White subway tile gleams, both modern sleek and industrial utilitarian. Above hang thick nautical rope pendants from which delicately filamented Edison bulbs dangle. The 20 rotating beers, four wines and two cocktails on tap flow through massive black industrial pipes, the particulars of which flash by on two train station-style Solari boards. In short, Stillwaters Tavern, opened in June at the site of the longtime Bruce Watters Jewelers space on Beach Drive, is about as handsome as any restaurant in Pinellas County. • 2B Hospitality (Robert Sanderson, Dyce Craig, Lee Karlins and Top Chef contestant Jeffrey Jew) has the assurance borne of operating an already successful venture, their bustling contemporary Italian BellaBrava just down the block. This new project was orchestrated with precision and a clear eye about the niche it aimed to fill on St. Petersburg's already rich Restaurant Row. It would be a new American tavern, dishes ranging from down-home with a faint Southern accent to New England coastal classics, all in support of an ambitious bar program.
The finished restaurant is rich with details: Rustic wooden tables are stamped with the restaurant's latitude and longitude; deep indigo button-tufted banquettes are echoed by the bars tools; USB ports enable patrons to charge cellphones at the bar and the booths; and a buffed stainless kitchen with a two-level pass-through allows diners to watch all the action.
Alright, you're saying: Reiley, get to the food.
Jew spent months secreted in a local church's test kitchen, tinkering, before hiring Joshua Breen as chef de cuisine and BellaBrava veteran Christopher Kent as sous chef. Together, the menus they are executing are smart, contemporary and in keeping with Beach Drive prices (lunches might be a touch spendy). Much of this food will be familiar — there are burgers and steaks and chicken wings — but with enough Korean touches and farm-to-table ingredients that much of the food is disarming.
A case in point: Two fillets of wood-grilled trout ($20.99), juicy and flavorful, get paired with ribbons of sauteed savoy cabbage, a little whisper of tarragon-scented creamy onion sauce and, here's the showstopper, a smoked potato salad. That last addition is simple but mesmerizing, lifting a very nice fish dish skyward.
The cocktail list, each given a number in lieu of a name so customers have to scan the full ingredient list before ordering, deserves major kudos, from the No. 68 ($10.99) with High West rye, Peychauds bitters and ginger beer garnished with a Luxardo cherry and orange slice, to a perfect post-prandial No. 22 ($10.99) on tap, which features Bulleit bourbon, cold-brewed coffee, housemade bourbon bitters and one fat ice cube that melts glacially. And with one of those cocktails? The beer nuts ($4.99), definitely: peanuts and corn nuts with a crunchy sweet-salty shell served in a squat glass jar.
I'm predicting a few dishes will emerge as local favorites. The grainy cornmeal-crumbed chicken-fried oysters ($11.99) are lovely, the tender briny bivalves paired with pickled carrot and little red peppers and a ramekin of aioli (it tasted remoulade-ish to me, not so much like the advertised whole-grain mustard, but it was good). And the confit chicken wings ($12.99) show off the many allures of Korean gochujang chili paste (this one housemade) — mildly spicy, a little sweet, a little fermenty funk, these wings (tender, meaty but not crispy) juxtaposed with a yogurt sauce perfumed with lemongrass.
The beer cheese fondue ($7.99) has some good flavors but I thought the presentation detracted, another one of those glass jars into which a passel of fiselle-like soft pretzels is rammed. Makes for very inelegant eating. Unattractive also, the braised smoked pork on "gumbo fried rice" (way too much sludgy, inky brown rice) prompted me to realize how many of Stillwaters' other plates make good use of white space: In general, dishes are portioned appropriately and arrayed appealingly.
This goes double for the salads. The best is the Asian chopped ($13.99) in a pretty wooden bowl, topped with sweet barbecued chicken and tiny rounds of Chinese sausage over napa and romaine, but with elegant touches like togorashi-rubbed (it's a spice mix with a little citrus and chile heat) roasted cashews and novel-looking chili threads that don't seem to add much but visual panache. The Med ($14.99) is every bit as well conceived, the real star the housemade salmon pastrami showcased against ingredients like feta, egg, toothsome roasted wheat and velvety swaths of gem lettuces. I also enjoyed the Farm salad ($12.99) but felt the price was high for what amounted to a composed plate of roasted young carrots and beets.
A number of intensive days of training has yielded a staff that is largely professional, with good menu knowledge, but as with most new restaurants there are rookie bobbles and the occasional oversharing or hovering. And despite Jew being a self-proclaimed coffee nut (they use Batdorf & Bronson beans), I thought the desserts didn't quite have the panache of the savory foods: Bourbon sticky balls ($6.99), essentially doughnut holes served in a brown paper bag, were dry and underwhelming, but the rich chocolate pudding served in another jar ($6.99) had a nice capper of crunchy "chocolate caviar" balls to make it memorable.
Still, Stillwaters is obviously the handiwork of veteran restaurant folks. There are enough exciting bells and whistles — I didn't even mention the retractable canopy on the patio out front, or the daily special plates Sunday to Thursday with come-hither options like lobster rolls or duck pot pie — to keep it one of St. Petersburg's hot spots for a long time to come.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.