It could have been one of those stories where the big, bad economy forces a local business to go under.
Rent and lease issues were wreaking havoc at Restaurant BT in its prime corner spot at Hyde Park Village. It might have been easier to let the whole thing fall into the abyss, but chef-owner B.T. Nguyen decided to turn the situation into an opportunity.
She moved into a smaller, more discreet spot on MacDill Avenue — possibly too discreet; the parking lot is behind the building off Palmira Avenue — simplified the name to BT and revamped about half the menu. The former incarnation concentrated on French-Vietnamese, but Nguyen says that her new menu reflects a more global influence.
Sure, there are nods on the new menu to Spain and Italy, the New World and points in the Far East, but it doesn't stray too far from those French-Vietnamese roots. And that's just fine.
That freedom is seen in the treatment of duck. In Hyde Park, there was roasted duck. Very good, and the flavors true to southeast Asia. At the new restaurant, a seared breast ($28) gets paired with figs, raisins and goji berries, with a side of lemongrass risotto. The plate arrives, and like every plate here, it is visually arresting. Nguyen is famously meticulous about the aesthetic of presentation, and the result is food as art. But form follows function: There isn't an element of the dish that is there just because it looks good. It's there because it tastes good and works in the grand scheme. That it looks amazing is a bonus.
Counterintuitively, one of the most stunning dishes is also probably the least garnished. The Vietnamese bouillabaisse ($29) comes in a covered dish, to be presented at the table. The stew includes salmon, shrimp and calamari in a briny broth with okra, bean sprouts and . . . pineapple? That was a little surprising, but it looks like it is ready for a magazine cover shoot. And each piece of seafood is fresh and properly cooked.
Dedicated customers who have followed BT through various locations over the years have lobbied to keep certain dishes on the menu, so fans of her Shaken Beef ($27) can still get their favorite dish of seared chunks of filet mignon in a salty-sweet vinaigrette. But the chef gets her quid pro quo by introducing a playful "deconstructed" beef stroganoff ($34), which is actually more of a reconstruction. A grass-fed filet gets a red wine reduction over fresh pasta, topped with crispy leeks. The side of a fork does the actual deconstruction of the filet, and the smooth, rich sauce is nicely countered by the sweet, crunchy leek.
Along the same lines, there was clamoring to keep the Tuna Tai Chanh ($13) among the appetizers, so her take on tartare, spiked with crispy shallots that seemed to be in everything we ordered on one trip, got to stay. But that meant she got to add vegetarian samosas ($9), which are crispy pastry skins stuffed with garam masala-spiced potato and mushroom. There is also a new take on Peking duck ($10), with a composed roll of roasted bird, scallion and hoisin already in its pancake wrapper.
The surprise at dessert was that they were so much less impressive than the rest of the courses. The best we had was a tender bread pudding made of croissants ($8.50), but an accompanying ice cream came seated in a pastry cup that was almost impenetrable. A trio of creme brulees ($8.50) was nice, if subtle. And after a night of getting one beautiful plate after another, the homeliness of the banana tapioca ($8.50) was incongruous.
Perhaps nowhere does a global ideal shine more than on BT's well-conceived wine list. More than 120 bottles cover a spectrum of varietals, and are all over the map in the very best way. And while there is plenty there if you are looking to spend a lot of money, more than a quarter of those bottles check in at less than $40.
The decor is minimalist and clean, heavy on bamboo, though I'm still not sure about the clear plastic chairs. Our service was friendly and attentive, clearly checking up on us often, even when not coming to the table.
Be forewarned: Even in the more relaxed atmosphere here, this is a big-ticket dinner. But the execution justifies it. And if you want to try the food on a smaller budget, there is a lunch menu of noodle bowls, salads and sandwiches, and an interesting bar menu.
And at that, the art is a deal.
Jim Webster can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8746. He dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.