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The tastes of Tampa Bay: 40 dishes worth relishing

A little basic math. They say the average restaurant entree is close to 1,000 calories. Add in an appetizer and dessert and that brings up the meal's total to approximately 1,800 calories. I ate about 200 meals out for work last year. That's 360,000 calories on the job. Doing some other rough calculations, 83,420 of those calories were delicious. Here are some of the highlights, with the 40 dishes you should seek out in 2010 in your Tampa Bay dining adventures.

Alsatian onion tart

Its buttery, flaky pastry cradles a center of custardy slow-cooked caramelized onion dotted with briny olive. Eggs, cream, thyme and a little of chef J Ward's comfort-food voodoo.

St. Pete Brasserie, 539 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; (727) 823-3700

Baked mac and cheese

When it opened last year the Lodge served baked penne, but recently it went more traditional, with add-ins like barbecued chicken or broccoli nestled in the cheesy noodles, the whole thing molten in the middle but crispy on top with bread crumbs (ask for bacon bits, too, if you want to truly gild the lily).

The Lodge, 516 S Howard Ave., Tampa; (813) 251-5634

Banh mi

The classic sandwich is a crispy warm baguette slathered with pate and then piled with head cheese and salty ham, spicy-sweet daikon and carrot matchsticks and soft pickley cucumbers, cilantro and jalapeno — a French-Vietnamese tour de force.

Saigon Deli, 3962 W Waters Ave., Tampa; (813) 932-0300

Bigeye tuna toro

It comes as an appetizer with lengths of pink grapefruit, cubes of rich avocado, matchsticks of lemon zest, flecks of jalapeno and a drizzle of mild soy, all at a sleek clearinghouse for fish from around the world.

Aquaknox, 7627 W Courtney Campbell Parkway, Tampa; (813) 675-8700

Deviled eggs of the day

Like maybe the ones stuffed with blue cheese, bacon and spinach. And at 3 for $5, it's tempting to get all Cool Hand Luke with Zack Gross' signature snack.

Z Grille, 104 Second St. S, St. Petersburg; (727) 822-9600

Wild mushroom bisque

It's something of Chris Ponte's signature, often offered as an amuse bouche to start. Amuse it does, with its earthy, rich flavor and its heady whiff of truffle cream and black trumpet dust.

Cafe Ponte, 13505 Icot Blvd., Clearwater; (727) 538-5768

Boondi raita

The oniony, cucumbery yogurt is dotted with tiny, tapioca-sized fried chickpea flour dumplings. It's a condiment that eats like a meal, often seen on the lunch buffet line alongside mild curries and dals.

Taste of Punjab, 6540 Park Blvd., Pinellas Park; (727) 545-4103

Bread and butter

Chef/owner Dominique Christini makes his own rustic rounds from scratch (a surprisingly rare occurrence in Tampa Bay), of 30 percent organic whole wheat flour, with lots of kneading and punching into submission for perfect crust and crumb.

Café Largo, 12551 Indian Rocks Road, Largo; (727) 596-6282

Butternut squash tostada

With northern Mexican delights served in an old bus on the side of which is written "Broken English perfectly spoken," there are loads of terrific vegetarian options.

Taco Bus, 913 E Hillsborough Ave., Tampa; (813) 232-5889

Chocolate tart with a Sambuca drizzle

A flaky crust topped with dense, fudgy ganache and squiggles of anisey sauce. On the other hand, Ella's has just added chocolate-covered bacon with macadamia nuts to its offerings, so there are tough decisions to be made at dessert.

Ella's Americana Folk Art Café, 5119 N Nebraska Ave., Tampa; (813) 234-1000

Crab pita

This Grand Central newcomer is a retail seafood market and purveyor of some delicious sandwiches like this one, lumps of blue crab, crunchy celery and onion in a tangy-spicy sauce.

Island Seafood, 2057 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; (727) 821-8181

Cucumber gimlet

It softens the heavy botanical, lavender notes and peppery finish of Bombay Sapphire with cooling, muddled fresh cucumber and a squirt of lime. Ordinarily a splurge cocktail, order it during Prime Hour, weekdays 4 to 6 p.m., and it's a reasonable $8.

Ocean Prime, 2205 N West Shore Blvd., Tampa; (813) 490-5288

Footlong corn dog

Seriously, after eating my way through everything at the Trop this past year, the corn dog came up king. Yellow mustard must be spread liberally with index finger for maximum enjoyment.

Grand Slam Grill on the Main Level at Tropicana Field, 1 Tropicana Drive, St. Petersburg

French fries

The quick-serve Cuban sandwich spot was opened last March by Harold Seltzer, co-founder and former president of the Sam Seltzer's Steakhouse chain. Real potatoes, sliced, blanched and dried, then fried once at a low temp, then a second time in hotter oil. The results: golden, crispy, greaseless, with a moist, tender center.

The Floridian, 4424 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa; (813) 287-6662

Fresh-squeezed orange juice

Ben Tillett makes a sweet-tart citrus blend that's one of life's perfect foods, yet a little different every time you visit.

The Citrus Place, 7200 U.S. 19, Terra Ceia; (941) 722-6745

Israeli couscous

Given a kick of harissa and preserved lemon, the couscous accompanies the homey organic roast chicken.

Café Dufrain, 707 Harbour Post Drive, Tampa; (813) 275-9701

Potato chips

They come alongside the fat corned beef sandwiches; deeply russet, perfectly salted but also a little sweet, crisp, with a drizzle of blue cheese cream.

Datz Deli, 2616 S MacDill Ave., Tampa; (813) 831-7000

Power lunch plate

Especially the hibachi-grilled salmon one on a sectioned platter with a gingery mixed-green salad, a small bowl of miso soup, jasmine fried rice and tender-crisp wokked baby bok choy.

Roy's Restaurant, 4342 W Boy Scout Blvd., Tampa; (813) 873-7697

Romano pizza

Comes with a sauce of lovely crushed San Marzano tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, anchovy (I know, I know), Parmesan and a little oregano, all on a thin, crispy, bubbled crust.

Pizzaiolo Bavaro, 514 N Franklin St., Tampa; (813) 868-4440

Rotisserie chicken

Readers tipped me to this one: A moist, flavorful chicken leg and thigh with two sides like tostones and fried yucca for an affordable $6.50.

Pico Rojo Rotisserie, 2475 McMullen Booth Road, Suite E, Clearwater; (727) 474-3826

Seared sea scallops

Served with cherrywood bacon and caramelized Brussels sprouts. It's a petite plate, but the juxtaposition of flavors thinks big, a defining feature of chef Chris Greer's aesthetic.

Queens Head, 2501 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; (727) 498-8584

Shaking beef

It's filet mignon cut into cubes and tossed with salt, pepper, sugar and garlic, then sauteed and given a sheen of dark soy and fish sauce. Dip a bite of meat in a bowl of white vinegar, or slide it through a shallow ramekin of kosher salt and pepper moistened with fresh lime. That little acidic tang brings it all together for this classic Vietnamese dish.

Jade Bistro, 6139 Park Blvd., Pinellas Park; (727) 544-6186

Snoballs

They are a New Orleans delicacy, a block of ice loaded into the SnoWizard machine and shaved into fluffy, melt-in-your-mouth snow. That snow gets flavored with fruit syrups, with sweet cream, with chocolate, even with soft-serve ice cream. Co-owner James Boswell suggests the Grasshopper as a maiden voyage, the chocolate and spearmint combo reminiscent of Andes mints.

Beach Snoballs, 10927 Gulf Blvd., Treasure Island; (727) 415-8326

Suckling pig

Its crispy skin like the most delicate of brittles, giving way to a sumptuous layer of fat and the velvety pale meat below. Longboat Key is a long way to go, but Jose Martinez's uncompromising classical French cuisine is worth the tire treads.

Maison Blanche, 2605 Gulf of Mexico Drive, Longboat Key; (941) 383-8088

Chips and salsa

A trio of sauces — hot, hotter, hottest — and a bigger cup of mild salsa cruda to cool it all down perfectly complement just-fried tortilla wedges.

Agave Restaurant, 6400 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach; (727) 367-3448

Coq au vin

Chef Mark Schwartz channels Julia Child with his slow red wine-braised chicken legs and thighs, with meat so tender it capitulates to the merest fork incursion.

Beaune's Wine Bar at West Palm Wines, 2009 N 22nd St., Tampa; (813) 241-8587

• Cheesecake

The obviously homemade light, fluffy, crustless wedge comes with a few dabs of raspberry coulis and a pouf of whipped cream at this sophisticated new seafood restaurant, brainchild of Tracey Swade and Bobby Clark, formerly with Sea Grill in Palm Harbor.

Currents Restaurant, 200 E Tarpon Ave.; Tarpon Springs; (727) 940-5377

Doughnut onion rings

They're fat Vidalias in a puffy beer batter, dusted with powdered sugar and stacked up like a totem pole. Sweet enough to be dessert, this is a serious indulgence that should be counteracted with one of Mad Fish's more temperate fish entrees.

Mad Fish, 5200 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach; (727) 360-9200

Duck tacos

Give the revelers upstairs at Push Ultra Lounge a good reason to descend to ground level: housemade corn tortillas cradling moist, confit-like duck meat, fluffs of goat cheese and dabs of red chili jelly, with grilled pineapple and a tangle of cilantro adding other intriguing flavor notes.

Red Mesa Cantina, 128 Third St. S, St. Petersburg; (727) 896-8226

East India cocktail

Mixologist Dean Hurst competed nationally last year with a stunning cocktail called the Upsy Daisy Bombay Sapphire. It's off the menu for the winter (fresh blueberries aren't flavorful enough), but he has concocted some winter warmers like this one with Courvoisier VSOP, a bit of pineapple syrup, red Curacao, housemade maraschino cherries and a dash of bitters. The red Curacao, which isn't made anymore, is left over from Bern Laxer's reign. A cache of 60 bottles of the citrusy, floral liqueur gave Hurst his inspiration.

SideBern's, 2208 W Morrison Ave., Tampa; (813) 258-2233

Kansas City baby backs

Slow smoked and glossed with a chipotle barbecue sauce, especially good when contrasted with an order of vinegary collards dotted with smoked turkey bacon.

Wildwood BBQ & Burger, 6300 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach; (727) 369-4950

Panko-coated and fried goat cheese

The warm cheese is accompanied by a spicy jumble of tomatoes and a drizzle of balsamic reduction. It's pretty as a picture, contrasting hot and cold, crunchy and smooth.

Bin 27 Bistro, 2702 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa; (813) 878-2700

Prime burger

A big, juicy thing with sharp cheddar and brown-sugar glazed bacon on a soft challah bun, very hard to eat without knife and fork. It was introduced last year alongside the chain's "5 for 6 until 7" promotion, with five appetizers, wines and cocktails for $6 until 7 p.m. It comes with addictive housemade chips and a small wedge salad with a spicy chipotle remoulade. A great deal for $6.

Fleming's Prime Steakhouse, 4322 W Boy Scout Blvd., Tampa; (813) 874-9463

Roman-style artichokes

These are stem-on little beauties with a Parmesan-mozzarella herb crust and a dribble of rosemary butter, offered in a small plate or large. The Living Room is one of my top picks for vegetarian dining in Tampa Bay right now.

The Living Room, 680 Main St., Dunedin; (727) 736-5202

Shirin polo

A traditional Iranian wedding stew of chicken given a saffron, orange peel, pistachio and slivered almonds trousseau.

Mirage, 2284 Gulf-to-Bay Blvd., Clearwater; (727) 724-3604

Sicilian doughnuts

The doughnut part is a misnomer; Regina Invandino's creations are more like cookies. Try them with a glass of red wine or spunky cup of black coffee; these crumbly spheres come with a surprising kick of white pepper.

Cappuccino's Bakery Café, 733 Broadway, Dunedin; (727) 738-8009

Strozzapreti

Need a translation? It's a refined red or white sauce studded with mixed seafood, the sauce leaking into the seam of the long, rolled cavatelli-like noodles. Winter is the best time to try Spartaco Giolito's housemade pasta because it's when his mother visits from Rimini, Italy, and gets to rolling dough in his kitchen.

Osteria Natalina, 3215 S MacDill Ave., Tampa; (813) 831-1210

Stuffed pasilla

A seasonal Christmas special, here's hoping customer enthusiasm will make them resurrect the slow-burn roasted pasilla pepper stuffed with highly seasoned picadillo and drizzled with a walnut cream and a few festive pomegranate seeds.

Casa Tina, 365 Main St., Dunedin; (727) 734-9226

Sweet butter tart

It's about as homemade tasting as desserts come, a family recipe for a sweet, buttery custard in a thin, delicate crust. It comes with a single ball of vanilla ice cream, which serves to emphasize the delicate caramel flavor of the tart's custard.

La Cachette, 635 Cleveland St., Clearwater; (727) 596-5439

Trattoria pizza

The signature pie, with a chunky tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, thin-sliced San Daniele prosciutto and a fried egg staring at you from the middle. New chef Domenica Macchia has made some big changes in the bar and dinner menus, adding gutsy Italian comfort foods like housemade gnocchi in Gorgonzola cream.

Bella Brava, 515 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; (727) 895-5515

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/dining.

The tastes of Tampa Bay: 40 dishes worth relishing 01/20/10 [Last modified: Thursday, January 21, 2010 12:41pm]

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