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New spice for St. Petersburg diners

For some diners, there's an imaginary bronze marker at the corner of First Avenue N and 11th Street, where some of the city's most creative food was born _ and died _ during the all-to-brief-life of Grand Finale.

Good news: That's not just a historic site anymore, and there's new spice elsewhere. The former Hilda La Tropicana across from Williams Park is giving downtown its first burst of Indian food and the former Ovo Cafe on Central Avenue will wood-fire pizza.

The most remarkable ambition returns to the forlorn site of Grand Finale with similar flavors. Now Club Extravaganza (1101 First Ave. N; (727) 209-1001) also has a name of high expectations, wildly retro decor, an extravagant menu, a high-energy owner and a creative chef.

This time the entrepreneur is Nikolai Vlasik, who comes from the local Bulgarian night-club scene, and the modern chef Don Michaud, from Fresco, Mr. B's and the St. Petersburg Country Club.

The look is early Austin Powers: zebra stripes, leopard prints, hot colors and eye-straining op-art. The food, however, is more contemporary and easier on the eyes.

Meat and fish get modern indulgences and clever vegetables. There are big scallops in prosciutto and goat cheese, rabbit ravioli and brave salads of butternut squash, golden beets and asparagus or watermelon and feta. Lunch ranges from grilled wraps of shrimp and corn to asparagus-thyme soups to a minirack of lamb. Prices start $7 at lunch and $16 at dinner.

Curry, so long confined to Tampa and north Pinellas, is now in the air at India Grill (320 First Ave. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 894-7455). The Grill sets out a full lunch buffet ($6.95) for northern Indian dishes, with tandoori chicken and a good vegetarian selection. Try anything cooked in makhani style; chicken, fish, panner cheese, lentils or cauliflower are all remarkable in the gingery tomato cream.

Menu also offers crisp samosas, tandoori dishes, lamb, seafood and a half-dozen stuffed naan breads at lunch and dinner. A la carte prices cost $8.95 to $12.95.

Regeneration is in the works at Ovo, where once trendy waffles will be replaced by more fashionable panini and ever-popular pizza. After a decade of mixing martinis and pierogies with urbane style in Ybor, St. Petersburg and Sarasota, Ovo has closed its doors.

New owners will convert to Pizza Brava with a wood-burning oven to warm up retro deco look of the place (515 Central Ave.) and perhaps light a fire under the kitchen. No opening date for Brava yet.

St. Petersburg Times food critic Chris Sherman can be reached at (727) 893-8585 or by e-mail at shermansptimes.com.

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