Some say Al Capone was part owner of the Jungle Prada nightclub that was once here. There's talk that Babe Ruth got hitched here. Others say a secret underground tunnel at the nightclub was used by bootleggers during Prohibition, and that it's built on an Indian burial ground. And most folks agree that Count Basie and Duke Ellington played here when the club was called the Gangplank. The 1924 building in the Jungle Prada section of St. Petersburg has a glamorous past.
But in recent years the space has slumped, its tenants never quite gussying it up to its Roaring Twenties glory. Saffron's was there for a while, Max & Sam's Steakhouse for a while after that. It was fleetingly Tapas Restaurant & Bar last year, a restaurant that closed so precipitously that the bread delivery stood for days outside the locked door.
Kathy and Lui Arango ran Black Palm on the Pass-a-Grille end of St. Pete Beach for eight years, building a reputation as a great place for Latin-inspired tapas and an even better place for wedding receptions and other nuptial-related gatherings. They closed that location in February and promptly reopened in the Al Capone/Babe Ruth/Indian burial ground space. But this time the sprawling 9,000-square-foot building got the attention it deserved. Original terrazzo floors were uncovered and buffed, and the 1920s design elements were lovingly restored. There's a long, convivial bar with live music, plenty of private dining space, and enough architectural oddities that a walk around the dining room is an essential part of the dinner experience.
In this much bigger space, the management has hired more staff, and the result is a solid mix of veterans brought from the beach and fresh-faced newcomers. All seem well studied in the menu, which is a long read composed of some Spanish dishes and a scattering of Mexican, Cuban and other Latin American offerings, many of them rarities in this part of town.
A mojito and an order of arepas get things started on the right foot, especially if you can sit in the bar for a bit and listen to music before settling into a table in the next room. Arepas — griddled white corn cakes — come a couple of ways, both delicious. The Royal version ($8) is topped with smoked salmon, sour cream, caviar, scallion and a flurry of queso fresco, the rellena style ($6) brings them topped with pulled brisket or chicken, a spoonful of tangy tomatillo coulis and fluffs of cheese. In either case, crunchy, hot, sweet and salty combine in lovely way. Little skewers of grilled beef or shrimp (called pinchos; $3) pack a lot of flavor without filling you up, a great cocktail-friendly snack, and the house fried calamari ($9) stands out from the herd with its ramekin of sneaky-heat chipotle sauce.
Enough snacking, finish that cocktail and move on to dinner. The house gazpacho ($7) reveals the kitchen's credo: Style matters. In a pretty glass, pale green and pale orange purees are poured simultaneously to meet dramatically at a line in the middle. There is citrus tang, lots of robust tomato and pepper flavor and garlic oomph (note to self: pack Altoids).
Fans of the old Black Palm and people curious to see the historic building in its fresh guise have made this newcomer busy already, but it's also a testament to how refreshing upscale Latin fusion can be. Pan-seared lollipop lamb chops ($34) are memorable and gutsy because of their zippy tamarind onions and addictive fried tostones.
A generous fillet of snowy white pan-seared sea bass ($32) on a bed of (too much) spinach is contrasted nicely by a cylinder of electric fuchsia salad that marries beets, carrot and potato.
For dessert, there's fancy molten chocolate cake ($7), but it's the Latin sweets that steal the show. Flan ($5) was a little firm for my tastes, but the tres leches cake ($6) was lush and the guava cheesecake ($6) on a delicate almond-butter crust a good example of Latin flavors contributing memorable verve.
The Arangos are to be commended for investing in bringing this piece of St. Petersburg history back from decline. With the fan base and successes of the previous location standing it in good stead, the new Black Palm seems poised for healthy growth.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.