There in the dining room is a man with a cowboy hat and the silky tresses. It's Beverly Hills celebrity stylist José Eber with a table of HSN folks. Glance out the front door to the line for the elevator to the Canopy Rooftop Lounge. Looks like maybe 70 people waiting, most of the women in kicky summer dresses and towering heels. • It's official: The long-awaited Birchwood has opened and it's the biggest scene in St. Petersburg. Wander from the white-curtained cabanas to the edge of the rooftop with its sweeping views of Tampa Bay and Straub Park and you'll hear people all saying the same thing: "Why doesn't every place on Beach Drive have a rooftop bar?"
While nearby restaurateurs are mulling that question, it's time to take a look at the new inn's dining options. The main attraction is the ground-floor 225-seat fine-dining Birch & Vine, open for lunch and dinner. The Canopy's offerings are less ambitious (but fun), more in support of the bar menu. Hotel owner Chuck Prather made some smart hires for his team: Robert Snow (17 years with Roy's) as general manager, Jason Cline (a Johnson & Wales grad most recently at Tampa's Bin 27 Bistro) as executive chef and Todd McNulty (also of Roy's, and Z Grille) as beverage director.
Still, it needs to be said up front that servers and supporting staff aren't adequately trained yet. Ask one for an entree suggestion and you're likely to get, "I haven't tried any yet." And when it's busy (which it is most of the time), there's a certain chicken-without-head quality to service.
It's common: Spend a zillion dollars launching a new property and at a certain point you have to open the doors to get a revenue stream flowing, whether everything is ready or not. Cline has already done a fair number of menu tweaks since Day One, and the restaurants are still grappling with computer problems and other logistical details. But all signs point to the Birchwood's restaurants being great additions to the downtown dining scene.
The menu at Birch & Vine is ambitious, with lots of culinary buzzwords: There's compressed watermelon, there's sous vide, there's pork belly. Cline has a smoker that's just getting up and running, but a dedicated sous vide station is turning out some great dishes already, from butter-poached lobster on a bed of truffled grits with a swirl of vanilla rum butter and a frizzle of fried leek ($18) to a lovely dish of orange miso sous vide scallops, with more truffled grits, little cubes of crisp pork belly, a vibrant veggie succotash and a pouf of micro basil ($29). The double-duty grits is interesting — many restaurants have sauces, sides and starches that serve multiple functions on a menu, but you have to be judicious about it. Right now Cline might be too reliant on crispy pork belly and distinctive sauces like a chocolate-cherry demiglace. But that's a quibble for a menu that contains so many good ideas, many of them novel in Pinellas County.
Crispy fried Blue Point oysters ($12) get nestled back into shells that have been filled with little scoops of chorizo-chipotle polenta. Nice (although I didn't detect any promised aioli or "citron micros"). A thick disc of pan-seared foie gras ($16) is married with a spoonful of star-anise-fragrant blueberry compote, a dribble of balsamic reduction, Parmesan crisps and a Gorgonzola fritter. Salty/tangy with sweet/fruity and the buttery richness of the liver worked elegantly.
Without calling a lot of attention to it, Cline is sourcing locally, from Watercress Farms watercress and local Jack's Catch brand crab and spices from the Savory Spice Shop right around the corner, to fresh dayboat fish that the chef is now able to identify by boat name. Waiter training is essential to convey this good stuff to customers.
The best thing on both the lunch menu and the Canopy menu is the braised pork belly Cuban ($12), a pressed baguette barely corralling luscious meats, Gruyere, and grain mustard vinaigrette housemade pickles. Still, the thing that charmed me most about the Canopy offerings was the potato menu. Fries, tots, skins, hash — this is essence of bar food, eh? Salty, heavy spud loveliness to soak up the booze.
And at both Birch & Vine and the Canopy, drink options are easy to get enthusiastic about, from distinctive house cocktails (the Sunset in Rio contains Absolut Hibiskus, acai liqueur, fresh lime and a spritz of ginger beer; an unusual margarita marries blended avocado with jalapeno-infused tequila), to a short list of world-beat wines in a broad range of varietals.
But if I'm being honest here, it's not me mentioning the Murphy Goode claret or the Erath pinot that's going to log-jam the elevator line to the Canopy Rooftop Lounge. The Birchwood is red-hot because it's got BLT. Not that kind (although it does have a good one with chicken). The kind I mean is a formula for success: Buzz, Location and Talent.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.