Thursday, November 16, 2017
Restaurant News

Restaurant review: A promising start for gluten-free Craft Kafé, but bread needs work

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ST. PETERSBURG

Ten years ago this could have been a test question: Gluten is A) the Russian president's second cousin, B) the sticky stuff on the back of lickable stamps, C) an endangered Galapagos reptile, D) a protein composite.

And we all would have gotten it wrong. ("I swear, it's like a gecko!") Now just about everyone is giving gluten the squint eye. Celiac disease, gluten intolerance, gluten sensitivity — and then there's more esoteric gluten fear and loathing. Celiac disease has more than doubled in the past 20 years, but there's little consensus about why. Changes in American wheat, experts say, don't alone explain it. Some scientists say wheat might be the culprit, but that it may be due to a different protein entirely.

What I know: More and more readers reach out to urge me to review gluten-free items and indicate which restaurants are especially friendly to those eschewing the Notorious G. For these readers, I bring you Craft Kafé.

The "K" is not one of those vexing cutesy misspellings (hear that, Kozy Korner?). It's because owner Ted Skiadiotis is Greek, and that's how kafes roll in Greece. That said, there is almost nothing Greek about this newcomer next to O Bistro that opened in March, other than the use of some spinach and a serious caffeine addiction. The whimsical, homespun design (the work of local artist Ron Francis, who contributed to Buddy Brew's look) makes one forget that this space was most recently a Little Caesars. Which is its own kind of irony — because Craft Kafé is a vigilantly gluten-free cafe.

Skiadiotis grinds his own nonwheat flours. His pizza dough, he says, is very simple: organic sorghum, organic brown basmati rice and a little potato starch, extra-virgin olive oil, sea salt. The ghost of Little Caesars is getting twitchy at that recipe.

Skiadiotis' own gluten-free journey started as a young man growing up in a restaurant family in Astoria, Queens. He would eat pizza or bread and feel sick; doctors were stumped. So he gave up work as a proprietary day trader on Wall Street, moved down to Florida (his family owns Skidder's Restaurant in St. Pete Beach) and opened his little labor of love.

I've begun to fatigue of the word artisan, but this is a situation where it feels about right. He's doing Kyoto-style cold press coffees (he uses Buddy Brew beans but then brings in single-origin espressos from guest roasters each month) with purified, filtered water. There is a fresh-squeezed juice daily (he wanted a longer lineup but the space doesn't accommodate), small-batch housemade gelato, organic salads (with greens harvested from a wall of hydroponics greenery) and loads of baked goods and breakfast pastries.

His staff is cool-looking and quirky, the music leans toward a bit of Seattle grunge nostalgia and customers seem to linger at the small tables and couches. I'd be utterly in love were it not for this: The savory bread (those on the sandwiches and such) and the pizza dough are, like so many gluten-free breads, floppy. I'm not being harsh. It's really, really hard to get a good, crunchy bread crust with no wheat. Pizza dough, even when topped with a lovely array of mixed veggies and a nice mantle of cheese, is disappointing when it's squidgy. Sandwiches, from an open-faced grilled cheese with a sweet-tangy tomato jam to a very appealing barbecued pulled duck and greens (reads like a banh mi), suffer from their soft, bunlike mini loaves.

That said, the sweet baked goods verge on a miracle. There's a gluten-free apple strudel that could go head to head with any out there, a deeply chocolaty quinoa cupcake with a tiny dab of lush frosting, a moist, flavorful blueberry muffin, and a couple of kinds of cookies (one with chocolate chips and coconut) that have perfect crumb and crunch.

Skiadiotis and crew are big-city ambitious. They do fancy latte art and are thinking about putting in a kombucha bar. So if they can nail the savory g-free breads, I can imagine myself regularly rubbing shoulders with the rest of St. Pete and listening to Nirvana's Nevermind while I wait for a killer Craft omelet (spinach, mushroom, chicken sausage, cheddar) and an Instagram-worthy cappuccino.

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

   
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