It startles me to say, but I've reviewed restaurants in different markets for 24 years. One question I get frequently is, "Is there any food or cuisine you just don't like?" And the answer to that is no. I like it all. That's not to say there aren't some restaurants that resonate more with my personal aesthetic, that speak to me directly and make me unreasonably glad that I do what I do for a living. Brick & Mortar is that kind of restaurant.
Opened at the end of April, it is the project of husband and wife team Hope Montgomery, 40, and Jason Ruhe, 38, who have run In Bloom Catering in Tampa for the past decade or so. It's fairly rare for caterers to take the plunge and launch a brick and mortar restaurant (thus the name), but as Montgomery says, "It's been a personal dream for both of us. We would die with regret if we didn't at least try it."
Unlike catering, where you are beholden to the whim of the party host or bridezilla, your own restaurant is an opportunity to showcase precisely what you want and to build a community with nearby businesses and neighborhood folks. This seems like an especially good time to do both of those things in downtown St. Petersburg, as its reputation for being a notable restaurant destination grows.
In the space to the west of what was St. Pete Brasserie, Brick & Mortar fills a fresh niche in the increasingly dense playing field of restaurants. It is upscale but not expensive, with a menu of New American food that feels contemporary but not gimmicky, with enough sly Indonesian and Spanish touches (Ruhe's paternal grandmother is Indonesian; his mother's side of the family is Spanish) to be quirky and surprising.
For now, the intimate restaurant space gets much too loud when it's full (Montgomery says they are working on that), and service can occasionally still seem befuddled and tentative, but it otherwise feels both finished and polished in its first month. Like nearby Il Ritorno, it's the clear and singular vision of a couple of individuals, nothing formulaic or straight off the back of a Sysco truck.
You see this with the house carpaccio, paper-thin slices of deep ruby filet mignon ($14). But what's this? Shrouded by a pouf of microgreens is a housemade ravioli that, once punctured, releases the unctuous yolk of a poached egg as well as a leek and goat cheese mousse with just a whisper of truffle oil, the whole concoction turning the familiar raw beef into something heady and opulent. And you'll see that tangy goat cheese mousse again in an eye-catching board of beet-cured salmon with assertive notes of juniper and dill ($11), the jeweled-fuchsia slices of salmon vaguely Scandinavian but also kind of not.
My favorite appetizer is the ahi tuna tartare ($12), a pretty cylinder of sesame- and ponzu-glossed tuna dice with a bit of pickled cuke and scallion, capped by cubes of avocado and paired with shrimp crackers (a ubiquitous Indonesian and Dutch snack) used as scoopers: Crunchy meets velvety, sweet meets salty and tangy.
If it's sounding a little whackadoodle, don't fear. Much of the menu is homey, nurturing and even kid-friendly. Housemade fat noodles sometimes come with fresh peas, lemon zest, mint and Parmesan ($14), and sometimes are capped by savory slow-braised oxtail, the meat in rich, fat shreds. (The oxtail is seriously delicious, as is the short rib on polenta cake, $22, but both seem a little wintery.) And I defy anyone to be spooked by a crispy skinned airline chicken breast (I hate that term, but it just means the breast is still attached to the first wing joint; $17), juicy and paired with roasted young carrots and thyme-flecked, crunchy-skinned fingerling potatoes.
The two-page wine and beer list is a fun read, with a nice mix of local and nationally known craft beers in a breadth of styles on draft and in bottle, and an Old and New World list of quirky wines with a number of good deals (as in a bottle of Terra d'Oro barbera is on offer for $34 and usually retails for $18; the Rock & Vine 2013 Mendocino unoaked chardonnay is offered for $36 and also retails for just under $20 if you can find it).
I'm saving the best for last. If there's one arena where Tampa Bay restaurants still lag a little behind New York, Chicago and San Francisco, it's dessert. Many restaurants here can't afford a pastry chef and are inclined to buy desserts or head for the lowest common denominator crowd-pleasers. Not Brick & Mortar. Attractive and spare, engaging with the national trend of introducing savory elements to sweet, a disc of perfect snowy lavender panna cotta ($12) was married with a handful of oily/salty marcona almonds, a little fudgy, rustic Point Reyes Bay Blue (a cheese that has won tons of national awards) and a savory swath of jamon iberico. Definitely some Spanish influence there, but it felt fresh and exciting, all of the elements in balance.
This summer promises some exciting restaurant openings in downtown St. Petersburg (Souzou, Stillwaters Tavern, Hofbrauhaus St. Petersburg and others), but Brick & Mortar's small size shouldn't fool you: This is an ambitious and notable newcomer.
Contact Laura Reiley at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.