Burlap and chicken wire create a textural backdrop for a mounted pitchfork over the bar. One wall is the lustrous tooled leather of a rodeo star's lucky saddle, another is an installation of rust-freckled gears and cogs and wheels and pipes. A repurposed footed bathtub becomes the ladies' room sink; the men's room features a wash basin inset in a wide-wale tractor tire. At the hostess stand there's a vintage hand pump, behind that a huge waterwheel-turned-wine rack.
Chandeliers of burlap and wire; metal-rimmed tables of fat reclaimed cypress boards; ceramic plates made to look like down-home fluted paper plates: I can't remember the last review I wrote that led with decor. The Mill, opened last month downtown, has so many elements to heap praise upon, but it is interior designer Amanda McMahon's work that spellbound me first.
It's not straight-up American Gothic. There is an edginess that renders it more steampunk than Wild West. Can you make a wagon wheel hip? McMahon proves that, yes, yes you can.
It is the appropriate backdrop for chef/co-owner Ted Dorsey's food. I've had trouble characterizing his style over the years. I wrote about it when he headed the kitchen at Castille at the boutique Hotel Zamora in St. Pete Beach (which I deemed one of my top 10 restaurants of last year), and before that at Boca, Copperfish and Ciro's Speakeasy in Tampa.
New American is the easiest way to describe it: vibrant, with a globe-trotting knack for bringing in Spanish or Southeast Asian or Middle Eastern flavors without seeming incoherent. He has a commitment to sourcing locally and a way of making the vegetables and sauces on the plate, if not the stars, then at least the co-stars to a dish's protein.
Never a minimalist, his approach is often about layering. Here's a simple example. On the appetizer list is a sweet pea hummus ($9). Nice. But it gets a dollop of sweet pear chutney at its center and then a flurry of dukkah, an Egyptian blend of fragrant spices and roasted nuts often used as a dip; on the side are leaves of endive and a pile of cracker-thin and very crunchy housemade lavash. The dish has a vegetal earthiness, a swirl of perfumy sweetness and even spicy high notes, then the bitter of the endive and the snap of the lavash. What I think of as the Appetizer of Summer 2015, the one everyone is talking about, is his watermelon bruschetta ($11), which brings together melon, heirloom tomato, cuke, a bit of tangy feta, a drizzle of tequila-agave syrup and pops of smoked pistachio brittle, all on rusks of country bread. It's a flash mob of flavor (though, like the hummus, Dorsey tends to lean a little toward sweetness), but so liquidy that my bread was swiftly mush — maybe offer a pot of the topping and a pile of the breads as a DIY?.
Dorsey, 33, and partner Jason Griffin (downtown denizens will remember him as a bartender at Cask & Ale) have put together a fine team to maneuver the often packed dining room of what once was JoJo's in Citta. Ryan Pines at the bar is one of note, especially when he's shaking up the deep fuchsia-colored showstopper that is the Tahona cocktail ($10), its fancy-reverse-osmosis-yada-yada fat ice cube melting slowly into the Milagro reposado, St. Germain, cactus pear juice, lime and agave syrup infused with smoked jalapeno, the whole thing given a dendrobium orchid flower to flip it right over the glammy top. With cocktails on draft (draft wines to come), a smart craft beer list and slightly off-the-beaten path wine list, the whole bar program at the Mill is impressive.
But let's get back to the food. At lunch I'm going to say the prices are daunting. There's a lot of competition for business folks' lunch hour, so $14 sandwiches are challenging. The burger ($14) with cured tomato caponata can easily command its price, with extras like house dill pickles (which appear also on the stunning cheese and charcuterie plates — the housemade duck prosciutto and house anchovies outshining the unlisted cheeses for now), but salads like the composed beet panzanella with pound cake croutons seemed skimpy for $13.
Dinner prices are more appropriate and portions generous. I could make a meal alone on the Brussels leaves salad with grilled radicchio and pork belly croutons (what kind of black magic is that?, $14), and a pork tomahawk ($29) is the kind of Flintstone-sized dish you'll be dipping into fridge-side at home for a couple of days. Even dishes I didn't absolutely love (the pasta on the pork cheek ravioli was really tough, its peas mealy; $14) are clearly entirely housemade, with a great deal of care devoted to juxtapositions of color, flavor and texture. Dorsey and crew are going to be fun to watch as they evolve, especially against a backdrop that even in its infancy is one of St. Petersburg's most distinctive-looking restaurants.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.