CLEARWATER — The spoon predates the fork by a bunch of centuries. What couldn't be cradled in its embrace was simply eaten with hands. Then Catherine de Medici had to gum up the works with this fancy, tined eating instrument. More basic and reassuring, the spoon takes us back to childhood, to when foods were shoveled in and we just had to open wide.
Eaten with that most comforting of utensils, that most comforting of foods: soup. Even in Florida, my winter thoughts turn to soup, more so when the news is gloomy.
Nicolas Paloma is my man.
He took over a small Greek restaurant six months ago and reopened as Lakeview Grill, an odd mix of American, Mexican and Greek cuisine. The Greek cuisine — gyros ($6.50), spanakopita ($4.99), Greek salad ($5.99) — is almost like a lingering shadow cast by the former owner: pleasant but unremarkable. And the American food — Philly cheesesteak ($6.50), wings ($5.99), burgers ($5.99) — is a solid effort but not apt to rock anyone's socks.
What Paloma does best is soup. In menu design classes you learn about the ideal number of appetizers relative to the number of entrees and desserts. Paloma didn't take that class. The short printed menu is accompanied by a blackboard of soup options. There may be seven, eight or more.
Paloma, who formerly owned Little Mexico in Clearwater, is from Hidalgo, Mexico. The soups reflect this, many with a slowly accumulating heat and a reliance on garlic, onion and cilantro. They are hearty, thick and stewlike, most of them, all offered for a wallet-friendly $2.99 for a cup, $3.99 for an ample bowl.
A lamb stew, with a waft of telltale muskiness, comes crowded with carrots, cabbage, garbanzo beans and little fluffs of rice. Lentil soup is every bit as hearty, with a tomato broth that suits the little green legumes. Cactus leaf soup is lighter, the fresh nopales peeled and simmered in chicken broth with tortilla strips and a little queso fresco. This last treatment is essentially the same as the house Azteca soup, which is a textbook chicken tortilla soup, velvety and cooling hunks of avocado providing relief from the smoldering, red-tinged broth.
Not all the credit for these last two goes to Nicolas. His wife, Millie, makes her own corn tortillas. Thick and a little sweet, they have that homey corn masa flavor that adds enormously to these soups. For a closer look at those tortillas, try a simple trio of tacos ($5.25): shredded pork carnitas, rich and oily; more lamb, also shredded and flavorful; or simpler sliced white-meat chicken. Try the meats atop the freshly made tortillas with just a sprinkle of pungent white onion and cilantro and a big squeeze of lime.
Three tacos is a good quantity at lunch, especially when accompanied with crisp tortilla chips and a thin, smooth, tangy salsa. Bigger dinner appetites might be better assuaged with chicken enchiladas ($8.99), topped with either a red or green sauce, both mild, and queso fresco, or a potpourri approach like the Santa Fe mixed grill ($9.99). This brings a sampler of pork chop, chicken breast drizzled with aioli and a length of carne asada flavored noticeably with scallion and white onion and a little sheen of spicy red sauce, all paired with a scoop of rice and soft refried beans.
These last dishes are well constructed, nicely seasoned and affordable, but not necessarily worth driving across town for. The decor, too, at Lakeview Grill leaves a little to be desired (a big square room, booths upholstered in a floral that Grandma used to keep under plastic in the living room). But when you're in the mood for a steam-billowing bowl of spoon-intensive nurturing, Paloma has you covered.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at www.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.