FlameStone Grill in Oldsmar has defied the odds, staying open and thriving through the rough times these past few years. Owner Nick Pappas (formerly of Grillmarks) hit on a formula that was fun, hip and culinarily indistinct enough to appeal to a wide audience. It's New American, but with guacamole made tableside that routinely revs people's engines.
It may be that guacamole that planted the seed for Pappas' new venture (avocados have big seeds, after all). In the spot that used to be Tuscano Grill, adjacent to the slick-Med Carmel Café and around the corner from the popular Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza, Besa Grill opened three months ago.
It's Latin-inspired, not Mexican exactly, with stylish, nightclubby decor that telegraphs nothing about the food. Cool black glass pendants hang over the bar; black and white carpeting hints at animal print; a grove of gnarled, bejeweled trees separates two halves of the dining room. The barstools are glamorous, the bathrooms similarly so. It's a place suitable for a little black dress, but equally jeans-friendly (either way, bring a sweater, because the air-conditioning system is exuberant).
Despite the cold air, the vibe is warm, with friendly young servers and bartenders who seem eager to share their mad mixology. The booze focus is tequila, with some really stylish margaritas, from cucumber-cilantro to blackberry mint. These aren't goofy slushy versions: Sweetness is reined in and excellent tequilas employed (price point around $8.50).
From here, natch, you think guacamole, maybe paired with a citrusy ceviche. Five iterations of green goo are on offer (choose any three for $10.90), from one augmented with goat and blue cheeses to another enlivened with mango and a little mint. It's surprising how well these amendments work with avocado, the top version studded with roasted corn and black beans. House ceviches tend to be a little sweet; perhaps a squeeze more lime is in order with a plate of acid-cured bay scallops with red onion and cilantro and juxtaposed with a velvety avocado half ($7.50).
Soft tacos come upright in a special taco holder, the Baja shrimp version ($12.90) enfolding nicely fried shrimp and a crunchy napa cabbage slaw along with a dash of pico de gallo and crema to moisten things up. On our visits, fish entrees trumped beef ones, an oven-roasted mahi ($21) subtly elevated by a swaddling of corn husk and a pairing with black bean puree, sweet corn cream and a scoop of Mexican rice.
For dessert, Mexican hot chocolate will make you feel like a kid ($3.50; it's thick, so watch the 'stache), especially when accompanied by an order of submergible churros ($7.90) stacked like cinnamony Lincoln Logs.
In a shopping center already booming with successful restaurants, Besa Grill fits right in, promising to do in Clearwater what FlameStone Grill has managed in Oldsmar.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. She dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.