By LAURA Reiley
Times Food Critic
For most of us, it's like the appendix or wisdom teeth, something left over from a different time in human evolution. Many of our living rooms — those formal places for entertaining, with your best artwork and the cushions fluffed just so — have been given over to foosball tables or just sit neglected. So where do we live, if not in our living rooms? Let's face it, it's a spot equidistant between our refrigerators and our televisions.
Sarah Johnson wants people to hang out in the Living Room. She and her family opened it in August in the space that used to be Deli News Cafe, setting about immediately to transform it into a lovely space suitable for company. Rows of hardbound books, lush oil paintings — it has all the trappings without any of the fussiness (i.e., no plastic sofa covers or antimacassars).
At one point the building was a gas station, and vestiges like open ductwork give it a distinct funk factor very in keeping with Dunedin's signature style of casual amiability, dog-friendliness and fierce independence. Johnson, a former King High School teacher, and her mother, Rene Johnson, owner of My Favorite Things gift shop in Dunedin, may be new to the restaurant business, but they seem to firmly grasp the fundamentals: Give people good value, broad choices and maybe some things they haven't seen before.
I applaud the small-plate menu for its novelty and vegetarian friendliness. A plate of snappy haricots verts ($5 small, $8 large) is perfectly paired with almonds and shallots in a classic brown butter. Stem-on artichokes ($8, $14), glistening with a rosemary butter, get capped with a Parmesan-mozzarella herb crust; whole portobellos ($7, $12) are stuffed with lush sauteed spinach. Simple, healthy, but with verve.
A recent nip stealing into the air made one evening's hearty, textbook lentil soup ($4 a cup, $6 a bowl) just the right starter, and a citrusy-buttermilk-dressed Green Goddess salad ($11) was a treasure trove of dried cherries, toasted walnuts, Gorgonzola and delicious pumpernickel croutons hiding among the greens.
Most dishes come in a small or large version, the small not minuscule (two smalls are roughly a meal), and just about every wine on the modestly priced list is offered by glass or bottle (a great wine happy hour Tuesday to Friday, 5 to 7 p.m., $2.75 house wines). Two people can eat lavishly for $60, maybe sharing a trio of hoisin-slicked braised pork shanks ($11) paired with tangy shaved cucumber salad, then a special threesome of crabmeat-stuffed grilled sea scallops ($15) and a grand finale of dense, moussy chocolate marquise ($6) or raspberry-drizzled cheesecake ($6).
Dunedin residents have taken to this newcomer immediately, making the porch seating and the high communal table some of the busiest real estate in town right now. Maybe this Living Room's popularity will get us rethinking that foosball table placement.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.