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Restaurant review: Grace in Pass-a-Grille is a beachy Florida charmer with ambitious big-city food

Salt and sugar-cured heirloom tomatoes  get a splash of orange blossom water and a sprinkling of fried pistachios, bringing them into new territory.
Salt and sugar-cured heirloom tomatoes get a splash of orange blossom water and a sprinkling of fried pistachios, bringing them into new territory.
Published Aug. 14, 2017

ST. PETE BEACH

Sometimes we luck out. Someone who has had remarkable professional success elsewhere in the country says, "You know what, I'm tired of [Cleveland's winters, say] and I want to dig my feet in the Florida sand." They move, they retire. And then they can't stay retired.

Lisa Masterson and Marlin Kaplan moved from Cleveland to Tierra Verde 3 ½ years ago. Kaplan, a longtime restaurateur, worked for some time with his buddy Ken Hamilton at the Palm Pavilion in Clearwater Beach. But then he got an itch. He wanted to do one more nice restaurant, his 10th, before he hung up his pots and pans.

They looked at the space of Italian restaurant Su Ottavo in Pass-a-Grille, but a deal didn't come together. They looked at it again, and by that time the little vegan-raw restaurant Vida de Cafe next door had closed. They bit, hiring an architect and contractor to join the two spaces.

And on June 15, Grace opened.

Kaplan says it's an amalgam of all the restaurants he has had, drawing heavily from hits like One Walnut and Luxe Kitchen and Lounge, the former once reviewed favorably in Gourmet. Even if you know nothing of Cleveland's Luxes and Walnuts, Grace is charming. It's 150 seats but seems much more intimate, with a gorgeous central mirror-backed bar and whimsical underwater photographs of dogs, prints from the book simply titled Underwater Dogs. White banquettes, one tomato red wall, lapis blue water glasses and little pots of what looks like wheatgrass adorning each table: It's lovely.

Grace has a full bar (that's what 150 seats buys you), with a smart little signature cocktail list, all of the drinks named for local dogs. I can't say much about Queen Kong as a dog name (geez, I hope she's a chihuahua), but the combination of Bulleit bourbon, Antica vermouth, black cherry balsamic and bitters ($12) was stunning and punchy, and a Mrs. Beaseley ($12) was voluptuous with Milagro tequila, hibiscus syrup, limeade and a splash of prosecco.

The food, a fairly tight one-page menu, reflects big-city preoccupations and trends. There's a very laudable burger ($12), a rough mix of brisket, ground beef and chuck from Creekstone Farms in Kansas, juicy and not overworked, the brioche buns whisked down from Tom Cat Bakery in New York, textbook golden fries on the side. But there's also a lot of care that goes into a vegetarian entree and a separate vegan entree, the latter hardly a compilation of side dishes masquerading as a composed plate: Fat pearls of Israeli couscous commingle with quinoa, pistachios, a chiffonade of mint, raisins, bits of carrot and arugula inside a roasted squash, the whole thing getting a slightly spicy-sweet vinaigrette ($18).

Here are the dishes that impressed me most with their combination of precision and innovation: A grilled Caesar brought long leaves, smoky and just charry at the tips, a tangle of pickled onions on top and a couple of anchovy hush puppies on the side providing the requisite fishiness and supplanting croutons ($11). Also in the salad category, the salt and sugar-cured heirloom tomatoes ($10) looked familiar enough, but the vinaigrette's splash of orange blossom water and a sprinkling of fried pistachios brought the dish into new, Middle Eastern territory. Huh.

My favorite entree, it turns out, is a reprise from One Walnut: A lemon and herb-stuffed airline chicken breast (that means it has its little wing drumette still attached, nothing to do with Delta or Frontier) comes paired with roasted fingerlings and crisp-tender haricots verts, nothing you haven't seen before ($19). But it's the pool of lemon- and thyme-inflected chicken broth with hints of nutty roasted garlic that makes the moist, sous-vide chicken really pop.

With all of the food there's a lightness and deftness of touch, no heavy mantles of cheese or dense creaminess. It feels very Florida beachy-appropriate, an interesting achievement for a couple of transplants from Cleveland. The staff Masterson and Kaplan have assembled is similarly breezy but warm, easy with patter and menu advice. Like I said, sometimes we luck out and come into a little Grace when we least expect it.

Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.

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