For much of greater Tampa Bay, Pass-A-Grille is a bit of a trek. It's a charming drive, though. Passing under the arch at the Don Cesar, and gliding by resorts, condos and mini-mansions on the waterway, it's easy to remember why we live here, and why so many people want to visit. By the time my guests and I arrived at the tiny village at the far southern tip of the Gulf Beaches, and parked the car 50 feet from waves caressing the shore, we felt like tourists. Pass-A-Grille is historic - for Florida, at least - with pastel-painted wood cottages (some of the oldest still standing in Pinellas) and brick buildings that once housed some of the most well-known part-time residents of the Gulf coast. Of course, these days fried fish joints share street space with fine dining restaurants in historic buildings.
Black Palm is a newcomer to the burg, just two months old. Although the space doesn't have a beach view, and the gray stuccoed building does nothing for quaint Eighth Avenue, it's a perfect spot to grow into. There's a giant courtyard in front, filled with umbrella-covered tables just waiting for autumn. Inside, a cool, dark bar area with stone floors and a long, beautiful wooden bar stretches to the dining room.
Compared with those two spaces, the dining room is small and oddly constructed. We were seated next to the kitchen. Not an insult, really, since almost every table is arranged next to a wide opening that leads to the brightly lit prep and cooking areas. Waiters scurried in and out past the tables, and sinks and cling-wrap were just a few feet from the chairs. In all, an awkward arrangement.
The menu brims with South American-influenced Nuevo Latino cuisine, the kind that seems to be springing up all across the Gulf Coast these days, like a revitalized version of the tired Floribbean trend. Fresh herbs, grilled meats and simple citrus sauces laden with pungent garlic are this cuisine's heart and soul. Black Palm doesn't improve on these themes, but it does represent.
With a writer, an artist and a critic in our dining posse that night, it was interesting to see what people ordered. Independently wealthy writer Rick gravitated toward the luxury items - lobster bisque ($8), described by the waiter as thickened with "ground lobster instead of cream"; arepa royal ($8) topped with caviar, and paella ($14).
The bisque could've really benefited from some of that shunned cream. A pink claw, blandly steamed, jutted from a tiny cordial glass filled with pink fluid that felt grainy in the mouth from the ground lobster meat. In the arepas royal, a few tiny black eggs of caviar sat atop crème fraiche and smoked salmon, all supported by a foundation of thin South American corn cake. It was fine, but would've been more impressive passed at a cocktail party.
When I saw paella on the regular menu, I was intrigued. Normally, this Spanish rice masterpiece takes several hours from start to finish, and few restaurants are willing to make a batch daily, for fear of waste. Black Palm solves this by taking a shortcut: instead of rice, they use the tiny pasta called orzo.
As paella, this dish didn't succeed. Nicely cooked lobster, mussels and hunks of fish were tossed with the orzo and a rich gravy-like sauce subtly infused with saffron. The sauce was good, but it didn't unify the ingredients. Normally, the deep flavors of saffron and seafood slowly cook into the rice, resulting in a dish that is tasty because of the unity of flavor that permeates the entire thing. In the Black Palm version, the orzo was slightly slimy, slightly gummy and an interloper in the dish. Considering how impressive the sauce was on its own, I would love to try some real paella here.
Austin the artist's choices were safe and homey: crab cakes ($7), nachos ($4) and a pork chop ($22). OK, the nachos were actually ricanachos, a giant pile of shredded beef atop fried strips of plantain, with a sprinkle of crumbled rustic queso. Deftly balanced seasoning made the dish taste more beefy; the fried plantains were like slightly sweet potato chips, and the cheese was fresh and tart.
Tiny seared crab cakes were almost entirely lumpless, consisting of bound shreds that were a bit under-seasoned and bland. No worse than the majority of mediocre crab cakes served across the metro area, but definitely not a standout.
The pork was another story. With the first slice, you could see an interior colored a subtly translucent pink, perfectly cooked so that the incredibly lean pork did not have a chance to lose valuable moisture. A crunchy sear and good amount of salt added flavor to the meat, as did the subdued apple compote spread across the top.
I ordered last, as always, filling in with the deceptively simple items that are fundamental to South American cuisine: First and foremost, ceviche peruano ($8), a dish that takes minutes to learn and a lot longer to master, followed by a cowboy steak ($20).
Ceviche sets the bar for the quality and skill of South American restaurants. At Black Palm, the marinated fish salad was unbalanced, overpowered by citrus with little else to provide contrast. The fish was pretty and firm, but we could hardly taste it. A heftier dose of spicy peppers, a blast of herbs, even a sweet element like big kernels of Cusco corn would cut through the relentless acidity of this dish.
The cowboy steak was tender as only well-marbled ribeye can be. The beef was kicked in the ass by a hefty dollop of chimichurri, the homemade steak sauce of the finest ranging gauchos. Often, chimichurri turns out like a garlicky parsley pesto, but the Black Palm version was chunky and fresh - raw garlic, onions, peppers and just a tiny bit of parsley, more like salsa than sauce. It made a yummy steak better. Sadly, I quickly had to pass it to Writer Rick to placate his grumbling stomach after he refused to eat the paella.
When choosing a dessert at Black Palm, avoid the musky guava cheesecake ($6) and the dry chocolate lava cake ($6) in favor of classic tres leche ($5). The simple, super-sweet sponge cake doused in creamy condensed milk was as soft as pudding and incredibly satisfying.
Strolling back to the parking lot, there was a breeze blowing in from the beach, tempering the muggy summer air, and we could hear the surf as we got into the car. Black Palm's food is solid, but in this case, the journey was just as important as the destination. Take a trip and try to remember why you came to Florida in the first place.
Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. He can be reached at [email protected]. Planet food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.