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Flair and Flavor

The most important ingredient in the kitchen may be the hardest to find in modern restaurants: human skill. Although new chains and independent restaurants open in flashes of burnished metal and cobalt blue daily around Tampa Bay, fine chefs, good cooks and bakers are still scarce.

More often, menus and recipes are written in corporate kitchens, ingredients ordered by the truckload and expensive talent hired for the decor scheme, not the vegetable medley.

Too bad.

The hands and knowledge, the wit and sweat, the burned fingers and fried nerves of chefs, line cooks and counter crews who do the cooking define the best taste of our restaurants.

They can be as sophisticated and precise as Daniel Chong, a sushi master whose palate is as sharp as his knife and as wickedly imaginative. If you know only supermarket sushi, you have not met the elegance of bluefin tuna or ethereal white tuna of Hawaii, the gentility of monkfish liver, the lush beauty of Hokkaido scallops or the purity of a whole bay flounder.

After decades, Chong is wise enough to treasure these flavors. For Kiku Japanese Fine Dining, he finds these rarities and presents them with respect, only a little lettuce here or a sprinkle of tobiko there, always in the right order and with the right sake, cold and dry.

This is the delicious lesson a sushi master and all the best chefs teach _ a human respect for the work of cooking and the pleasure of eating.

A few local chefs have the Cordon Bleu savoir faire of Chris Ponte, who trained in New York and Paris. At his Cafe Ponte, he sauces with polish, values simple English peas and adds an exquisite dash of sea salt to a bite of chocolate.

Sometimes, the savvy is in the wine buying, as with Rodney and Jennifer Carr at Crystal River Wine & Cheese Co. Or it could be in the ancient baking skills that Alfredo Goncalves brought from Lisbon and works into his dough at Bon Appetit Bread. Or the barbecue savvy of the pit crew at First Choice Southern Bar-B-Que, the duck smokers at China Yuan, and the old country fusion of a Vietnamese sandwich on French bread at Thuy Cafe. Or maybe the guy who throws out bad tomatoes at Dockside Dave's.

But we need more of these, and they need better rewards from their bosses and the public if Tampa Bay is ever to have a big city menu that draws new chefs and encourages young ones to stay.

If you imagine a restaurant kitchen as a place where culinary poets rhapsodize on flavor fantasies, dream on.

What good chefs and cooks contribute daily is more important than fanciful menu descriptions. The first is finding good ingredients _ and rejecting the bad. The second is knowing how to cook them.

That shows up on the plate and is the work of the kitchen, not the designer or ad director.

Although the restaurant scene seemed stagnant in 2004, it only tasted that way. There was plenty stirring the pot.

Chains, homegrown and imported, added the most tables. Mama Fu's and Paul Lee's opened the first local branches of their new-generation Chinese with heavy takeout accents. An Orlando group rethemed the Samba Room in Old Hyde Park Village from retro Havana to the retro Chicago Timpano.

Dinner malls added chains high and low, from Bar Louie or Champps at International Plaza to the Signature Room Grille at Channelside. Also at Channelside, the wacky themesters from Stump's have done their most imaginative work so far in Sally's Alley and Tinatapa's. Local operators also kicked off RattleFish, Grillsmith and Courtside Grille with more flair than flavor.

More chains are on the way this year with Chipotle Grill bringing more burritos to St. Petersburg's Fourth Street N, and Capital Grille installing high-end steaks at the gateway to International Plaza.

Not surprisingly, some favorite old independents and brave upstarts did not survive the year.

Stone & Prichard's Elegant Bistro, a bold effort at a gourmet steakhouse in downtown St. Petersburg, failed. The MacDill Avenue stretch of South Tampa dining lost Palio's, Lola Jane's Crawfish Inn and, a personal favorite, La Fonda.

Yet heart-warming and palate-pleasing cleverness did spring from independent brains: a restaurant in a music store John Cusack would love, a reborn soul food restaurant in Safety Harbor, a New Mediterranean bistro in St. Petersburg and a wine bar in Citrus County.

Local heroes thought big, too. Armani sous-chef Massimo Patano struck out on his own, taking uptown eclecticism to Palm Harbor. Pane Rustica moved into breathtaking new space with plans for daily dinners. And flavor stylista B.T. Nguyen has closed Yellow Door in preparation for her next and biggest project, Old Hyde Park's new glassy anchor.

Less noticed but much appreciated is the spice and energy of immigrant entrepreneurs who have added south Indian idlis and dosas, Bosnian bread and basturma, Colombian banderas and feasts of the Mideast. And, of course, our long-standing main course, low-cost and home cooked black beans, Cuban sandwiches, and chicken and yellow rice.

Next year should see continued diversity and growing sophistication in downtown St. Petersburg and, possibly, improvement and realignment at BayWalk. Indian dosas, Hawaiian barbecue, Spanish tapas, fresh sushi, Portuguese, Colombian and Moroccan dishes are more available than ever.

Plenty is missing, as anyone who travels outside the Tampa Bay area knows: simple rustic Italian places, seafood restaurants that serve fish more local than salmon, casual bistro French, fresh-flavored Chinese, and steakhouses that pick sides as carefully as meat.

More of that kind of cooking requires more chefs and cooks _ and more customers. For 20 years a dedicated core of fine chefs and generous cooks have given us their best.

Here's Tampa Bay's best of 2004. May their numbers increase.

BEST RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR

Kiku Japanese Fine Dining, 483 Mandalay Ave., Suite 214, Clearwater Beach; (727) 461-2633.

Sushi is now commonplace and streets seem paved with seared tuna, but sushi masters like Daniel Chong are and should be rare. Finding him among Clearwater Beach's T-shirts and tacky thongs is Zen justice. Enter his small garden, surrender to the cool grace of humility and all pleasure will be revealed: Hokkaido scallops, monkfish, ocean trout, baby flounder and bluefin tuna. Ask for a bagel roll or fried grouper and you will miss the best fish of your life. Say "omakase" instead, trusting fish and sake to Chong's knife and palate. You should be so lucky once.

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