Even near the gleaming corporate compound of BayWalk, savvy diners can find a place to call their own. Around the corner from the monstrous modern piazza sits the historical Colonial Inn & Spa. Part salon, part B & B, the charming old building exudes old-Florida charm with New World attitudes. Nowhere is the combo more pronounced than in the inn's basement restaurant, the improbably named E. A little digging revealed that the initial stands for "eclectic," a name that certainly fits the bill (though it's a bit difficult to explain to operators when you are looking for directions to the joint). The restaurant's subtitle, "A Tapas Lounge" refers not to any sort of Spanish influence, but to the more global definition of the term: inexpensive, clever little dishes served á la carte and combined at will to make up what can only be termed an "eclectic" meal.
The basement room is surprisingly cheery and features original tiled floors, filmy window dressings and bright, multi-colored lights. By contrast, the table settings are staid and corporate-banquet chic. Maybe it's a hotel thing. On a recent weekday evening the place was nearly deserted, but spa customers munching between facial treatments and manicures, and BayWalk visitors dropping by for a bite in the midst of their boutique excursions, make it a popular spot earlier in the day. On weekends, live musicians bring in even more traffic.
The menu is loosely organized so that smaller, more appetizer-like tapas are on the front side, and the eats-like-a-meal plates are listed on the back. The prices also make it easier to divine which of the menu options will tide you over till breakfast. For instance, though the smoked salmon Napoleon sounded hearty enough, the $7 price tag told me this was more of a first-course dish. Layers of pink smoked salmon sat between crispy "fried wontons" (ignore what the menu says about potato rounds). The Napoleon was finished off with a garnish of capers, chopped hard-boiled egg, onion and red caviar, giving the whole shebang the air of a French blini. The chef would do well to travel further along that route and replace the crunchy wonton layers with something more conducive to taking reasonably sized bites. I found the tower of salmon crunch difficult to navigate.
Another appetizer, spinach and artichoke dip ($6), also featured those annoying wonton squares. The dip was bright green in coloring (helped along a bit by the rainbow-hued lighting scheme) and had a fresh veggie flavor tinged with the bite of sharp asiago and Parmesan cheeses. I found the dip to be a very satisfying dish (I recommend it for a quick snack while waiting for your pedicure to dry), but I really recommend the restaurant lose those wontons in favor of some bread or even corn chips. Once a meal is more than enough.
Most of the other dishes shone. The meaty Louisiana crab cakes ($8) had a healthy dose of Creole flavoring and were served with a spattering of field greens and a creamy pineapple salsa. The salsa balanced the spice in the cakes perfectly, as well as sweetening the seafood tang.
Another excellent option is the chipotle beef tips ($8). This little dish included more food than any of the other tapas we ordered, and at first glance, the plateful of meat uncut with greens or starches looked a little unwieldy. Devotees of the Atkins diet would probably be right at home, but it took me a few bites to put appearance aside in favor of flavor. The tenderloin pieces were utterly saturated in an extremely spicy but very tasty orange pepper sauce. If you are looking for heat, this fiery dish will whet your palate (and clean your sinuses).
My favorite of all the tapas was, incidentally, the most expensive. But at $10, the sesame-encrusted tuna shouldn't break the bank, and it's definitely worth the extra dough. The sushi-grade tuna was seared to order (do yourself a favor and get it rare), coated with black and white sesame seeds and drizzled with wasabi aioli and a balsamic-soy reduction sauce. The whole thing was served atop a bed of delicious, marinated seaweed. The seafood was top-notch, and the seeds and sauces added the perfect finishing touches, making this one Asian fusion dish that lives up to the trend.
The wine list at E matches perfectly with the tapas theme. When one is making a meal of disparate small dishes, it can be difficult to choose a bottle that goes with all of the orders. To counteract this problem, E offers a variety of unusual wines from all over the globe, each available by the glass. The intriguing, geographically arranged wine list contained affordable vintages from every continent, proving every bit as eclectic as the rest of the restaurant. I wish more small restaurants willing to take a chance with their menus would do the same with their wine lists. We don't all have to drink the same Australian chardonnay. At E, I was especially fond of a sauvignon blanc from New Zealand called Selaks ($6.50/glass) with a strong peach nose and a very fresh flavor.
The tapas trend is going strong in the Tampa Bay area and should prove a success to a dining public with a short attention span and an adventurous appetite. Any missteps in E's menu are quickly canceled out by the next course, and with such a variety of styles on one menu, there's sure to be at least one little dish to please everyone at the table.
Freelance writer Diana Peterfreund dines anonymously and the Planet pays for her meals. She may be contacted at [email protected] weeklyplanet.com. Restaurants are chosen for review at the discretion of the writer, and are not related to advertising.