ST. PETERSBURG — It is a prime dining hour on a weekend night, and there are no other customers at Chouinard's Cuisine. When we leave in two hours, there still will not have been another. To say that I don't understand how this could be the case would be an exaggeration. • But this is not: It is not because of the food, because it is some of the best that I've eaten here in the decade-plus that I've lived in the Tampa Bay area.
Chef Joseph Chouinard (pronounced SHOO-nard) isn't new to the St. Petersburg dining scene. He was the original chef at Redwoods in the late 1990s and at Pacific Wave a few years later, earning accolades for each downtown restaurant. Then he moved to Los Angeles to work with big shot caterers to the stars before moving back to Florida 18 months ago to be closer to his family.
Cooking for Madonna and her pals apparently kept him sharp. Every dish we tried came out artfully composed, but not in the "Oh, it's too pretty to eat" way. No, it is pretty in the "I cannot wait to dig into that" way.
The menu changes regularly, and isn't easily characterized. The recurring themes are Italian, French and New England.
For appetizers, count on a choice of soups, salads and shellfish. The poached pear salad ($6.95) is a bed of greens dressed with a vinaigrette made with the port wine that the fruit was poached in and walnut oil and topped with glazed pecans and Gorgonzola. A nice light start.
The lobster salad ($12.95) is significantly more decadent, with greens topped with a generous portion of tail meat tossed in a housemade King Louis dressing. If you haven't heard of King Louis dressing, it is a play on a West Coast crab salad, and we can assume Louis was king of the Thousand Islands. All that is topped with an impressive claw and slices of avocado. Chouinard's menus suggest he is a big fan of lobster, and it's easy to see why. He's good at preparing it.
We also tried the Vidalia onion soup ($5.95). Apple cider is often a secret ingredient in a good onion soup, but here it is no secret. The traditional crouton is replaced with an apple-topped crostini, turning the volume up on the sweetness of the onion without overtaking the savory broth.
The roast rack of lamb ($25.95) comes crusted in macadamia nuts and served with a side of pineapple-mint chutney. At medium-rare, the meat was cut-with-the-side-of-a-fork tender, and gnaw-at-the-bone delicious. The chutney is a surprisingly neon shade of green, but a refreshing condiment for the lamb, the mint providing the classic complement to the lamb and the pineapple taking it someplace new. The chicken Milanese ($14.95) is a bit interpretive as well. Traditionally butterflied, breaded and pan fried, here it is plump and sauteed, with a tomato and olive sauce. Both dishes had sides of cheesy gratin potatoes and colorful strips of pepper wrapped around asparagus.
A grouper Francaise ($21.95) is lightly battered and fried, then topped with a lemon-caper butter. I love fish, but have a hair-trigger for fishiness. None here. And the lobster roll ($19.95), like the lobster salad, is packed with huge chunks of meat. So many times, lobster rolls come with shredded, barely identifiable meat. It is so refreshing to see real meat in there.
Desserts were an apple crisp ($4.95) and a flourless chocolate cake ($4.95). Both good, both nearly upstaged by a super-rich vanilla ice cream. It's hard to imagine being upstaged by vanilla, and it is not a knock on the stars.
Very few quibbles. The croutons on the lobster salad were probably not housemade, but I might not have even noticed if the rest of the salad hadn't been so excellent. Maybe too much raspberry sauce on the plate of the chocolate cake? Is that really even critical?
The service was quick, friendly and attentive. And I suspect it would have been even if there had been customers at any of the other seven tables.
So, why was the dining room empty?
The restaurant is not in a good place for fine dining. It is away from the concentrations of dining destinations, such as the beach, downtown St. Petersburg or Tampa's S Howard Avenue. It is in a bedraggled strip mall across from the Bay Pines VA Medical Center. Most of the other businesses there are also restaurants, making it less likely that customers of other places in the plaza will happen upon it. Once you walk in the door, you are met with a dining room that is perfectly quaint and nice, as if it was designed by a weekend warrior with the best of intentions. But the infrastructure is limiting.
That is not necessarily an accident. When Chouinard returned to St. Petersburg, he decided to open a new place under the condition that he could do it without business partners. From there, options were limited by his budget.
He runs a successful catering business out of the storefront, but to keep the dining room open will no doubt require diners.
In a perfect world, this food would be in one of the dining shrines downtown, one with high ceilings, dark walls, moody lighting and a line out the door.
Jim Webster can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8746. Webster dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.