By LAURA Reiley
Times Food Critic
There is one Tampa Bay restaurant that is turning away customers on a run-of-the-mill Tuesday night. Saw it with my own eyes. It was a gracious rebuff, the couple in question fairly unperturbed as they walked back out into the night air of Cleveland Street, past the fancy Porsche and fancier Rolls-Royce cooling curbside. Beulah Jackson closed the door behind them and went about tending tables. You could tell she thought they'd be back.
She and her husband of 48 years, co-owner and chef Martin Jackson, weren't just playing hard to get. La Cachette, which opened in the middle of November, is by reservation only. Like the restaurant they owned on Gulf Boulevard in Indian Rocks Beach from 1998 to August 2009, it's a prix-fixe three- or four-course menu, BYOB with no corkage fee. It's for an occasion — best for an anniversary, to pop the question, or for a very classy breakup — at a steep $54 for three courses and $58 for four, with an automatic 20 percent service charge added to every check. (I bristle at a gratuity that is not gratuitous, but being able to bring a nice bottle of wine from home with no upcharge defuses my ire.)
Brimming with empty space, downtown Clearwater is in dire need of some destination restaurants. The Jacksons' new home is lovely, four intimate dining rooms that look like the sets of a Merchant Ivory film, with stately chandeliers and elegantly polished dark wood. Once you're seated at a white-linened table, the first indulgence is a nostalgic pickle tray of crudites to whet the appetite. Don't whet overmuch; there's lots to follow.
I can't understand how chef Jackson does it: There are 15 appetizers on the menu, 11 entrees and 12 desserts (more if you count the cheeses). That in itself is ambitious for a restaurant on such an intimate scale. Sure, it's helpful to know there will be exactly 24 people dining tonight, but how to know who will order what? Now, add the fact that many of the entrees are slow braises (oxtail pot au feu, coq au vin, red wine-braised rabbit), nothing that can be whipped up at the last minute, and it starts seeming like a magic trick. But it's not a three-card monte: Dishes are classical and exactingly finished.
A small duck leg confit is golden-skinned but not dry or stringy, its meat plush and faintly perfumed with juniper, accented by a dab of sweet-tart lingonberry conserve and a tangle of dressed greens. A small, piping-hot (Jackson serves things hot) crock of fat Burgundian snails are aswim in a broth of white wine and Champagne enlivened by garlic and shallot and a splash of green chartreuse. The creamy, buttery, sherry-splashed lobster bisque may put a serious dent in your appetite, as will the foie gras mousse with its hint of cognac, but both are worth it. The only appetizer I tried that I wasn't charmed by was a pan-seared lump crab cake. It seemed weighed down by the inclusion of mushroom and bell peppers.
Organ meat lovers, perk up: Jackson offers lamb kidney and veal sweetbreads as appetizers, and calf liver as an entree (his mercifully unlike my childhood nightmare: He flash-sautes it still pink, flames with brandy and a bit of sweet raspberry vinegar, then plates it with a Madeira-shallot demi-glace).
Interestingly, there's only one fish entree (and vegetarians will have to negotiate the offerings over the phone; there's nothing on the menu), a skate wing in a super simple butter and lemon preparation. Eh, I was more wowed by an evening's special of braised pork belly, the meat butter-tender and flavorful under its crisp skin and cap of delicate fat. And the broth of the oxtail braise, crowded with soft root veggies, was the essence of beefiness, lent elegance by a fruity Oregon pinot noir.
Dessert souffles are an extra $10 (so, if we say $8 of the $58 menu is allocated for dessert, this would make a souffle $18, fairly staggering for a dessert that is mostly egg white and a splash of booze). Still, they are textbook and airy, just lovely to gaze at. My favorite dessert, however, is a sweet butter tart that is a family recipe from Milford, Ontario. My guess is its ingredient list is laughably tiny, but the expert crust cradling sugary, buttery custard is memorable.
Beulah is the force in the dining room, the challenge clearly to find other servers with her gravitas and grasp of detail. It's easy to forget that this is a new restaurant; service always takes a while to gel. The bigger question will be whether bay area residents will head downtown to, for a couple of hours, star in their own genteel dining room drama.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog 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.