Susan Cello and Ellen Young's Cello's Char-House has been an ill-kept Safety Harbor secret since 1998. The building itself is certainly loud enough, its exterior given over to a faux-cubist mural featuring a cello, wine, bread and two ladies with crazy grapefruit bosoms.
Then inside? It's like a rec room heavily garnished with Rosie the Riveter posters and other World War II memorabilia, the ceiling a neck-kink hazard of photo collages. There's an old sign advertising apple cranberry chutney, lots of frames and mirrors made with glue-gunned wine corks, faded family photos, yearbooks (mid 1980s, Countryside High in Clearwater), garden lattice and a whole lot else. There seems always to be a birthday going on, so add balloons and streamers into the mix.
The flotsam-jetsam-and-then-some decor is not really the most distinctive thing about Cello's. Susan is the chef, Ellen presides in the front of the house, and both of them have the kind of outsized personalities you find on Comedy Central or among the best Christie's auctioneers. They are chatty and funny and warm, which somehow serves to draw customers of a similar ilk. (On a first visit it can be disconcerting to be greeted with an attenuated "helllooooo" by a tableful of strangers.)
There is no liquor license, so bring your own and Ellen will open it for you while walking you through the brief menu. In short, pick a protein, all of it purchased fresh that morning at the store and minimally messed with (not even salt and pepper) before being thrown on the grill.
With it comes a lot. Meals begin with a plate of toasted, seasoned flatbread triangles and a bowl of beer cheese soup. It's thinner than many of its type, with good flavor and floating a handful of buttered popcorn, which marries beautifully and shows the kitchen's whimsical signature. On the heels of that comes a generous and crunchy house salad with a balanced vinaigrette, a few cheddar cheese Goldfish subbing for croutons (funny, but tasty).
On the entree plate itself you may find a duo of fresh cheese ravioli and a whole grilled carrot nearly bisected by a sharp knife (visually a bit like something the Mob would send as threat to a would-be stool pigeon). Simple but quirky, this assemblage surrounds your main event. Each grilled item can be accompanied by one of the evening's three sauces. We paired the night's special New York strip ($18.95) with a blue cheese pesto, a blackened salmon ($16.95) with a caramelized Vidalia onion-caper sauce, and a boneless, skinless chicken breast with the apple cranberry chutney. All solid pairings, the sauces are plucky and generous, lending a lot of zing to the fairly demurely flavored meats. The steak may have been a hair past medium-rare, but otherwise the kitchen's grilling skills are sharp.
And then came dessert. Ellen rattles off the long list dramatically, ending with a lemon Bundt cake she has given a more anatomically rich nickname. True to our immature sensibilities, we head for the "butt cake," and opt as well for a slice of Safety Harbor cheesecake. Creamy but not too dense, it would give any New York contender a run for its money. And lemony, moist and accented with real whipped cream, the butt cake was the bomb.
Cello's reads more like going to dinner at a kooky friend's house, one who isn't too shy to charge you a fair price for her labors (cash only). And because the shopping is done each morning, reservations are nearly a must, preferably made early in the day. It may not be for everyone, but in a sea of cookie-cutter restaurant, Cello's idiosyncratic tune sticks with you.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses.