It was a poky Tuesday night. Charlie Crist canoodled with his wife at the bar. A server named Chance helped a customer decide between two chardonnays, and a table of women finished congenial negotiations over a trio of creme brulees ("oh, no, you finish it — really, I couldn't"). • St. Pete Brasserie has been a solid part of the downtown dining scene since taking over the space from the troubled Table in 2009. Part of what plagued the Table persisted with the brasserie: The swankier new downtown restaurants tended to be clustered closer to Beach Drive, and the 600 block of Central Avenue featured too many empty store fronts and bohemian businesses that tended to fizzle for want of deep pockets.
But the artsy 600 block has found its rhythm, as has the St. Pete Brasserie under new owner Justin Chamoun. A veteran of Seasons 52 and Melting Pot, Chamoun bought the concept in December. But he's kept some familiar faces. Chef Jay Ward is still in the kitchen (his tenure in the space goes back to when it was the Table) and seasoned pro Andrew Wilkins, known widely as Wilko, still presides in the dining room.
As a team, they are warm and personable, willing to explicate the menu and guide on wine choices. In fact, Chamoun passed his first-level sommelier training and has an eagle eye for great wine deals, especially French (with lots of $5 glass options during the week). The bar seems equally adroit, with a range of signature cocktails for summer, many of them featuring that sophisticated elderflower liqueur called St. Germain. The classic, $11, is St. Germain and bubbly, but I like it better in the Collins, $8, with Tanqueray, lemon juice and soda — talk about a refreshing summer quaff.
While Chamoun has focused on bringing wine tastings and local art shows to the lounge space and the lobby that separates the lounge from the restaurant, Ward has spent his time in recent months refining the menu. Despite the presence of a number of French classics, the menu seems more broadly European in flavor these days, a shift that suits the intimate dining room and its sidewalk seating (probably in its final weeks of viability before summer steaminess sets in).
Of new menu items, the most spectacular is the pork belly ($28), a plush, slow-cooked swath set atop smoky mashed sweet potatoes, surrounded by roasted veggies and given a drizzle of tangy-sweet apricot jus. The new foie gras appetizer ($20) is equally sinful, regardless of your stance on the relevant duck husbandry: a seared disk of liver is pink-rare at center, paired with sour cherries, a pouf of dressed arugula and a few rusks of toast. Because it's so rich, the portion size is dead right.
A pair of seared scallops ($13) weren't as well-served by their preparation of linguini carbonara — too buttery and mushy to provide contrast — but the udon noodle stir fry with a soy-wasabi oomph that accompanied a seared tuna entree was excellent ($34, although Monday to Thursday from 5 to 7 p.m., you can get this entree, and most others, for $23, including a cup of soup and salad).
That $23 deal is hard to pass up, one night's soup a hearty, tomatoey white bean/escarole, and the salad a well constructed melange that include nice greens and rounds of radish (why does no one do radishes anymore?). At that price point, with a $5 glass of something delicious, it's suited to a spur-of-the-moment Tuesday night out, one that culminates in sharing luscious flourless chocolate torte with mint chip ice cream ($6.95) while trying to eavesdrop on a former governor. More and more, downtown St. Petersburg is a place to brag about, and it is steady veterans like the Brasserie that provide the foundation.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses.