By LAURA Reiley
Times Food Critic
The Table in Sarasota had a devoted following. It was stylish, not totally unpretentious, working in a wholly new idiom they called "Atlantic Rim cuisine." It lingered on coastal foods of South America; it was pricey, but glamorous. In April 2008 the same team opened a second outpost on Central Avenue. Again, expensive, sophisticated and "Atlantic Rim." It was tiny but reminiscent of a Miami club, with gauzy sheers separating the tightly set tables and a pumping soundtrack.
Because of bad luck and miserable timing, it just didn't fit what diners were looking for. Through chef substitutions and ownership swaps, the concept grimly persevered until Andrew "Wilko" Wilkins took over in April. Most recently of Mad Fish in St. Pete Beach and partner of Gordon Davis of the various Ceviches for many years before that, he knew that radical surgery was essential if the patient was to be saved. What didn't downtown St. Petersburg have? A French brasserie.
It opened as St. Pete Brasserie in November. After a couple of visits, I say the food is a bull's-eye. Chef J Ward started at the Table in February after a stint at Tampa's Mise en Place. He did well, singing the "Atlantic Rim" song into its final verse, but then had the opportunity to compose afresh. He and Wilkins knew it had to be affordable (a four-course menu for a tres reasonable $19, lots of dinner entrees around $13), and they wanted it to be comforting, homey French classics like duck confit, cassoulet and steak frites.
There's excellent food here. A French onion soup ($5) that is neither overly salty nor overly thymed, lots of sweet onion flavor, a rich broth and life preservers of baguette keeping molten cheese from the deep. My favorite dish was an Alsatian onion tart ($7), almost big enough for a light meal, with buttery, flaky pastry cradling a center of creamy slow-cooked onion dotted with briny olive. Great textures, super balance of flavors, very French. A tuna tapenade ($8), too, was lovely (servers, don't call this a tuna "puree," it's a yucky mental image), a few buttery grilled toasts accompany a ramekin of olive tapenade mixed with plush cooked tuna with almost an anchovy kickiness.
The cut for steak frites ($14) changes daily, on our visit a nice fan of rosy flank cut on the bias, napped with a dusky Bordelaise, its thunder stolen by a pile of perfect fries (these babies are classically made, hand cut and blanched, then flash fried at a high temperature). Their allures can be seen again alongside the mussels of the day ($14), their crisp saltiness mellowed with a waggle in the winey, buttery mussel broth.
One of the menu's nicest touches is that the most expensive dishes are offered in a half portion at half price. This is good news for the light appetite and the light wallet as well: A trio of medium-rare lollipop lamb chops from Niman Ranch ($17 half portion) get a rich demi glace and a scoop of couscous and quickly sauteed spinach.
Chef Ward has skill with skin. A cryptic statement, I know: One evening's duck confit ($15) was offered with the traditional leg or as a breast, which turned out to be very moist, plush and flavorful; another night we had the half roasted chicken ($13), its leg delicious, its breast a bit dry. In both cases, however, the birds' skin was perfectly crisp and burnished, impossible not to eat.
Wilkins and Ward have not yet turned their attentions to the dessert menu. It reads like leftovers from the Table. Meal-enders should be homey, less fussy and French. The closest it gets right now is a trio of creme brulee, two of them too loose for enjoyment.
But I have confidence that dessert will be attended to, as will my other big reservation about St. Pete Brasserie: The decor and music are utterly unbrasserielike. This begs the question: What is a brasserie? Evolved from an Alsatian brewery, it's a place that serves traditional foods in an informal environment. It's usually open all day and just serves beer and wine. Obviously, a remodel takes some serious cash, but in the meantime, the sheers, the Miami-style squiggle mirrors and the soundtrack could be tweaked. Even white tablecloths would make it more like a brasserie.
In addition, service is inconsistent; one night efficient and eagle-eyed, another lax (dirty dishes left on the table when the next course arrived, a soup with no spoon, that kind of thing) — not unheard of in a restaurant so young. Yet even in its infancy, St. Pete Brasserie's food is a tremendous gift to downtown.
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.