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Local dining continues to come of age

What can you say about a year in which the biggest new restaurants had more than 40,000 seats, floor shows of millionaire athletes and menus of hot dogs and nachos?

Surprise: Once you get out of Tropicana Field and Raymond James Stadium, food here in 1998 actually continued a slow, steady rise to a new level of maturity and sophistication.

As much as a trip to the Northwest tempted me to nominate Portland, Ore., as the best place to eat around Tampa Bay, there was plenty cooking on the Nibbler's homefront.

Chefs focused on doing the basics better while still exploring ethnic flavors, even in chains and steakhouses; some new ingredients are Asian, others are the robust stuff of life in the Middle East and Mediterranean. Dining rooms had more taste and quiet class than flash, and service actually seemed more polished.

I found the best eating in Tampa this year, with the encouraging discovery that Ybor City fare is not all wet; new, solid food of style is there if the crowds want it. Yet, just as my tally of best and brightest was showing the Pinellas side skimpy, Redwoods added to the new excitement that Ambrosia had started in St. Petersburg.

That confirmed the Nibbler's suspicions that the best food in Tampa Bay was invigorated by a westerly breeze blowing across the continent from the Pacific. The best new restaurant of the year, Ashley Street Grille at the Radisson Riverwalk in downtown Tampa, is guided by Kurt Taylor from Seattle. Redwoods' chef, Joseph Chouinard, is fresh from Hawaii. Best new spot south of the Skyway was Pattigeorges, where Longboat Key chef Tom Klauber returned after seasoning in San Francisco and Aspen.

Not all good things come from afar. Boca, 1997's hot hot hot helping of nuevo latino in Ybor City, proved to be the inspiration for three of my favorites this year: Culinary talents at Ambrosia in St. Petersburg and the Rock and Atomic Age Cafe in Ybor all have roots in Boca.

Most heartening was that the best of the new restaurants all had good bread _ and it was available in bakeries as well.

And here they are, my picks for the best new Nibbling of 1998:

1. ASHLEY STREET GRILLE, TAMPA: Kurt Taylor has brought the style and substance of modern American cuisine _ and especially the purity of the Northwest _ to hotel dining. Breads are hearty and desserts elegant; finfish, lamb, salads, vegetables and the humble egg are showcased at their simplest and best, and in full fashion, from stylish amuse-guele to full-course tasting menus. (Radisson Riverwalk Hotel, 200 Ashley St., Tampa, (813) 223-2222).

2. REDWOODS, ST. PETERSBURG: Truly uptown dining in downtown St. Petersburg, where the flavors of Asia and Hawaii get French polish and New American whimsy. Ambience is spare and comfortable; the elaborate architecture is on the plate. Fish, vegetables and breads are best, and whet the appetite for sushi and a bakery to come. (247 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; (727) 896-5118.

3. PATTIGEORGES, LONGBOAT KEY: Only the waterfront view and the name remain at this beach landmark; there are new owners, a new look and a new menu that is global without being confused cuisine. Whether seafood risotto, Moroccan mixed grill or all-American roast chicken with succotash, each is done with integrity and skill. Superbly fresh local catches provide the Florida accent. (4120 Gulf of Mexico Drive, Longboat Key; (941) 383-5111.)

4. SIX TABLES, DUNEDIN: Only 16 seats, only two seatings and a limited prix-fixe menu, but the six-course meals of Continental favorites and the hospitality are expansive. Owners are polished professionals, whose personal touch and unusual format provide big nights for small crowds. (1153 Main St., Dunedin; (727) 736-8821.)

5. AMBROSIA, ST. PETERSBURG: The first taste of truly hip, fun restauranting in St. Petersburg, impressively safe for vegetarians and tightwads, made a bright splash in decor and food. Borrowing from Italy and the Mideast, the kitchen makes superb risotto and pasta, lavash and fatoush salad. Homemade ice cream and apple pie are their own ambrosia. (201 Seventh Ave. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 898-5194.)

6. BILL'S SUNDOWNER, TAMPA: A steakhouse for the rest of us _ we who like good bread, crisp salads, green vegetables, beautiful desserts and sophisticated decor well as fine steaks and rich wine. Even the sports memorabilia is tastefully portioned and exquisitely chosen. (5401 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa; (813) 636-8686.

7. THE ROCK, TAMPA: An Ybor restaurant that doesn't serve booze sounds like a miracle, and indeed, the Rock's inspiration is to provide Christian outreach in the party zone. Evangelism is low-key, but the food is outspokenly good: from lavash wraps to grilled portobellos on chickpea pancakes, shrimp pie and more, all at bargain prices. (1817 E Seventh Ave., Tampa; (813) 247-5500.)

8. ATOMIC AGE CAFE, TAMPA: Decor is the best of the '50s, turquoise and terrazzo in space-age forms, hold the martinis and the Jetsons junk. Food is light-years ahead of that decade. Forget diners and TV dinners; the menu is a world of street food (or at least Asia and the Mediterranean): pad Thai, soba noodles, juices, wraps and spring rolls. Low-hassle, low-fat, low-cost and open all hours; this is a future into which I could settle comfortably. (1518 E Seventh Ave., Tampa; (813) 247-6547.)

9. SUSHI ON 7TH, TAMPA: Sushi rocks and pops with high-energy style and Ybor attitude, proving that the Japanese import is at last part of Tampa Bay's present _ and cutting-edge future. Same accent on freshness and flair shows in East-West fusion on the dinner menu that's hotter than wasabi. (1919 E Seventh Ave., Tampa; (813) 247-8744.)

10. BREAD, GLORIOUS BREAD: The precious staff of life is increasingly at hand from new ovens tended by Old World emigres, New Artisans and savvy corporations. Top honors are shared by Mazzaro Coffee Roasters and Italian Market (2909 22nd Ave. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 321-2400) and Panera at Brandon TownCenter (364 Brandon TownCenter; (813) 653-3837), a first branch of a chain so hip it's worth a trip to the mall.

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