By LAURA Reiley
Times Food Critic
Forget cats. Good restaurants have a lot of lives. Café Dufrain has had four thus far.
Andrew and Ferrell Bonnemort started the waterfront cafe at Harbour Island almost seven years ago as a deli/coffee shop. Time passed and they stepped it up and made it a slick cafe. Two years in they caught their breath and it was time to hire a professional chef. This July saw Life Four, with Ferrell Alvarez (no relation to Ferrell Bonnemort, despite the unusual name) hired as executive chef and Ty Rodriguez brought aboard as general manager. Both of these recruits came from a hallowed local proving ground, the nearby Mise en Place.
The restaurant business being kind of a peculiar beast, Mise owners Marty Blitz and Maryann Ferenc seem to have given this change their benediction, yet another earnest effort to spread their message far and wide in the Tampa Bay area. At the new Café Dufrain that message comes through loud and clear: Ingredient-oriented New American cuisine with an emphasis on organics and sustainability (a new menu was launched last week in which 75 percent of menu items are, or contain, certified organic or sustainable products). It's a menu that surfs suavely between Asian sensibility, Latin American preparations and the value-oriented spirit that prevails all over these days (dinner entrees between $19 and $28, loads of lunch "noshes" for $5).
We'll come back to the food in a minute, but what charmed me most was service. Servers here know the food, are loyal to the mission at hand and are comfortable in their own skin. It's the right amount of chitchat and guidance without either dithering or bullying, and that goes for wine selection or navigating the newish list of small-batch bourbons and other liquors.
The wine list is another area worth a bit of ink: Sure, there's a Silver Oak cab for $80, but the bulk of the list is clustered in the $19 to $25 range, with some real bargains (a Dr. Loosen "Dr. L" 2008 riesling is a deal at $12 per bottle when it retails for about $9.50 in these parts).
Decor hits a lot of nice notes, too, stylish enough but with a neighborhood-hangout sensibility. Think SAT analogy: a magnet is to iron filings as the bar stools are to your butt. The waterfront Harbour Island setting is glamorous enough, but the restaurant's warmth and price point make it Tuesday-night-for-no-good-reason appropriate.
Alvarez has retooled the menu with touches that signal that he's listening to what's going on around the country. A wholesome, homey organic roast chicken ($19) comes with harissa- and preserved lemon-zinged Israeli couscous — it's way bigger, nuttier and more satisfying than regular couscous — and a soft fried chickpea cake. Then zip from sultry North Africa to a parallel universe for yellowfin tuna "nachos" ($8), really wontons with tiny cubes of tuna and a wasabi aioli lashing. Pretty, punchy and not too heavy, leaving plenty of room for my favorite dish, a sliced-on-the-bias grilled veal flank ($22) paired with a sweet and warm tomato compote, crisp-tender broccolini and a polenta cake. That last bit wasn't perfect, but it was, like so many of the elements on the menu, described by farm or origin (in this case, the certified organic South Carolina farm Anson Mills). Kurobuta pork, also called Berkshire pork, a rare breed of black pig with a darker, richer texture, appears a couple times on Alvarez's menu, the most surprising when roasted and paired with an avocado and grapefruit mashup ($22) and a yucca gratin. Whoa, that gets your attention, but it works.
Desserts are similarly ambitious and risk-taking, the most startling one a plush vanilla custard topped with a hazelnut-praline beret, paired with poached local peaches (local peaches? In Tampa? In November?) and a whiff of tangy lavender creme fraiche ($7). So much going on, but all the elements played nicely together.
Café Dufrain may have more lives yet (and let's hope parking is easier in the next ones). The Bonnemorts — their name in French means "good death," after all — seem up to the task of gracefully reincarnating themselves.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at blogs.tampabay.com/ dining.