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Restaurants worth a second bite

Times Restaurant Critic Chris Sherman's column will resume shortly. Meanwhile, here are capsule versions of some of his recent reviews.

Ballyhoo Grill & Raw Bar

16699 Gulf Blvd., North Redington Beach; (727) 320-0536

The Ballyhoo Grill & Raw Bar delivers what we're always looking for in a beach restaurant: freshness, flavor and attention to detail, wrapped up with great service in a casual atmosphere.

Oysters were fresh and sweet, perfectly shucked and bigger than jumbo shrimp.

Where the menu covered a familiar range of seafood platters and sandwiches (fried, yes, but also broiled, steamed, grilled and blackened and always fresh) and pasta dishes, it did them well and generously.

Often Ballyhoo goes beyond. No goat cheese, but plenty of artichoke hearts, mushrooms and fresh vegetables, fresh-squeezed juices, a little prosciutto and wasabi and sometimes rack of lamb with a bordelaise sauce on the daily list of blackboard specials. Reviewed Feb. 18.

Ben Thanh

2880 34th St. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 522-6623

Although I've enjoyed Vietnamese food for some time, my party has just started. I thought I knew bun, the rice noodle that makes a light, fresh salad, from banh, which can be any kind of bun or pastry, from a sandwich to a crepe.

At Ben Thanh, I am hopelessly and happily lost, although servers were eager to translate, and one of my companions was a Chinese-American friend who grew up in Vietnam. Thanks to her, I've only now figured out how to eat pho: When the broth arrives at the table, and the rare beef is beginning to cook, add bean sprouts to soften, then add basil or other herbs as you go so they don't overcook, then hoisin and a squeeze of lime. Use the chopsticks to maneuver a few noodles into the spoon, add beef or other ingredients, then dip spoon into broth. Transfer this mini soup bowl to your mouth.

Skim Ben Thanh's exhaustive menu, and you may think it's unconquerable. Fear not. Every time I braved it beyond the familiar rice paper rolls and bowls of noodle salads, I found wonderful surprises. Reviewed April 14.

Dockside Dave's

13203 Gulf Blvd., Madeira Beach; (727) 392-9399

Maybe there is a better grouper sandwich on the west coast than Dockside Dave's. I doubt it. I know there's not a better slice of tomato, big, red, ripe and juicy.

The main event is fresh black grouper, cut in half-pound fillets that spill over any bun, and priced with pride, not apologies, at $8.95. Fries and cole slaw cost extra.

I'd say onion rings had the lace of tempura except it would embarrass big guys like these. Waffle fries were so thin and crisp I take back all my sneers. Fried shrimp? You'd better believe that cooking shrimp in thick batter in hot grease doesn't diminish them; their springy texture and delicate sweetness is at its best out of the fryer here. Reviewed on March 24

La Tour Eiffel

Indian Rocks Road; Belleair Bluffs; (727) 581-6530

You won't find any arrogance at La Tour Eiffel, the newest and at the same time one of the oldest French restaurants in Pinellas, now under the ownership of a couple fresh from Provence.

This year, Francoise and Pascal Elisabeth became the latest entrepreneurs in a surprising French wave in midwest Pinellas. The style here, as in most of our French restaurants, is classic and near Continental. The Elisabeths have updated it slightly to accommodate our new interests in goat cheese, duck breasts and tuna steaks and have added a touch of their Provencal background in the ratatouille that accompanied the dinner entrees.

I would enjoy more new tastes, from old regional classics to fresher modern fare, and I'm confident that the Elisabeths will add them as they settle in. (They do offer bouillabaisse, coq au vin and the like, with advance notice.) Reviewed April 7

Mojo's Fine Food & Spirit

2901 Alt. U.S. 19; Palm Harbor; (727) 773-1200

Mojo's menu is massive, from sandwiches and finger food to a long list of entrees. Yet for all the pasta, salads and burgers, there's room for more sophisticated stuff.

Among the starters, Floribbean scallops came in a beer and butter sauce, but it was as good as any court bouillon on the French islands. Scallops were decent-size and tender. Shrimp and conch fritters fell between hushpuppies and stamp 'n' go patties, crispy puffs of fun anywhere in the tropics. Conch-crab bisque was Continental creamy and assured the diner that there's a decent saucier in the house.

Entrees had us and a variety of fish island-hopping, not always with an appropriate accent, but usually successfully. Even Atlantic salmon would be an odd catch anywhere in the islands, let alone Jamaica, but the fish was properly done; it wasn't overcooked and the "Negril" topping of mango and ginger made a throughly modern match. Reviewed April 21.

New City Bistro

3333 S Westshore Blvd., Tampa; (813) 805-0250

NCB has everything I lust for: A creative menu long on local fish, from cobia to mullet to snapper, contemporary recipes with nods to Cuba and Italy, even a classy entree for vegetarians, distinctive house-baked bread, clever sides and knowledgeable service of both food and wine. Although not cheap, prices are manageable and way under show-off tabs elsewhere.

One night I had fresh amberjack, the Cracker salmon that gets little respect anymore. It was grilled to luscious, meaty perfection with a tart passionfruit vinaigrette and a saute of teeny calico scallops and asparagus.

The regular menu fare won't shortchange you on zest or originality. Escargot pizza with brie and wild mushrooms is an everyday appetizer, and it's a moist, savory treatment of these gourmet goodies, not just gourmand piggishness.

One restaurant, even with a wine bar and a diner in the background, does not a new city make, but in this bistro, it feels and tastes like one. Reviewed on March 31

Schmooze Inc.

1849 Gulf-to-Bay Blvd., Clearwater; (727) 449-9777

At Schmooze Inc., you can eat the same food cooked by the same chefs who feed your favorite performers when they're in Florida _ and it's good.

Schmooze the restaurant is a spinoff and now the permanent home base of the Gourdine brothers' main business: catering to rock stars. What started as two guys and a bus is now a fleet of rolling kitchens that stops at all the arenas with almost every big act that tours Florida. Some bands like the food enough to take the Gourdines on the road.

What they get goes beyond burgers, pizza and concession stand junk to the modern fern bar mix of Italian, Mexican, seafood and vegetarian, and with more style and quality than you'd expect.

The true distinction was service, '90s hip casual, yet thoroughly professional. Meals are good, fresh and affordable, but Schmooze is the most fun for fans who are into the music and will love the theme. Reviewed on March 17

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