ST. PETERSBURG — I had a lot of questions about Tropez.
So did my dining companion.
“What’s happening here, and where am I?” she asked, scanning the menu with a confused look on her face.
This was my third time eating at Tropez, which is one time more than I usually allot for a review. I had finally arrived at some answers.
“It’s kind of everything and everywhere?” I replied.
The new restaurant-and-lounge hybrid on St. Petersburg’s Central Avenue attempts to cover a lot of ground. Though the spot touts a long and wide-reaching food menu, this feels first and foremost like a bar. Or, on weekend nights when their bar stays open till 3 a.m., it feels closer to a club, with volume levels to match. (There’s a DJ booth in the back.)
The narrow space is beautifully outfitted with plush teal couches, sultry lighting and a long bar that is frequently packed, sometimes from happy hour on. The clubby vibes don’t come as a complete surprise, as part-owner Renaud Cowez is one of the original owners of Beach Drive nightspot Tryst. The other owner is Thuy Le, who runs the popular Vietnamese fusion restaurant La V next door.
The food menu is an eclectic and globetrotting list that’s all over the place. Not exactly fusion, the menu feels more like a hodgepodge of dishes plucked from across the globe on a whim. From cheese curds to samosas, empanadas to arepas, a salad nicoise to patatas bravas — the gang’s all here.
Oh, and if you’re wondering about the name, you’re not alone. On one of my visits, I asked a server how it was pronounced, and she waffled between calling it “Tropez," with a hard “z,” and “Tro-pay,” like the French pronunciation. (It’s the latter, by the way.) The word seemingly refers to Saint-Tropez, the French town, but there’s no indication of that influence at the restaurant.
Service is a little bumpy, and the kitchen’s timing on dishes doesn’t run as smoothly as it could. But what Tropez might lack in cohesive menu design and service, it overcomes with pretty good food.
There are lots of options for starting a meal here. Do you go the crudo route, or maybe begin with the New Orleans-style char grilled oysters ($18), served under a bubbling cap of Parmesan and Pecorino Romano cheeses? If cheese is your thing, why not go all the way and order the French onion soup dumplings ($13), which come baked in a cast iron vessel tucked beneath a blanket of melted Gruyere cheese? The dumplings in question are more like crispy wonton packets filled with a sweet and salty caramelized onion mix, a surprisingly decadent and delicious bite.
I loved the mini Cuban fritas ($13), where perfectly cooked beef sliders come piled high with crispy shoestring fries, soft griddled onions and Manchego cheese on toasted rolls. Foie gras and fig empanadas ($13) are a tasty treat, though it’s hard to discern any of the foie inside, and it feels like an odd vehicle for such a refined ingredient. Still, with the accompanying green salad, the golden-fried pastry pockets make for a nice bar snack.
The restaurant is open for lunch and features a good selection of salads, including the Tropez ($10), where fried pita bits are tossed in a medley of lettuces with feta cheese, red onions, tomatoes, mint and cucumbers, like a Greek salad but with more roughage. The winning bit, though, was the seared tri-tip steak you can add on top for an additional cost, which arrived marbled and juicy with crispy, charred ends.
Also good is a towering spinach Cobb salad ($13) crowned with crumbled blue cheese, diced tomatoes, grilled chicken and crispy bacon bits. The best part: perfectly jammy eggs that put other hard-boiled eggs to shame.
Though the lunch and dinner menus are distinct, many of the restaurant’s signature dishes (like those French onion soup dumplings) are offered during both services. Only at lunchtime is the smoked salmon BLT ($12) offered, and, frankly, it shouldn’t be offered at all. Maybe in theory the combination of smoked salmon, bacon, lettuce and tomatoes could have worked, but the overly sweet honey mustard dressing binding the ingredients together was an unwelcome bedfellow with the salty, smoked fish.
The dinner menu continues down a confusing path of international roads, none that seem to lead to or from one another — from an Indian-inspired chicken tikka masala ($24) to Korean barbecue short rib tacos ($14) and Colombian smoked pork arepas ($12). None of it fits together, yet on their own, most dishes achieve success.
Those tasty Applewood-smoked pork arepas are topped with pickled red onions, crumbled queso fresco and a sweet and tangy carrot and pimento pepper coulis. The charred, smoky flavor of the Korean barbecued short ribs pairs well with a spicy kimchi slaw (though the ribs don’t really jive with the lukewarm corn tortillas). A dish that couples diver scallops with a large hunk of braised pork belly ($16) hits high notes, smothered in a rich mushroom medley, a sweet demi-glace and a shower of crunchy fried shallots — a deftly executed plate with layers of umami flavor throughout.
For dessert, the chocolate croissant bread pudding ($5) is a toppling exercise in decadence, decorated with creme anglaise, caramelized bananas and bacon.
Where Tropez falls flat is the cocktail program, which is surprising, considering that the place puts on such a convincing act as a bar.
The Riviera Sunset ($10) is a saccharine play on an Aperol spritz that packs in too much Pamplemousse liqueur and doesn’t succeed in striking a “bitter Mediterranean start with a sweet and lifted finished,” as advertised. There’s nothing subtle about the Absinthe “rinse” in the French Quarter ($11), which tastes heavily of the anise-heavy spirit. The Martinique ($12) is a heavy-handed quaff made with rum, Carpano Antica vermouth and chocolate bitters. I’m a spirit-forward cocktail kind of gal, but this drink was so over-the-top boozy and unbalanced I had to send it back.
A safer bet? Stick with the wine list, a selection of mostly Californian, French and Italian wines that plays it fairly safe and offers plenty of reasonably priced options by the glass.
Tropez shows promise. The food menu might need some streamlining, and the cocktail list may need an overhaul. But being a little bit of everything for everybody works, most of the time.
What the ratings mean
1-2: Don’t waste your time
3-5: Fair, but could be better
6-8: Pretty darn good
9-10: What are you waiting for?
If you go
437 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; (727) 898-4300
Hours: Lunch and dinner 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday. Brunch 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Prices: $10 to $18 starters, $12 to $28 shared plates, $18 to $36 large plates
Recommended dishes: mini Cuban fritas; smoked pork arepas; chocolate croissant pudding