ST. PETE BEACH — For 18 years it was an outlier on St. Pete Beach, a community more comfortable with flip-flops than flambees. Bruce Caplan's salaciously named Fetishes Fine Dining was a throwback of sorts, a nod to the Continental restaurants of yore. Just eight tables and a menu that boasted tournedos, quenelles and brandy creams, it was presided over by Caplan with a ringmaster's keen eye. Area wine lovers knew it was one of the few places on the beach to receive major kudos from Wine Spectator, the depth and breadth of Caplan's list a surprise in such a small place.
Fetishes closed due to lease problems at the end of 2011, Caplan ferrying his wine cellar to safety while contemplating what to do next. He found space just blocks from his previous location, at the old Monster Slice Pizza spot across from Postcard Inn. Still a bit of an outlier on this casual stretch of Gulf Boulevard, it's an intimate box in which a glassed-in wine cellar has been erected. With Fetishes Dining and Wine Bar, Caplan has reprised the bulk of his old menu.
But notice the excising of the word "Fine" from the name. Has he taken things down-market?
Absolutely not. What keeps the "fine" firmly in place is Caplan's decision to focus on tableside service, a phenomenon as rare as hen's teeth these days. He does tableside Caesar salads, steak Diane, Dover sole and flambeed desserts like bananas Foster (which, he says, do not get doused with 151 proof liquor, often the culprit in injuries, as at a Palm Harbor restaurant where four diners were burned in 2011).
Why has tableside gone the way of the dodo? The reasons are several fold. First, it's a training issue. Servers are often so transient and restaurant profit margins so meager that it just doesn't pay to lavish staff with the training required to dramatically light things on fire in the dining room. Second, it requires genteel patter. How many people do you know these days who can make elegant chitchat with strangers while chopping and deglazing? And third, it reflects our changing tastes in foods. We like our meats grilled, our desserts chocolate, neither of those things tableside-friendly.
But consider for a moment steak Diane ($34). The cart is wheeled over, the medallions of rosy tenderloin discussed and admired, the burner ignited. Butter and sizzling meat, mushrooms, shallot and Dijon and glace de viande deglazing all the little tasty bits from the bottom of the pan, a zesty pour of cognac, a swirl of cream and the tender meat goes back in to be enrobed in rich sauce. Then, boom, it's in front of you, tendrils of fragrant steam wafting. The Diane in question is the Greco-Roman goddess of the hunt — and, yes, I'd chase this dish with dogged determination.
Or how about a Caesar ($9 with dinner, $12 a la carte), an exercise in which elbow grease meets anchovy and garlic in a slow soft-shoe at the bottom of a wooden bowl; egg yolk and Parmesan, Worcestershire and lemon adding depth and texture to what eventually transforms cold, crisp romaine into something so much less pious than a green salad. Caplan makes it for two or more guests — wise because friends don't let friends eat Caesar alone (unless you've driven separately, in which case the garlic breath is a lesser threat).
Not every single thing at Fetishes thrills me. There's the automatic 17 percent gratuity that chafes a little, and sides on many entrees are the same: oversauteed snap peas and a puff pastry nest of mousseline potatoes that tends toward dryness. In a small operation, it's easy to see why each dish doesn't get its own unique sides, but they better be rock stars.
But the kitchen is expert with how it cooks meats, from the golden-skinned duck a l'orange ($32) to crunchy-edged crab cakes ($34) that taste just like some of the best in Baltimore. And it's a treat to see so many California cabernet sauvignons that have been cellared sufficiently (lots of great 2001s and 2002s) offered at prices that get your attention but are actually fair. For instance, a 2001 Silver Oak Alexander Valley cab is offered at $125. If you can find it, it retails for about $80. I'm not ordering the 2000 Chateau Margaux for $1,500 a bottle any time soon, but it's good to know that if that's my particular fetish, Bruce Caplan has me covered.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow her on Twitter, @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.