no thickeners — just herbs and spices and perhaps some leeks to give a savory flavor that awakened the appetite but didn't kill it. The fresh garden salad (no iceberg lettuce here, thank you) came with a mild peppercorn dressing, thoughtfully draped on one side so that diners can add or subtract as they like. The escargot de Bourgogne ($9) had a pleasingly mild garlic/butter sauce, but the li'l critters were a bit soft, without that nice chewy feel that distinguishes them.
Lunch features homemade crepes with either seafood or chicken a la king ($10), in a light, Belgian-style cream sauce and a small salad on the side. The fettuccine seafood ($12) had the same light sauce that I found refreshing, but my dining companion found too mild, wishing for more heft. Other choices are vegetable ($10) or seafood ($12) quiche (allow 35 minutes because everything is done from scratch here), perch, trout or salmon, veal chunks with Roquefort sauce, soups and salads.
A recent Saturday evening special was Maine lobster (market price), which seemed popular with the apparently pleased diners around us.
Future visits will call for Nouvelle Cuisine's self-styled "signature dish," a generous rack of lamb, and one of Chef Kinds' Belgian chocolate desserts, as one of my fondest memories is eating absolutely perfect Belgian chocolate while sitting on the banks of the canals that meander through Bruges.
If I may be so bold as to plagiarize myself, I'll borrow from my 1994 review of Nouvelle Cuisine and end by saying: "A … box of live flowers (by the entryway) … a more elegant sign and a striped canvas entry awning (and, may I add, a patch of real, green grass sans ciggie butts in front) would better suggest the … delights that await within."
Even so, I'm happy to see that the current owners got rid of the monster neon beer sign that once dominated the front window.