TAMPA — Let’s start with the $39 martini.
It takes some real gall to put that on a menu, regardless of how upscale a restaurant is. But there it is, at Ponte Modern American in Midtown Tampa: a tall, empty martini glass, chilled and smoking with liquid nitrogen as a server pours a slow and steady stream of vodka to the tune of nearly 40 bucks a pop.
Of course, this isn’t just any martini: It’s made with Chopin Vera Wang vodka (which retails for roughly $99 per liter) and arrives sidling a tiny blini topped with Sevruga caviar and a glistening dollop of creme fraiche. It also comes with a small carafe of olive juice (so diners can doctor the drink to their liking), a tin of green olives and a side of pickled onions.
Then there’s the element of theater and showmanship — the tableside pour, the do-it-yourself schtick, the liquid nitrogen fizzing in the bottom of the glass, slowly frosting the sides while a plume of smoke wafts across the table, practically begging for an Instagram share.
“Here’s to the coldest drink in town,” my server joked as he poured the last drop. I wondered how many times he’s used that line.
Okay, you get the idea: This isn’t your average glass of vodka. But the question du jour, while inflation continues to take us all on a wild ride, is: “Is it worth it?”
It’s a complicated answer, and one that lies at the heart of chef Chris Ponte’s new restaurant. The spot feels exciting and worthy of a special occasion, and also serves as a reminder that we can’t all have nice things.
Yes, the martini in question (dubbed Michelle’s Martini, for Ponte’s wife and partner in the business) is lovely and worth it if you’re feeling up for a splurge. But if you’re trying to have a reasonably priced meal (whatever that means these days)? Not so much.
This is not budget dining. But the refined, upscale approach is exactly what sets Ponte apart. This restaurant, Ponte’s highly anticipated follow-up to his Clearwater icon Cafe Ponte, imbues a cosmopolitan appeal while welcoming a return to white tablecloth and expense account dining. Following a pandemic period of fast-casual launches and cookie-cutter concepts that felt destined for franchise, the James Beard-nominated chef went squarely in the other direction.
It could feel dated. It could feel out of touch. But somehow Ponte escapes those pitfalls: The sleek 7,000-square-foot space feels poised and elegant, while the menu reads like a smart, carefully calculated take on fine dining executed with a modern sensibility.
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A meal here starts with a complimentary bread service, which includes rustic slices and savory focaccia cubes. Guests should still spring for the Parker House rolls ($10), because they are just that good: Warm and golden, they appear on a silver cake pedestal, shimmering with flecks of sea salt and served with an umami-packed truffle butter.
For those going the big spender route, there’s a selection of caviar on deck, served with an array of gourmet accoutrement and a pretty price tag to boot ($175 for 1 ounce of Oscietra Royal). A more moderately priced selection of appetizers includes a beautiful burrata dish ($18), served with a dark orange squash jam framed by an emerald green pepita gremolata and garnished with roasted grapes and grape must. An excellent “modern” Caesar salad ($16) arrives in a silver cylinder (removed by a server tableside) and pairs romaine with red endive leaves, which are swathed in a zingy lemon anchovy dressing and topped with a black peppercorn Parmesan crisp.
Also very good is the trio of steak tartare ($24), which features three versions of the classic dish made with black truffle, horseradish and bone marrow. The plate is adorned with a selection of add-ons including cornichons, whole-grain mustard, pickled mushrooms, apples and a jammy egg curd, plus crispy toasts for spreading.
Though the menu is distinct from Ponte’s long-running predecessor, there are a few signature dishes Ponte has honed throughout his career, replicated here with some slight tweaks.
No dish encapsulates this better than the velvety mushroom soup ($14), which a server pours tableside into a bowl of wild mushroom duxelles, black trumpet mushrooms and a truffle cream. Warming and earthy, each bite is an umami bomb of savory mushroom flavor. It’s a dish that has come to define Ponte’s career, and for very good reason.
Ponte and his team, which includes executive chef Paul Morrison, take the concept of “modern American” to heart, pulling carefully from a wide swath of cuisines that have made their mark on the country’s culinary canon. In the lobster cappelletti ($25), Italian and Asian flavors play together beautifully: Delicate pockets of pasta arrive swimming in a spicy lobster broth flavored with basil and Calabrian chile butter. Tomatoes add a burst of sweetness and acidity while a Korean gochujang dust provides a subtle heat.
Boneless braised short ribs ($42) pair earthy umami notes with a garlicky green scallion and potato puree, and bright green apple cucumber slaw. Jalapenos and a chili-peanut crunch lend texture and heat, giving the finished plate a multidimensional appeal.
Though the restaurant may fancy itself something of a modern steakhouse (a selection of prime and aged cuts highlight the entrees), the rest of the menu is expansive enough that cobbling together a meal of the more moderately priced options is almost more enticing.
For those going the traditional steak route, guests have their pick of six choices, from a 28-day wet-aged New York strip ($48) to a 28-ounce Porterhouse that’s been dry-aged for 35 days ($90). All of them can be gussied up with a number of sauces (bearnaise, cognac truffle), toppings (lobster tail, foie gras) and butters (caramelized onion, blue cheese cabernet).
On the higher end, a Wagyu flight for $145 offers diners a progressive, international tour of the genre and features a trio of 3-ounce steaks: one from Snake River Farms in Idaho, one from Australia and a Japanese A5 Kobe selection from Tottori, Japan. Diners are instructed to start with the American version, served with a creamy bearnaise sauce and crispy maitake mushrooms, and then move on to the Australian cut, served with a Sichuan peppercorn aioli, pickled beech mushrooms and onions. The piece de resistance is the Japanese Wagyu — a beautifully marbled, buttery piece of meat that arrives topped with garlic confit and served on a bright green arugula chimichurri.
Dessert here is anything but an afterthought, and receives the same calculated precision and finesse as the rest of the menu. Guests would be wise to order the deconstructed carrot cake ($10), a showstopper that pairs warm cake with a buttery walnut crisp, cream cheese cremeux (similar to a creme Anglaise), fresh carrot twirls, carrot puree and a quenelle of ginger ice cream. Also very good is the cheesecake ($12), which arrives in dramatic fashion, topped with a red fruit coulis (either strawberry or raspberry) that has been crisped in liquid nitrogen. Served on a graham cracker crust, it’s a cool, creamy and deliciously fruit-forward dessert that delights with every bite.
If, perhaps, you’re looking for a nightcap to seal the evening, you could forgo the dog-and-pony-show martini and choose from one of the bar’s creative list of signature quaffs, which will run you anywhere from $15 to $18 (still a pretty penny, but in line with what other restaurants of this caliber are charging). The list includes a selection of classic drinks (Gimlet, Negroni, Manhattan) and then offers an alternative reimagining of the same drink. There’s a great spin on a Mai Tai made with Diplomatico Riserva rum, Old St. Pete rum, Rum Haven coconut rum, Curacao liqueur and pineapple ($15).
There’s also the expansive selection of wines (the glass-encased cellar can fit roughly 3,500 bottles), from which guests can choose their glass by shuffling through an encyclopedic list of options on an electronic tablet — a slightly awkward method but one that nonetheless gets across the point that the sky is pretty much the limit here.
That sentiment looms large, overall. At times extravagant, sometimes over the top, Ponte delivers exactly what it sets out to, and that consistency is part of what makes the restaurant such a success. The service is routinely excellent. The experience is polished and carefully curated. The food is always very good.
Even if it’s not always easy on the purse strings, an evening here feels like something to be celebrated. And every now and then, a little splurge can be fun.
If you go
Where: 1010 Gramercy Lane, Tampa. 813-582-7755. pontetampa.com.
Hours: Dinner, 4 to 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Prices: Starters, $14 to $28; entrees, $36 to $90; desserts, $9 to $12.
Don’t skip: Mushroom soup, short ribs, carrot cake.
Details: Cash and credit card accepted. Reservations recommended. Wheelchair accessible. Some gluten-free and vegetarian options.