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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.

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FarmTable Kitchen

179 Second Ave. N,

St. Petersburg

(727) 523-6300; localegourmetmarket.com/farmtable

Cuisine: eight-course prix-fixe fine dining

Hours: 7 p.m. Thursday to Saturday

Details: AmEx, V, MC, Disc.; full bar; online reservations required

Prices: $105 per person, plus tax and 20 percent gratuity; optional wine pairings are a separate

$55 charge

Sea Salt St. Pete

183 Second Ave. N,

St. Petersburg

(727) 873-7964; seasaltstpete.com

Cuisine: Seafood

Hours: 4:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, until

11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Details: AmEx, V, MC, Disc.; full bar; reservations accepted

Prices: Oysters $2.50-$4 per; appetizers $10-$95; entrees $22-$60

Ruth's Chris

Steak House

131 Second Ave. N,

St. Petersburg

(727) 821-4139;

ruthschris.com

Cuisine: Steak house

Hours: 4:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, until

11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Details: AmEx, V, MC, Disc.; full bar; reservations accepted

Prices: Appetizers $9.50-$20; entrees $28-$115

Note: For all three restaurants it is too early to award stars.

Hottest restaurant newcomers at Sundial in St. Petersburg off to ambitious start 02/23/15 [Last modified: Thursday, February 26, 2015 2:51pm]
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