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PLEASANT SURPRISE

Sitting down at a table in Debby's Cafe, the Nibbler got a tableful of surprises. Like when the waitress said my meal came with rice, potatoes, linguine or "fresh vegetable medley." I shuddered but asked what that meant: Broccolizucchinisquash (my worst fears)snow peas and mushrooms in a sesame soy dressing (sounding better all the time.)"

It was: fresh food creatively done in each course, one of the best meals in town for $8.95.

What makes Debby's (7370 Gulf Blvd.; 367-8700), a surprise is that it's just a tiny luncheonette where the main strip and the tiny downtown of St. Petersburg Beach meet. It looks like a place with cute salt and pepper shakers that's good for a patty melt or two over easy and not much more.

Well, Debby's has all those (my favorite shakers were the two little pigs) and something else: fresh culinary style imported six months ago from Palm Beach in the person of Chuck Cyr, a young chef-owner who worked the seasons at Taboo on chic Worth Avenue and in Ogunquit, Maine.

The results are not radically nouvelle, just mainstream entrees of seafood, pasta, chicken and veal done with care _ and an element of surprise. Chicken scampi is done with artichokes, mushrooms and tortellini in Parmesan cream sauce, while scallops are available stir-fried in sesame soy on angel hair or broiled with pesto.

The Nibbler's always drawn to specials and there were a half-dozen here, including tuna, either grilled with Hollandaise or blackened with pineapple barbecue salsa.

The tuna was three steaks, amounting to a half pound, encrusted in peppery spice; the salsa was lively but the barbecue element was too heavy, smoky and tasted like store-bought. Good effort, nonetheless.

No quibble about that veggie medley. They were a family-size serving of crisp, colorful vegetables with sesame for crunch and ginger for zing.

Salad was not so exotic but it did have color, ripe tomatoes, rye croutons. And who could complain about house dressing of crab meat horseradish (well, actually, that horseradish needs to be reined in a bit, maybe with some yogurt).

Throw in fresh-baked rolls and that's a meal that's hard to touch for $8.95. (Of course, I had to have pie in a place like this, so I went for cherry, hot; crust came out soggy but it was homemade and had a good gooey sugar crumb topping.)

Want another pleasant surprise? The Nibbler's not the only one to recognize that there's something special cooking at Debby's; Cyr's already got a small crew of regulars and fans, and it looks like he's here to stay.

In fact, he's ready to have a contest to give the place a new name. No matter; I don't think it'll spoil the surprise.

TAMPA BAY

BOUILLABAISSE

As always, there are some new ingredients in local dining:

Just down the road from Debby's, there's a new dinner menu at Moonlight Bay (6690 Gulf Blvd., St. Petersburg Beach; 360-2978) that keeps old favorites but adds Southwestern sirloin and vegetable pie, linguine and veggies in walnut cream and lamb in raspberry barbecue sauce with peach and potato fritters. Moonlight Bay will resume lunch later this month.

North Pinellas needn't be starving for Thai food. Thai Nana Exotic Thai Restaurant is now open in the Crystal Beach Plaza (2856 Alt. 19 N, Palm Harbor; 787-0189).

South Tampa's got two new choices that may give Gandy Boulevard some more flavor.

Al Piazza, who used to have Continental Deli in Ybor City, has opened Bayside Gourmet Deli(3010 W Gandy; 831-2367), serving three meals a day, hot take-out dinners and sandwiches, including a beef Burgundy.

New Cuban restaurant with both diner-style seating and tablecloth service is Don Miguel(3693 Gandy Blvd; 839-3137); new owners are Robert Nunez and Mike Martinez. House specialty is churrasco steak.

Up next:BEST BITE

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