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A timid Seville earns a limited Ole!

Across Pinellas County from the zillion-dollar project to restore the old Vinoy Hotel, entrepreneurs with a more modest budget are striving to revive a smaller landmark of the same vintage, the old Jungle Prada.

It is no longer the elegant arcade that pioneer promoter Walter Fuller built in 1927 as our first shopping mall, El Prado. Over the years, its glories (and spelling) faded into a nightclub, Continental eateries of varying flavors and degrees of success and even a Japanese restaurant.

Now almost 65, it has found new and encouraging purpose in life: serving Spanish food, from rustic sandwiches and deviled crab to pigout paella and pompano en papillote. The new owners know how, since they're veterans of Tampa's beloved Blanco's.

Judging from my visits the Spanish menu could be a good fit. With improvements in the service and more courage and consistency in the kitchen, it could even be excellent.

While I don't expect the nuovo mundo contemporary Cuban cooking of Miami here (or anywhere else in Tampa Bay), I hope Seville can provide us with a deep, authentic taste of Spain and the Caribbean.

In the 1920s boom, the most Spanish features of the place were its name and Moorish arches. Today, Cuban cuisine is comfort food for much of Tampa Bay, Hispanic and Anglo alike, and certainly notforeign to Pinellas' most popular white-tablecloth restaurants.

With black tie service and glittery decor, Seville is suited to be among those uptown Spanish restaurants, but the cafe's lunchtime Cuban sandwich proves that it can deliver plain as well as fancy.

Seville's Cuban ($4.95) shows that it's not just a long ham and cheese. Mine was a wonderfully crusty loaf filled with real pork and real ham, cut from roasts, and served with wafer-thin home-made potato chips. With spicy chorizo, it would be the best in town.

Of course, Seville aims to do more than make a great Cuban (although that is no small thing), and generally it succeeds. At lunch, for instance, sea bass a la rusa surpassed classic standards: The fish was crisply fried, and the "Russian" garnish of hard-boiled egg, parsley and tomato was unusually light and bright.

Starters were the usual soups and fried finger foods, well done but not my fantasy _ a wide selection of tapas including sardines, egg tortillas, ceviche, good cheeses and the like. Maybe the Summer Olympics in Barcelona will give us new appetite for these snacks, the gold of Spanish cuisine.

From the limited tapas, I tried seafood croquettes, which were nicely fried and creamy inside but cool in the center and served with a tasteless white sauce (why not a peppery romesco sauce?). In soups, caldo gallego was hearty and rustic, but Spanish bean soup was thinner and surprisingly light. Black beansand rice were a major disappointment, flat and flavorless.

In dinner entrees, Seville went a little farther than the usual stews, white sauces and seafood.

Pompano en papillote ($12.95) was a textbook rendition, mild fish and delicate seafood stuffing in puffy paper. More distinctive was grouper al gallego ($12.95) serving our favorite fish in the fashion of rugged Galicia, with potatoes and garlic in hearty brown sauce.

Still, Seville shied away from trusting us with true flavors. A house specialty of chicken Theresa _ chicken breast stuffed with ham, eggs, and cucumber and wrapped in bacon _ was supposed to be covered in "delicate liver sauce" but instead swam in a thick floury white sauce. My server's explanation was they used to offer a choice of sauces, but, since people preferred the white, the kitchen switched; to get the liver sauce, I would have had to request it.

Wrong and wrong. Blands do not have more fun, and, more important, it's not my job to guess how a menu item has been revised.

Sure, this is a gluttonous dish, but the sherried liver sauce (a bowl of which was brought at my request) adds zest and distinction.

Trimmings were erratic.

House salads were unremarkable save for a light vinaigrette, veggies were overcooked, and an order of espresso turned into cappuccino. Bread on one visit was a soft, undercooked loaf, and, on another, the basket held both a crisp white and a rye with a chocolaty aroma. Yet sangria had a spicy punch, and flan was richly caramelized.

A higher standard requires that every item merits an Ole! and avoids pandering to timid palates.

That way, Cafe Seville can restore the glories of El Prado and Spanish cuisine at the same time.

Chris Sherman dines anonymously at all restaurants reviewed. Most restaurants are visited twice, with more visits when necessary. The St. Petersburg Times pays for the meals.

Cafe Seville

1700 Park St. N.

St. Petersburg

Phone: 347-9866

Type: Spanish

Hours: Lunch and early bird specials, 11:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; dinner 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m. daily.

Credit cards: AE, MC, V.

Full bar.

Reservations: Preferred

Handicapped access: Fair

Non-smoking section: Yes

Children's menu

Prices: Dinner, $9.95-$14.95

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