Bland ambition at St. Pete's Rococo Steak

Rococo Steak’s setting is chic, its wine list a thrill, but the food lacks focus.

click to enlarge HOW MANY LICKS? The minced organic chicken lollipops are cute balls of poultry that resemble short Tootsie Pops. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
HOW MANY LICKS? The minced organic chicken lollipops are cute balls of poultry that resemble short Tootsie Pops.

I so wanted Rococo Steak with its stunning setting and sophisticated terrace to have food to match the thrilling wine list, with its top-shelf Champagne Veuve Clicquot and Napa’s Silver Oak Cabernet by the glass. Clearly, some very smart restaurateurs are behind the classy menu.

But as it stands now, the fare at St. Petersburg’s new steakhouse could take a hint from the era that spawned its name. Whereas the Rococo period was characterized by over-the-top creations with an elaborate attention to detail, the dishes coming out of the Rococo kitchen seem disappointingly bland or unbalanced.

And there’s really no excuse for a 7 p.m. reservation to be served its entrees at 9 p.m.

The service staff is ample to a fault; mostly young and not quite comfortable with their very careful training. I assume that in time the attention to detail will eventually seem natural instead of forced. At least the management has set high goals.

The most beautiful presentation of the night is the lobster cocktail appetizer. An absolutely huge claw and knuckle arrive on a mounded bed of crushed ice practically overflowing a handsome free-form glass rectangle full of dips and curves.

Unfortunately, the Indian garam masala spices utterly overwhelm the delicate lobster, and the succulence that is associated with butter-poaching ends up totally muted in the cold presentation. Also, the mango sauce listed on the menu seems to be a no-show. Then, adding insult to injury, one of the dips in the plate can’t hold back the melting ice, and before I notice, a flowing stream of water has snaked its way from the lovely sculptural plate off the table and onto my seat cushion to create a startling lake between my legs. Thank heavens I don’t have to use the chic restroom until later.

The most successful starter is a wedge of goat cheese pie. Because of its lightness, it doesn’t have the tang you usually associate with chèvre, but the pairing with poached Asian pear slices sweet with cinnamon and sugar, a tangle of peppery arugula, and fig balsamic syrup is full of flavor.

The minced organic chicken lollipops are cute balls of poultry that resemble short Tootsie Pops inverted on a bed of caramelized onions and fennel. The menu calls it “slaw,” which is a misnomer. It could use the punch of more fennel and a longer caramelization.

I assume Rococo can deliver on a 40-ounce dry-aged porterhouse, so we try the lean grass-fed filet instead; it’s a fine medium rare, but an acquired taste for those used to corn-fed meat. The accompanying purple potato puff is cute (but gummy) and the house-made sauce is almost nonexistent. Antelope schnitzel lacks taste except for the tiny dots of gremolata and horseradish relish, and a plain grilled salmon fillet comes with asparagus tips that look marinated and reek strongly of vinegar. In general, the food seems out of balance or under-seasoned.

Of the à la carte sides, the creamed corn with Anaheim peppers, sweet onion and chipotle is the tastiest bite of the evening. Artisanal mac and cheese is over-cooked and nondescript even though we opt for a truffle upgrade making this small side $17. With your eyes closed, you can’t identify what you’re eating.

The strangest dish of the night, “Froot Loop” panna cotta, must have seemed like a good idea given the buzz around similarly flavored vodka. But the dense, rubbery dessert that tastes of sugary artificial fruit infusion is only made worse by a garnish of breakfast cereal that most palates eschew by the time they’re old enough to read. I admire the sense of adventure, but this is a grand experiment gone awry.

The salted caramel bread pudding doesn’t fare much better because there’s not enough caramel on the plate to register. Salted caramel should induce swoons, its decadent buttery creaminess leaving you with a hint of the sea on the finish. But what arrives at our table is a bit gooey, which could be forgiven if it weren’t also dull.

By the end of our dinner we are wowed by the design, glad for the knockout wine options, and hopeful for the concept. But when a recent visit elsewhere turns out four-star tastes at $17 a head, it’s practically soul-crushing when a much-anticipated new steakhouse comes up blah at $80 a pop.

About The Author

Jon Palmer Claridge

Jon Palmer Claridge—Tampa Bay's longest running, and perhaps last anonymous, food critic—has spent his life following two enduring passions, theatre and fine dining. He trained as a theatre professional (BFA/Acting; MFA/Directing) while Mastering the Art of French Cooking from Julia Child as an avocation. He acted...
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