I've always liked the space at 717 South, sprawling but with tables set tight enough that it feels intimate, and a convivial bar with a cocktail-shaker soundtrack. I've always liked its art deco canvases, vivid but with a slightly psychedelic tweakiness. And I've always enjoyed talking to owner Michael Stewart, who this summer opens Ava in South Tampa with Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon.
But the food was what prevented it from being a regular in my lineup. For a long time there were two fully realized culinary strategies adopted simultaneously — each separate but equal. One side of the menu dealt in kicky pan-Asian dishes as the other offered up sturdy Italian classics (lasagna, veal scallopini). There was plenty of solid food, but the approach seemed rather schizophrenic to me.
Over the past few months Stewart and his crew have rethought. Perhaps because Ava will be a regional Italian restaurant, the two-cuisine approach has been jettisoned in favor of a contemporary, mid-priced New American menu. It still features Asian fillips (ah, the sesame/Sriracha-glazed edamame ) and a fair number of pastas and such, but it no longer seems like an unlikely mashup. Gluten-free dishes are indicated with a discreet "GF" and there are a number of appropriate dishes for the vegetarian or pescatarian.
Out one night with a bunch of girlfriends, we adopted a group-snack approach (well, we each ordered our own cocktail first, mine the way-too-good-to-share cucumber basil gimlet with Hendrick's gin; $12). Beyond those sneaky-heat edamame ($5.90), one of our favorite starters brought a little bowl of pan-fried Brussels sprout halves ($8.90) made extra savory with a sprinkle of smoked salt and grated parmesan and then given a big squeeze of lime.
Along with that, our table swiftly became crowded by a lovely composed roasted beet and arugula salad ($9.90), nothing you haven't seen before but with richly toasted walnuts and a subtle white balsamic vinaigrette; goat cheese flatbread ($12.90) busy with curls of fried prosciutto, macerated mission figs and little fluffs of fresh chevre; and (one of my favorite dishes) a Thai beef salad ($13.90) plenty generous to be a meal in its own right: slices of red curry-tinged beef, tomato, cuke, field greens, wonton strips and a gingery lemongrass dressing.
Stewart is clearly a wine enthusiast, offering more than 200 bottlings on the main list, 35 by the glass, then an extra reserve list and even a super-secret list for when he feels like pulling out the big guns (Bodegas El Nido, Doubleback cab, Cakebread's Dancing Bear Ranch and such). Still, the bartenders do a lot of exciting work with muddled fruits and fresh fruit purees, so what to sip with your entree can get a little tricky — the house Moscow mule has a lovely gingery zing, $12, a great foil for the Szechuan duck breast $27.90, which comes with my favorite side, a scoop of mashed sweet potatoes doctored by just enough jalapeno to give a hint of heat.
Speaking of sides, the truffle mac and cheese is absurdly good, whether it's paired up with a lightly smoked pork chop ($21.90) or with a rosy New York strip ($28) accessorized by a puddle of shallot-red wine sauce. On a couple of visits my only kvetch was that sides tend to serve triple and quadruple duty on entrees, and the grits don't necessarily marry seamlessly with things (a seafood cioppino, $27.90, ended up being unpleasantly murky once the grits started mixing into the broth).
Clearly the new menu has been embraced by longtime South Tampa fans: This place gets hopping, so reservations are a good idea. And servers have the breezy efficiency necessary in a place that can get pretty hairy on a Friday night. It will be interesting to see how Michael Stewart splits his time when Ava gets up and running, but for now 717 South is firing on all cylinders.
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.