By LAURA Reiley
Times Food Critic
It's cyclical. Classic cocktails are back. Whether it's the influence of shows like Mad Men or just nostalgia for that pre-Depression era of Sidecars and Brandy Alexanders, now's a good time to be ordering a Rusty Nail, heavy on the Drambuie. And Marchand's at the Vinoy is the place to do it. The historic hotel restaurant recently launched a "classic dining" menu, a three-course meal for $19.25 per person (plus tax and gratuity) to celebrate the 1925 opening of the original Vinoy Park Hotel. It's offered nightly from 5:30 to 7 and is just about the best deal around right now.
Here's the thing: They don't give you the $19.25 menu unless you ask for it. It's like our very own speakeasy, right here in downtown St. Petersburg. You look around the dining room and all those other saps are ordering $30 entrees while you get to enjoy the pretty room and capacious chairs as you work through a classic wedge salad, a pork tenderloin with lush cauliflower gratin and then a key lime pie, all for $19.25, accompanied by a pear-and-apple-fruity Gallo Family Vineyards chardonnay ($5.50 glass, $19.25 bottle).
I managed to try two months' worth of menus, preferring last month's to the one just launched, but both had great options. A wedge salad was offered on both, oven-dried tomatoes making last month's more interesting than the new one, which is drizzled with an unnecessary balsamic reduction in addition to its blue cheese dressing. The new menu's lobster bisque is elegantly served: lobster meat and herbs sitting patiently in an otherwise empty bowl, awaiting their bath of rich, sherry-spiked hot soup.
Salmon and chicken entrees appeared on both menus. Last month's organic airline chicken breast (this means it comes with the first wing joint attached) was skin-on, juicy and flavorful, served with a choice of sauces (tarragon-dotted bearnaise a nice fit). This month's grilled salmon arrived on a creamy bed of leeks, with a drizzle of beurre rouge and a topping of teeny matchstick potatoes.
The aforementioned pork tenderloin would have been more visually elegant if sliced and fanned, but it was cooked perfectly, just-pink and juicy at center. Beef short ribs were fall-apart tender, although the accompanying pappardelle would have been more velvety and plush if tossed in a little jus from the short ribs.
Neither menus' desserts were perfunctory meal enders, last month's dessert a large, piquant wedge of key lime tart, this month's a choice of fresh raspberries and pastry cream sandwiched in puff pastry layers, or a dense flourless chocolate and pistachio marquise.
At these prices, you can start the evening with a Rob Roy ($7) or a bracing gimlet ($7). Let those other ninnies pay retail. Your final bill is between you and your waiter.
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.