1. Business

Fine dining in Pasco and Hernando counties

Published Jan. 25, 2012

Maybe you noticed that the Tampa Bay Times' list of 50 of the area's best restaurants, published in last Thursday's Weekend section, didn't include a single establishment from either Pasco or Hernando county.

Not a bistro, not a deli, not one of our solid exurban approximations of a fancy, white-tablecloth joint.

And as much as I respect the food writing in our paper, as consistently lively as it is, as energetic and informed, I would like to gently suggest a few worthy candidates for the next list.

Pearl in the Grove, in the east Pasco crossroads of St. Joe, is an obvious choice. Even one of the Times' critics gave it a glowing review last year.

When I called Barbara Fredricksen, the veteran entertainment writer for the Times' Pasco and Hernando sections, she nominated Kazu's Sushi in Port Richey and the Thai Bistro in New Port Richey.

I've never been to either one and can't vouch for them personally, but I can say confidently — almost definitively — that Farmer John's Key West Cafe in Brooksville is about as good as everyday lunch-and-breakfast spots get. I'm there at least once a week.

But what really got me thinking about the Times' list was the meal I had Saturday at Nouvelle Cuisine, in a drab strip mall on Spring Hill Drive in Spring Hill. The restaurant's name, from a previous owner, is the same as a culinary movement from a few decades ago that advocated modernizing and lightening up the cuisine of France and its culinary cousins.

Fortunately, it's a complete misnomer.

The husband-and-wife owners, Jan Kinds and Isabelle Roos, are from Belgium. They don't mind using plenty of butter when it's called for, and their specialty is a classic done right.

Exhibit 1 is the restaurant's signature side dish, a small block of scalloped potatoes — rich and light at the same time, a work of art in cream and garlic. I don't know how Kinds does it, and I've actually given this a lot of thought, trying and failing to replicate it at home until my climbing cholesterol forced me to quit.

The accompanying carrots and green beans are fancy only in that they are perfectly cooked and seasoned. And as the final piece of evidence that the innovation of big-city chefs, with their sleeves of tattoos and their self-described passion for cooking, can't hold a candle to well-executed tradition, I offer my main dish, braised rabbit cooked the way Kinds' mother taught him.

The sauce was winey, silky, studded with pearl onions and perfectly suited for a slow-cooked hare. In fact, that was my only complaint, a slight one: that the meat was too white, too domestic, though this didn't stop me from sucking every morsel from between the poor little bunny's vertebrae.

Though the menu is short on vegetarian items, Kinds whipped up an outstanding plate of squash crepes for my non-meat-eating wife.

I chose a Duvel from the restaurant's vast selection of Belgian beers, which in the opinion of this admitted amateur are the best in the world. Equally excellent was the bottle of Spanish red that Roos recommended to go with our meals.

We paid for this nice night out. With appetizers, the bill came to about $130. But this splurge was rewarded with the best restaurant meal I've had in recent memory.

Why would somebody assume there aren't any gems such as this in Pasco and Hernando counties?

Because, honestly, there aren't many of them, not nearly enough.

But that's all the more reason to give credit to the few independent restaurants that pull it off, especially ones that maintain a high level of quality for as long as Nouvelle Cuisine has — 18 years. It's not easy in this market.

Another reason to look for good restaurants outside of Tampa Bay's urban core is that it's not a great market, either.

Looking through the restaurants that did make the 50-best list, I noticed several that are overrated and overpriced, places where we splurged and didn't get our money's worth.

I'd name names, but I promised to be gentle.