ST. PETE BEACH
Restaurant chefs are often wanderers, staying in a kitchen a year or two before moving on. For this reason, reviewing restaurants gets tricky. You say glowing things about a restaurant and, poof, the chef is promptly off somewhere new. I've been watching Ted Dorsey for a while, but I took my eye off the prize seven months ago when he left Gordon Davis and Kevin Enderle's SoHo Hospitality group (Boca, Ciro's, CopperFish) to head to St. Pete Beach.
Having started his career under the tutelage of Marty Blitz at Mise en Place in Tampa and then in the kitchen of Davis Islands' now-defunct Chez Bryce, he has a vibrant palette drawn from sultry Mediterranean countries, South America and even Asia, but with clearly classical underpinnings. Which is why it seemed like a head-scratcher when I heard he was heading up the kitchen at the brand-new Hotel Zamora and its marquee restaurant, Castile. With the exception of Maritana Grille and a couple of others, St. Pete Beach isn't known for its cutting-edge or rigorously executed food. With a largely transient tourist customer base, a lot of restaurants fall into a "turn and burn" complacency.
Right out of the gate, Hotel Zamora, a stylish 50-room boutique, seems to be doing things its own way. It's not on the beach side of Gulf Boulevard, but uses its bayou-side setting to best effect with a ravishing waterside pool and patio (and it's constructing a full rooftop bar and restaurant that will have water views on both sides). The color scheme is a vivacious deep mango and teal with lots of natural woods and design elements reminiscent of Bermuda or Antigua. It feels exotic, and what Dorsey is doing at Castile follows suit.
I'm calling the cuisine New American, but that's a bit of a cop-out. The menu has strong ties to Spain, with a small plate/tapas approach and lots of smoked paprika and cheeses like Cabrales. But then you encounter Latin elements like a zappy Argentine chimichurri sauce on a tender culotte steak ($21) or house-smoked chicharrons ($12); and if you're paying attention coconut lemongrass sticky rice ($7) or the tomatillo lychee salsa on a tuna poke ($15) will take you in a different direction entirely.
What stays consistent is Dorsey's attention to detail and commitment to making just about everything in-house (okay, not the serrano ham, but all the other cured meats, breads, pickles and other elements). As at Boca, he sources quite a bit from area farms, with a special emphasis on spear-caught fish from the gulf. All right already, but how does this all come together in dishes?
Envision paper-thin slices of black grouper dotted with tiny nuggets of candied chicharrons and bits of micro cilantro, with a scoop of supremes of blood orange flecked with cilantro and lemony marigold ($15), an appetizer in the truest sense, perfect when segueing into a bowl of sambuca-fragrant steamed mussels with more blood orange and chopped tomato ($17) with a pair of deeply grilled baguette rusks, or, one of the best dishes, a bowl of fresh lobster meat cradled in a buttery tomato sauce with a garlic and smoked paprika edge ($11), served with more grilled bread for mopping.
Salads are especially good (although large, so maybe share one for the table), with artisan greens from 3 Boys in Ruskin, tiny peppery watercress from Homestead and velvety limestone and gem lettuces from a nearby hydroponic farm. But it's the accessories that make it all sing, as with an arugula salad studded with Bing cherry halves, fresh figs and crunchy/salty bits of ham ($14).
Dorsey and chef de cuisine Zach West's entree work is equally impressive, especially the seafood. A trio of perfectly seared sea scallops sits on a puddle of creamed sweet corn with a candied pancetta foil, a fluff of microgreens and a swirl of jalapeno prosecco cream ($26); a passel of grouper cheeks ($24) comes adjacent to a kicky pile of heirloom tomato salad (not really the advertised caponata, which I think of as a cooked dish), a wide smear of sumptuous avocado cream and a limey vinaigrette.
Desserts are a bit more pedestrian than the rest of the menu (a "choco taco," tropical panna cotta), but the wine list, cocktail lineup and service staff are equal to the task of supporting such an ambitious new concept.
Castile was a historical region in Spain; Zamora is a province in Spain and the name of cities in Mexico, Ecuador and Venezuela. I'm not sure which ones hotel owner Henry Suarez is alluding to, but it's clear that St. Pete Beach has caught a big fish with this globe-trotting newcomer.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.