YBOR CITY — What did we do to deserve this? Two fabulous new dining destinations smack dab in party-hearty Ybor City. Put down the Jaeger bomb and put off that next tattoo — there's grownup fun to be had in Tampa's historic district. • Sidney Sakho and Sam Brownell were lured to the area when a friend gave them a tip about a Harbour Island restaurant space that was coming open. That didn't work out, but the Washington, D.C., restaurateurs were smitten with Ybor. Specifically, they fell under the spell of the restaurant space that housed Las Novedades Restaurant all the way back in 1890, later renamed El Goya, and where Angelo Cacciatore opened the Silver Ring Cafe in 1947. On Jan. 21, they opened the Nest. • Meanwhile, St. Petersburg restaurateur Olivier Cuevas and partner Mike Edmondson were eyeballing Ybor as well, settling on the glorious downstairs space in Centro Ybor that used to house a furniture store as the site for their L'Olivier Restaurant and Cabaret, opened Jan. 31.
Sakho and Brownell, former owners of Le Mistral, Corner Bistro and Evo Bistro in Washington, aren't the only heavy-hitters involved in the Nest. Much-decorated chef Tino Buggio came from the Mayflower Hotel in D.C. to unveil his brand of hip tapas that draws inspiration from his homeland of Italy and on through Spain, France and Morocco. The cutting-edge small plates are shown off effectively against a backdrop of funky decor with a clean, modern aesthetic lent warmth by three styles of chandelier (one like huge string balls lit from within, another like drippy glass chain mail and a third that looks like thousands of tiny pieces of abalone shell shimmering in a light breeze).
Sakho is a gracious presence in the Nest's dining room, describing a dish or bringing a little extra something for guests to try. Over at L'Olivier, general manager Ricky Ali performs some of the same functions, acting as ringmaster for the huge and bustling space that gets even more frenetic on show nights (8:30 and 10 p.m. Thursday to Saturday). An 18-foot-tall Eiffel Tower sets the mood — strictly Moulin Rouge — with lots of crushed red velvet and low chaises.
The menu at L'Olivier is a study in making a virtue of necessity. The building code prohibits open flames. That means no grilling, etc. Thus, the kitchen is in the dining room, essentially portable burners and a long phalanx of fancy French crepe machines. The menu echoes that at L'Olivier in St. Petersburg, a dozen or so savory crepes paired with a lovely spinach salad, a very few oh-so-French entrees (coq au vin, boeuf Bourguignon) and another big handful of dessert crepes.
I'm more enthusiastic about the food at the Nest, most of it affordable, flavorful and sophisticated. Grilled shrimp ($9) are marinated in pesto and tossed over an avocado pico de gallo; pesto appears again (fresh and homemade-tasting) dabbed on a trio of baby lamb chops ($12), rosy-centered and tender, perched on a bed of tomatoey chickpeas. The best dish we had was a debonair arugula salad ($9) studded with warm duck confit, tart matchstick apples, toasted walnut halves and wide shaves of Manchego. Perfect, and a generous portion.
Buggio's signature dish speaks volumes about what the Nest is doing right: A polenta crab cake is full of sweet jumbo lumps, crunchiness imparted by a burnished crust of polenta, the whole thing sitting atop a roasted corn salsa. Flavors are chic and complementary, the price a fair-minded $8. The Nest's wine list is smart and exciting, albeit short, and desserts are not to be missed: the best a ganache hazelnut torte ($7), like three layers of hazelnut chocolate mousse, and a dried cherry and hazelnut biscotti elegantly heading up a dunkable dish of mascarpone and Nutella ($5).
Nutella crops up on the dessert list at L'Olivier — the crepes unfortunately much more variable in quality than at the flagship restaurant in St. Petersburg. A tarte tatin ($8.95) needs to be rethought, the classic upside-down dessert reading more like plain-ole sauteed apples, and the crepe masters need to be more attentive with cooking times and filling quantities. Still, many of the savory crepes are worth a go (chicken medallions in a creamy mushroom sauce, $18.95), as are a couple of sturdy quiche wedges served with an even more filling potato gratin.
The food needs a little more attention, but L'Olivier is nonetheless a welcome addition, a super-fun and modish destination for cocktails and maybe a cheese tray ($20) before watching the area's only Moulin Rouge-style, 45-minute cabaret show. Maybe this is the beginning of Ybor City's own Belle Epoque.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com 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.