Coming up with 12 (and only 12) dining recommendations for 2015 was a tough homework assignment. Unless you've been stranded on a deserted island for the past couple of years, you already know who the “cool kids” on the block are, and anyone with even the most remote interest in the Tampa Bay dining scene is familiar with our iconic epicurean jewels. We have decent national chains aplenty, but big chain restaurant dining of any caliber is simply not my preferred experience.
I've decided, therefore, to suggest some worthy locally owned and operated foodie destinations that might be flying a little under your radar.
In no particular order:
Anise Global Gastrobar, Tampa: This is your spot for craft cocktails and globally inspired elevated pub fare in a chic urban environment. Crispy on the outside and tender on the inside Truffled Tater Tots, adorably served in a mini fry basket with a little sidecar of lemon parsley crème fraiche, are single-handedly worth the price of admission. The Curried Coconut Wings are incomparable (I'm not sure I couldn't enthusiastically snarf a pine cone if it was similarly sauced), and the cucumber mint yogurt dipping sauce is the perfect foil for their intense sweet and spicy flavor. Also recommended are the trademark Stinky Bunz (marshmallow-soft steamed Chinese-inspired “sliders” packed with complex flavor combos such as beer-battered shrimp with papaya slaw and ginger aioli, braised pork belly with kimchi and Chinese BBQ pork with pickled radish).
El Gallo Grande, St. Petersburg: Eye candy roars at you with the force of a locomotive when you step inside El Gallo Grande. The sunset-hued tables and chairs, super-slick bar and bright-yellow walls covered in colorful Day of the Dead-inspired murals will have your head in a 360-degree spin. EGG's guacamole is sublime; you will crush hard on its slightly chunky texture and bright flavors imparted by liberal additions of jalapeno, tomato, lime and cilantro. Queso fundido with zippy chorizo crumbles is sexily gooey, and the crisp Mexican Caesar salad (a light and refreshing variation on the classic) is pleasingly adorned with corn kernels, crunchy tortilla strips and mellow Oaxaca cheese crumbles. The menu of “authexican” cuisine is not extensive (sort of a CliffsNotes version of what one might expect), but a variety of fresh-tasting tostadas, tacos and arepas are available along with daily specials. Try the blood orange margarita — it's the finest I've ever guzzled or sipped. But don't drink two without designating a driver, because you won't be able to feel your face after the second.
Vizcaya Restaurante, Tampa: Tapas are the only way to go for foodie commitment-phobes like me. Why settle on one menu item when you can order one of everything? Vizcaya's “small plates” are actually astonishingly generous; bear that in mind before you over-order, because it will be difficult to resist doing so. Liver lovers will rejoice in the creamy, homemade duck liver pate with Madagascar green peppercorns and Spanish brandy served with crostini. Carocoles El Horno (delectable, flaky phyllo envelopes virtually crammed to the bursting point with perfectly seasoned tender escargot and mushroom morsels) are also highly recommended. Fat, flaky beef empanadas; mammoth prawns stuffed with béchamel, wrapped in pork belly and pan fried; subtly paprika-spiced imported octopus baked on a wooden plate; a charcuterie plate of razor-thin slices of Spanish cured meat … the list goes on and on. You'll want it all, and it's all best washed down with a pitcher of fruity cava sangria. Entrees are available as well.
The Pearl, Treasure Island: Here you'll find an unusual, eclectic and internationally inspired fine-dining menu with an emphasis on Moroccan and French cuisine, along with a nod to some familiar favorites. The interior is warm and inviting, elegant without being stuffy, and convivially “buzzy.” Classic starters are done well and include lobster bisque, French onion soup beef Carpaccio and escargot. Duck pasta (sautéed duck with peas, tossed in a wild mushroom Cognac cream sauce) is simply ridiculous in its indulgence factor. If the Moroccan influence intrigues you, indulge in grilled filet of lamb kebobs marinated in mint, Moroccan spices and garlic or falling-off-the bone, slow cooked chicken tagine with couscous. Plenty of options are available to please more traditional taste buds, such as fork-tender veal tournedos in creamy Madeira sauce, crispy roasted half duck with a choice of sauces, and steak and seafood selections.
Kafe Kokopelli, Dade City: Located in a restored 100-year-old vine-covered former Ford Model T sales and service center, Kafe Kokopelli's whimsical décor will leave you feeling as if you just fell down the rabbit hole — but in the best of all possible ways. The eclectic menu offers starters such as Fried Green Tomato Napoleon (a pulchritudinous monolith of — you guessed it — crispy fried green tomatoes layered with goat cheese, kumquat marmalade, bread and butter pickles, basil oil and aged balsamic), local fried gator bites and almond-crusted brie. House-made soups (especially the She Crab Bisque) and sandwiches reflect a respectable level of attention to detail (Kokopelli's Cuban sandwich is a fine enough rendition to turn Ybor green with envy). Dinner entrees include stuffed meatloaf, wild-caught swordfish, prime rib and more. Bonus: You get to visit our adorably quaint neighbor to the north — downtown Dade City.
Yummy House China Bistro, Tampa: Yummy, indeed! This authentic Chinese restaurant offers a sleek, nouveau atmosphere, real chopsticks that don't come in little paper sleeves, professional servers and a phonebook-sized menu. For you Andrew Zimmern types, outré ingredients like frog, sea cucumber and jellyfish are prominently featured in tantalizing applications. If you're not feeling bold enough to try abalone, the rich and fruity duck and dried grape fried rice might be the best fried rice you've ever put in your mouth. I got a little glimpse of heaven (probably the closest I'll ever come to the pearly gates, thanks to the disco era) the first time I sank my teeth into Yummy House's sweet and savory honey walnut shrimp. And the crunchy tempura-battered salt and pepper calamari provides a welcome respite from the ubiquitous prefab rubber band-esque versions being served with jarred marinara sauce throughout the Tampa Bay area.
Café Luna Bistro, St. Pete Beach: You will have a difficult time making your selection from Café Luna's short but sweet list of delectable-sounding entrees. The chunky smoked fish spread, comprised of fresh grouper and snapper, chipotle, onion and mayo is some of the best to be found in Tampa Bay. Filet Mignon Napoleon (a melt-in-your-mouth slab of beef tenderloin topped with a grilled colossal crab cake, portobello mushroom slices, honey Dijon horseradish cream sauce and sweet balsamic reduction) is a decadent tower of hedonistic pleasure. Panko-crusted crispy snapper bathed in an exquisite Thai red coconut sauce served with mixed vegetables and a molded pillar of orchid-embellished jasmine rice elicits a delightful bead of sweat on the upper lip. Entrees are huge here (most include veggies and a starch), and all are priced at under $30 and served in a cozy, casually elegant environment. Save room for a double-chocolate brownie with berries and vanilla ice cream for dessert.
Zen Bistro, Tampa: This chillaxing venue is a perfect choice for Asian fusion-loving wallets of all thicknesses. If for no other reason, it should be experienced for the Spicy Snow Crab Bowl. A cavalcade of crustacean morsels is presented atop a bed of cool, white rice and garnished with cucumber and Asian pear matchsticks, and slices of perfectly ripe avocado and tempura onion, all of which are accented with a creamy sesame sauce and masago. A marvel of textural contrast, it's a sweet, spicy, creamy and crunchy little drama that unfolds in your mouth. Lime beef (juicy grilled beef skewers marinated in sesame lime sauce and accented with chopped roasted peanuts and fried shallots) will make you feel good about ignoring all of that vegan propaganda in your Facebook feed. The green mussels baked in garlic sesame dynamite sauce and topped with masago and scallions are a must-try, as are the succulent flame-grilled short ribs glazed in a sweet Korean barbecue sauce. Zen Bistro's many options include small plates, tempura, noodle dishes and sushi — something for everyone.
Gulf Bistro, Madeira Beach: Locating excellent bona fide French cuisine in the Tampa Bay area can feel like looking for a needle in a haystack, and the last place you might expect to find it is on the beaches. This tiny gem — tucked away in a small, older strip mall on Gulf Boulevard — is easy to miss but worth seeking out. The interior is as intimate and as enchanting as a Parisian café. The menu isn't huge, but it contains many of the usual suspects, including plump, garlicky escargots in butter sauce; luxe lobster bisque; Chateaubriand; and a large trough of bouillabaisse near-overflowing with fresh grouper and shellfish. Gulf Bistro's duck breast in orange sauce ranks high on my extensive list of “the best things I ever ate.” Tender, rare and juicy, the generous slabs of breast meat float upon a delightfully boozy, Triple Sec-laced sea of intense, citrusy goodness. Now that I've shared this one with you, I'll have to kill you. Sorry, but there are only about 10 tables at Gulf Bistro, and I don't wait well. Thanks for understanding
Beach Bistro, Holmes Beach: The jaw-dropping beach-front dining room with spectacular sunset views throughout, impeccable service that refrains from being pretentious and, of course, extraordinary cuisine make Beach Bistro unforgettable. If you have romance on your mind but perhaps fall a little short in the “mad seduction skillz” department, Beach Bistro may well be your bridge to fulfillment. The ethereal Bistro Blue Tomato soup with sweet cream and Maytag bleu cheese is not to be missed. And if, like me, there's a pot of foie gras at the end of every rainbow in your world, you need Seared Hudson Valley foie gras on savory brioche bread pudding. It's an umami bomb, the taste and texture of which will be indelibly etched upon your taste buds. With entrees like domestic rack of Colorado lamb, bouillabaisse, duckling confit, prime tenderloin of beef and butter-poached Nova Scotia lobster, the menu is almost surreal in its embarrassment of exquisitely executed, opulent riches. Justifiably, prices reflect the quality imparted, so be prepared to drop some serious coin.
The Black Pearl, Dunedin: Definitely a date night destination, this romantic spot in downtown Dunedin boasts white tablecloths adorned with candles and roses, sublime culinary creations and seasoned, professional service. Starters such as silken lump crab bisque, laced tableside with sherry, and smoky nuggets of maple- glazed pork belly nestled atop luxurious little beds of cheese grits and drizzled with blueberry demi-glace, will leave you salivating in anticipation of things to come. Generously portioned classic French and New American entrees include Long Island duckling, New Zealand rack of lamb and filet mignon. For lighter appetites, or those who want to save room for dessert (which you will), the appetizer of farm-raised PEI oven-steamed mussels with coconut milk, red Thai curry and lime can be ordered served over pappardelle pasta and garnished with fresh sugar snap peas as a main course. If you're a bivalve fan, this is an application you won't want to miss. The menu rotates slightly on a weekly basis.
Café Ponte, Clearwater: With its modern, big-city feel and gleaming open kitchen, Café Ponte has serious swagger that makes it ideal for business dinners and celebratory meals alike. The bread tray alone — piled high with the most stunning array of focaccia, flatbreads, seeded rolls and other evil Atkins' nemeses you've ever seen — will leave you almost powerless to resist the urge to wrest the entire thing from the arms of the server and run like the wind. The signature wild mushroom bisque with trumpet dust and light truffle cream slides over the tongue like a pungent, silken swathe and will leave you bitterly lamenting the fact that truffle cream doesn't have its own prominent display in the Publix dairy case. Ponte's $90 seasonally changing six-course tasting menu is a veritable parade of visually stunning, downscaled works of culinary art — each more impressive than the last — that you'll be reflecting on longingly for months to come. Although pricey, you needn't take out a second mortgage to enjoy the Café Ponte experience. Most lunch entrees, salads and sandwiches are priced at under $12, and an extremely nice $33 prix fixe menu is available between 5:30 and 6:30 PM.
Hungry for more? Denise Parker's blog is http://sweetpollyfood.blogspot.com/