Monday, August 20, 2018
Dining

Hottest restaurant newcomers at Sundial in St. Petersburg off to ambitious start

ST. PETERSBURG

At the end, BayWalk's restaurants had dwindled to a few stalwarts. There were spectacular failures like Dan Marino's, slow deaths like Johnny Rockets and even serendipitous defections like Gratzzi, which has clearly found its groove a few blocks south of the now-reinvented Sundial restaurant/shopping complex. • Rumors swirled for months about what the new dining landscape would look like, always with murmurs about celebrity chefs, nationally known names and ambitious destination restaurants. The reality is interesting, really three legs of a stool: a super-intimate celebrity chef-driven farm-to-table eight-seater, a nationally known business-friendly steak house and a second outpost of a successful upscale seafooder from Naples. It's too early to say whether that stool will wobble, but let's take a first look at St. Petersburg's hottest newcomers.

FarmTable Kitchen

In life, if you're lucky, 50 percent of what you eat is straight-up sustenance, sadly nearly another 30 percent is the embarrassing stuff best forgotten about immediately, maybe 20 percent is a delicious reflection of someone's expert craft and less than 1 percent is what could be construed as art. These are meals that charm and shock and edify every bit as much as great theater or virtuoso musical performances.

The tiny restaurant set on the second floor of Michael Mina and Don Pintabona's Locale Market is in this 1 percent.

It will not be for everyone. The $105 price tag will exclude some folks, and introverts may find it aversive to share a table with garrulous strangers (you buy "tickets" for pairs of seats at a communal wooden table). What this tiny restaurant has is manpower: Over the course of an evening eight different chefs enter the tiny room to present their food, and sometimes, even more compellingly, their stories.

Phillip Darbyshire comes in with a caught-today blackfin tuna, bycatch from one of their regular fishermen, and carves it into velvety swaths of sashimi, plating it with a floof of aerated basil/kale/watercress foam. He and the rest of the team explain the plate's togarashi (a blended Japanese chili condiment, this one with hemp, sesame seeds and tangerine) and the semolina chip that is really a deep-fried sheet of pasta in a misshapen handkerchief shape called malfatti. This you shatter, grabbing a crunchy shard with each piece of fish and a dab of the two condiments.

While sampling a dry-aged prime ribeye alongside a wet-aged one, you'll learn from Matt Dahlkemper that it's apocryphal that the steak adjacent to the bone is more flavorful, although long-braised meats have time to benefit from bone contact. From David Duong you hear about the digestive benefits of fresh turmeric as you slug back an intermezzo of ginger, turmeric and fresh orange juice, that mix chased by another: beet juice with a fillip of orange and chiles.

The best dish of the night brought tiny copper pots packed with butternut squash pasta roulades, perfectly toothsome, the filling accented by nutmeg, crunched up amaretti cookies and candied pepitas, chef Jeffrey Hileman stepping around the table to ladle each pot with a drop-dead fabulous bechamel made of Venetian Sottocenare ash-edged cow's milk cheese, a hint of truffle, cinnamon and nutmeg peeking through its mild butteriness.

By dessert, a way-too-generous layered chocolate and coconut pave from Michael Mina's corporate pastry chef Lincoln Carson, the eight dinner guests shared the kind of deep camaraderie of those who have lived through an earthquake or traumatic experience together. No trauma, but it was definitely an experience, and for me at least, the earth did move a little.

Sea Salt

Cardinal rule: Don't review a restaurant on Valentine's Day. It was the only night I could get in, so I'm putting the red roses and all the pretty dressed-up ladies out of my mind. And really, for such a frenzied night of dining, the team at this newcomer did phenomenally. There have been some bobbles in getting Fabrizio and Ingrid Aielli's glamorous restaurant open: The glass-fronted wine wall met with disaster, twice, two panels of glass crazed into a pattern that actually looks kind of cool. The lift inside the two-level wine room is currently operated by two electric screwdrivers, and the starting chef slunk away to be replaced temporarily by Naples executive chef Jason Brunson and long term by Mo Hassan (from Birchwood).

Still, the suave Venice native has assembled a great team, from general manager Louie Spetrini to sommelier Justin Chamoun (most recently from Annata), Philip O'Bryan (Rococo Steak) as bar manager and Jess Clausen (Castile) in the role of service manager. This is traditional fine dining with a deep-pockets/far-reaching wine list and a sumptuously appointed dining room. (Even the ladies' room boasts excellent purse knobs.) The salt thing is a bit of a gimmick: Bread comes with a trio of exotic salts and a cruet of oil. One of ours was as sulfurous as an egg, no idea why that's a good thing.

Oyster service is the best thing about Sea Salt. Oysters are pristinely fresh, and they come from British Columbia to Maine and a lot of places in between. Well, where there's water. Served simply on a round metal ice-filled tray with horseradish, cocktail sauce and a lovely mignonette, they are memorably good.

The rest of the menu splits between elegantly simple seafood preparations and glamorous spins on traditional pastas. After a rich and smooth tomato bisque ($11) and a salad pairing roasted beets with sweet peaches ($13), we dove into a gutsy wagyu beef Bolognese ($23), a rosy Jackman Ranch Akaushi tenderloin gussied with cocoa nibs and a foie gras sauce and paired with broccolini ($43), and a textbook black grouper set atop a fava and pea puree ($37).

Ruth's Chris Steak House

If you dine out frequently, especially for business, this will not be a complete mystery. Plucky Ruth Fertel started the first one in New Orleans more than 50 years ago. (About the name: She bought Chris' Steak House but in relocating after a fire couldn't use that name, thus the addition and reapportioned apostrophe.) On the strength of its sizzling platters of 500-degree filet mignons drizzled with just a bit of butter to truly gild the lily, the concept has grown into an international chain of more than 140 restaurants.

I've been to a number of locations around the country and have seen a certain dark, clubby, masculine commonality. St. Petersburg's location is lighter and airier, perhaps a reflection of its Florida setting or just a more contemporary spin on the a la carte steak house. One thing each outpost shares is a commitment to tableside service. Feel like sharing the bone-in filet ($65; really plenty for two)? Your server will slice it up adjacent to your table, plating each portion separately, as he will a shared appetizer of buttery/tomatoey barbecued shrimp sitting on a bread rusk ($17) or a well-composed harvest salad of greens with roasted corn, dried cherries, bacon, goat cheese and Cajun pecans ($9.50).

Executive chef J.Z. Zimmerman, a longtime Ruth's Chris alum, does exacting work with proteins, steaks invariably cooked as ordered. As an initial foray I was less wowed by the sides than I have been at some outposts: The au gratin potatoes were a bit al dente ($10.50) and the bacony Brussels sprouts ($11.50) were sweet to my taste. That said, from a lush creme brulee ($10) to a gingery Eastside Manhattan ($13), it's off to a strong start.

St. Petersburg doesn't have a tradition of chain steak houses. That's always been the purview of the city on the other side of the bay. But clearly, as evidenced by these three ambitious newcomers, St. Pete is pushing the envelope right now.

Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.

     
     
Comments
Dining events: Bolts Brew Fest, Visit Orlando’s Magical Dining Month

Dining events: Bolts Brew Fest, Visit Orlando’s Magical Dining Month

BOLTS: BREW FESTI was going to list all the craft brewers whose wares will be on offer at 7 p.m. Friday at this year’s Bolts Brew Fest, a Tampa Bay Lightning benefit for the Humane Society of Tampa Bay. But with 50 local breweries alone, and another ...
Published: 08/15/18
Updated: 08/16/18
Asian-inspired Chop Chop Shop takes over Nicko’s in Seminole Heights

Asian-inspired Chop Chop Shop takes over Nicko’s in Seminole Heights

Folks around Seminole Heights will soon be able to eat Asian-inspired food with the spirit of the King.Nicko’s Fine Foods , one of the last standing classic American-style diners in Tampa Bay and the spot where Elvis Presley ate after his 1956 concer...
Published: 08/14/18
Updated: 08/19/18
Amalie Arena tries to lure millenials to its Firestick Grill

Amalie Arena tries to lure millenials to its Firestick Grill

TAMPA — How to attract the cool kids? This is the mantra for so many restaurants these days: That huge generation of millennials eats differently, thinks differently and spends differently than their parents. So how do you reel them in and make them ...
Published: 08/14/18
Restaurant review: Oak & Stone brings a lot to an already thriving downtown St. Petersburg dining and beer scene

Restaurant review: Oak & Stone brings a lot to an already thriving downtown St. Petersburg dining and beer scene

ST. PETERSBURG You stand up. You show your ID and get a wristband. A server walks you to the wall and through the options: more than 50 taps, grouped by style, mostly local (Tampa Bay Brewing Company, Green Bench, 3 Daughters, etc.) and regional cra...
Published: 08/13/18
Restaurants closing and changing hands: Silas Dent’s, Salty Rim Grill and more

Restaurants closing and changing hands: Silas Dent’s, Salty Rim Grill and more

SILAS DENT’SAfter 39 years of business, Silas Dent’s Steakhouse at 5501 Gulf Blvd. in St. Pete Beach has been sold to the owners of Caddy’s on the Beach. It will be retrofitted and reopened as the boat-up Caddy’s St. Pete.In 1978, Ted Stambaugh, Rob...
Published: 08/08/18
TeBella founder Abigail StClair talks tea facts you may not know

TeBella founder Abigail StClair talks tea facts you may not know

When Abigail StClair studied at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., she set her sights on preveterinary classes, specifically marine mammals. Why? Because it was the hardest curriculum. A postcollege stint as a whale trainer at the Mystic A...
Published: 08/08/18
Restaurant review: Alsace Bistro is doing a solid job bringing the foods of northeast France to Tierra Verde

Restaurant review: Alsace Bistro is doing a solid job bringing the foods of northeast France to Tierra Verde

TIERRA VERDEIt has always been a charming restaurant space, tucked at the back of the little shopping center adjacent to Billy’s Stone Crab on the way to Fort De Soto Park. I reviewed it when it was the German Crepe House, and maybe again shortly aft...
Published: 08/06/18
Rooster and the Till owners will open a taqueria in Sparkman Wharf

Rooster and the Till owners will open a taqueria in Sparkman Wharf

TAMPA — Sparkman Wharf, a part of the $3 billion Water Street Tampa neighborhood, has revealed the first major restaurant of its promised ten regional chefs and restaurateurs to join the lineup of culinary concepts.Two of Tampa’s most celebrated rest...
Updated one month ago
Restaurant openings: Left Bank Bistro, Nekter, Mekenita Cantina

Restaurant openings: Left Bank Bistro, Nekter, Mekenita Cantina

NOW OPEN: MEKENITA CANTINAOne of my favorite Mexican spots has pulled up stakes in Lutz, changed its name from Mekenita Mexican Grille to Mekenita Cantina and moved to a central spot at 6707 N Florida Ave. in Seminole Heights. Bodega and Mandarin Hei...
Updated one month ago
Restaurant review: Frank Chivas’ new Belleair Bluffs spot Seaweed is a revelation with fresh fish and an interesting menu

Restaurant review: Frank Chivas’ new Belleair Bluffs spot Seaweed is a revelation with fresh fish and an interesting menu

BELLEAIR BLUFFSI’ve been writing about Baystar Restaurant Group since I started at the Times 10 years ago. I’ve been writing about its founders Frank Chivas and the late, larger-than-life Tom Pritchard for just as long. I’ve reviewed most of their re...
Updated one month ago