The Reading Room is doing so many things right that I'm a little dubious I can ram it into 25 inches of copy, so strap in and let's go.
My first impressions have been known to be fallible (I was not a world-class dater), so I was trepidatious when I first arrived. White and boxy, the building gestures at mid-century modern, more Eichler-practical than Frank Lloyd Wright. The indoor space is gorgeous and spare, with expansive windows on two sides that look out onto a 3,000-square-foot vegetable garden and what will eventually be a gracious patio. It's hip and warm, with a waft of wood-smoke perfume and servers who are intimidatingly cool-looking but remarkably kind.
I sat at the banquette along one wall of what was previously a Christian Science Reading Room and thought, the food can't measure up, right? A little bud vase on the table held what looked like bolted broccoli blossoms and the drinks menu comes in a charming old cloth-bound book (Pericles to Shakespeare's poems, complete with library checkout card stamped with today's date). Short wine list but smartly curated, with a lineup of nonliquor cocktails that reflect a sophisticated knowledge of what the nation's mixologists are preoccupied with these days (great use of lavender, black pepper, bitters). Nagging thought: How is the food not going to disappoint?
The Reading Room is a collaboration between Freefall Theatre co-founder Kevin Lane, his husband Kevin Damphouse, and partners Jessika Palombo and Lauren Macellaro. Macellaro is the chef, coming most recently from a stint at Rooster & the Till in Tampa while the Reading Room came together, but previously from Asheville, N.C., a hotbed of ambitious restaurants that are stone-cold serious about sourcing.
The food at the Reading Room measures up.
Macellaro and team (a couple of folks lured from Asheville) aim to make just about everything in-house, with loads of stuff harvested out back and goose-walked a few feet to the plate. The tagline is "garden-inspired and wood-fired," and despite the kicky rhyme, it feels just right. Take the daily bread: It's a crusty, tangy, moist-centered pain au levain (sourdough starter, no commercial yeast), served with a smear of what looks like house-made butter and a flurry of crunchy maldon sea salt. It's $6, and if you whine about how bread should be free, I will come to your house and give you a talking to.
From there, order the oh-so-Florida boiled peanuts ($6), a pretty little wooden bowl with a lid cradling a passel of peanuts bobbing in a liquid infused very subtly with coffee, cardamom and chili. The soft nuts are mostly plush texture, just a bit of fun before you continue on to the rest of the menu, which is divided into four chapters, loosely from smallest to largest.
The second chapter knocked my socks off. Baby lettuces from Brick Street (a St. Petersburg commercial farm housed inside shipping crates) get a perfect dribble of garlicky dressing with a bit of Parmesan, crispy anchovy and hardboiled eggs that have been boiled in cube molds in order to blow your mind ("I gotta see the chicken that laid these"), $13. On the other hand, the "roasted and raw roots" salad was prettier than my prom corsage, with beets and carrots in various states of being, plus little clods of cashew brittle-granola and a sorghum vinaigrette that sparks the sweet earthiness of the veggies, $14. And the house-made burrata (that creamy-centered mozzarella) comes festooned with fresh English peas, fennel fronds and a vinaigrette I couldn't place until I looked back at the menu (smoked almond!), $15.
Chapter Three reads like entrees for the not-so-hungry, but they also make nice shareables: A bowl of clams and mussels in a winey-vermouthy broth given umami depth with fat bits of bacon comes with a thin, crusty fiselle perched just so on the bowl edge, the bread essential for dunking and chasing runaway shellfish, $19. The biggest sleight of hand came with the pork. It must have been brined, then smoked, then grilled and then some other process I've clearly never managed at home — moist, rich and bouncy, it came atop luscious whipped potatoes with smoky grilled greens and pickled onion, $19, just enough of it that plate-licking was a consideration.
This restaurant is a boon to vegetarians, with an evening "seasonal vedge" option in Chapter Four, but vegetables take central roles in many of the animal protein entrees as well. In the chicken dish, $25, light and dark meat pieces, great moist texture and depth of flavor, were almost in service to the plate's peas and mushrooms, a meaty foil to their earthiness and high notes.
The Reading Room still feels very new, as if Macellaro and crew have lots of additional plans not yet implemented. I'm hoping a full bar is on the horizon, because I'd like to see their mixology thoughts with a full tool kit. And desserts, while ambitious in the style of Edison or Rooster & the Till (interesting juxtapositions, good use of sweet and savory), didn't quite have the finesse or polish of the rest of the menu. No matter, because I aim to get a lot more Reading in this year.
The Reading Room
6001 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; (727) 343-0052, rrstpete.com
Cuisine: New American
Hours: Happy hour at the bar 4 to 5:30 p.m.; dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday
Details: AmEx, V, MC, Disc.; phone reservations; beer and wine
Prices: Small plates $5-$15, larger plates $14-$27
Rating, out of four stars:
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.