By Laura Reiley
Times Food Critic
Get a restaurateur thinking outside the box and sometimes restaurant themes get kooky.
There's Buns and Guns, a military-themed burger restaurant in Beirut; The Zetor Restaurant, a Finish tractor-theme spot; and the Modern Toilet in Taipei (I bet you can imagine what the chairs look like).
Here in the Tampa Bay area, we have not one but two flight-themed restaurants. There's the Hangar Restaurant and Flight Lounge in St. Petersburg, Steve Westphal's third bayfront eatery, this one at the Albert Whitted Airport so the theme is natural. But in Tampa late last year another one came in for a landing: Flight Restaurant took over the Northdale spot once home to the very laudable Blu Figs.
I didn't see that coming. The aviophobic among us may need to pop a Xanax at just the thought, but even for the rest of us airplane flights aren't known for their rock-solid culinary offerings (now you're lucky if you even get a bag of nuts).
But what owner Mike Lau is trying to do is evoke the excitement of travel. Yes, there are those classic airplane pictograms for the rest rooms and waitresses wear jaunty flight attendant neck scarves, but the menu is strictly for those with serious frequent flyer miles: Maryland crabcakes, New England clam chowder, Mexican street-style elotes. It reads like a scrapbook from your favorite vacations.
But here's what you need to know. It's crazy cheap. And I don't mean when compared to actually traveling to New England or Mexico. Dishes hover around $7 and sharing a few of them is plenty of food for two people — then consider happy hour 5 to 7 p.m. with $4 top shelf drinks and all dishes $5 and you can dine out and still sock money away for your next getaway.
I know I've been writing about this a lot lately, but on one of my visits to Flight it was serious girls' night out, with dozens of women dining and painting. Easels were set up around the room and an instructor from Party Artsy was guiding participants through a floral still-life. For the non-participants it was serious entertainment watching artists with greater or lesser skills manage the task at hand. But I digress.
By and large, the kitchen is skilled in interpreting far-flung dishes. My fave was a Southern corn-flake-battered chicken thigh ($8.45) topped with blue cheese crumbles and a drizzle of a sweet, slightly spicy sauce I couldn't identify, the whole thing perched on a bed of roasted corn niblets. Fries are also tremendous and clearly house-made (that's rarer than it sounds; $6.23), and a spin on a Caesar brought mixed greens in a punchy dressing with just a handful of hot battered and fried Brussels sprout halves adding drama and textural interest ($7.89).
A duo of Thai veggie lettuce wraps ($5.89) were fresh and crunchy, but I'd love to see either a kickier ginger vinaigrette or something Sriracha-like as a sauce to spark the demure flavors. Black bean soup ($5.89) and no-rice gumbo with lots of andouille ($6.45) are both flavorful and homey-tasting (soups tend to be tough to split and this seems very shared-nibbles kind of place).
If you feel like spreading out a little, turn the menu over and the chef has designed a sextet of "first class" three-course menus in loose travel themes (the "European backpacker" starts with warm German potato salad, then offers beer cheese with toast points and beef stroganoff all for $16.45) — again, very sharable.
The short menu is supported by a fairly pedestrian wine list (but good prices) and servers at Flight are efficient and friendly and luckily never break into that flight attendant pantomime about how to use the oxygen masks.
Northdale, with Grille One Sixteen, Cigar City Brewpub and Mekenita Mexican Grille, has taken wing as a dining destination. Flight pushes it to its cruising altitude.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.