Chez Magnifique

Discover what the locals already know about this Davis Islands eatery.

click to enlarge DIVE IN: Chez Bryce's pan-seared diver scallops with candied endive, fennel and orange. - Shanna Gillette
Shanna Gillette
DIVE IN: Chez Bryce's pan-seared diver scallops with candied endive, fennel and orange.

"Everyone sees the bridge as a psychological barrier," explains Bryce Whittlesey, chef/owner of Chez Bryce on Davis Islands. That helps to explain why, in the middle of the week at prime dining time, the restaurant is practically empty. The intimate bar attached to the dining room is stocked by Davis Islands regulars, and a few groups are drinking in the smoke-friendly courtyard, but there isn't a lot of eating going on.

There should be. Whittlesey's menu is a pastiche of Mediterranean cuisines, riffing on familiar Italian, French and Spanish dishes with the refined touch of an experienced and committed chef. Like most Davis Islands eateries, Chez Bryce has received a warm welcome by neighborhood folk, but this food deserves more than just a loyal Islands fan base.

Whittlesey is a Plant High graduate who returned to his roots after culinary school in New York, work in Paris and the triumph of elevating a Massachusetts hotel restaurant in the Berkshires from three AAA stars to a coveted five-star rating. He wound up on Davis Islands after a chance meeting over lunch.

Last year he was eating at Caprice Bistro (which used to be in the Chez Bryce space) and mentioned to the owners that he was interested in opening a restaurant. The next day, they called him and offered to sell. "I wasn't expecting that, but the courtyard sold me on the property," says Whittlesey.

That courtyard is a fine venue for food that's informed by the sun-drenched cultures of southern Europe. You can down bowls of tiny and tender clams kissed with cubes of bright red pepper and rich chorizo ($9) that meld seamlessly into a classic white-wine broth laced with saffron. Or inhale pizzas topped by Spanish ham and manchego ($12) or duck confit and arugula ($15), all under the warm sun and salty island breeze just minutes from downtown. Yeah, the giant bricked courtyard is a selling point.

Inside, Chez Bryce is almost as sunny, with glowing golden earth tones throughout the dining room and a big open kitchen. Ceilings are low, but with multiple pillars breaking up the space, it works, evoking a basement restaurant in a seaside European city. The décor is calm but consistent, leaving the food to add the pizzazz.

Whittlesey aims to elicit a "wow factor" by accenting his dishes with surprising flavors. Grilled cobia ($25) seems a bit staid at first taste, the wedge of meaty fish simply grilled and seasoned. But hidden in a salad of bitter greens underneath are sections of tart lemon that wake up the entire plate with bright acidity.

Sometimes those accents are more in-your-face, like a profusion of sweet and smoky lardon with a hefty rack of pork ($19). The meat is overcooked, but all that rich bacon makes it easy to forgive the dryness, especially when eaten with slices of tender grilled pear. Cod "beignets" ($8) start with an almost unpleasant burst of pungent fishy flavor that quickly dissipates in the creamy texture of the bite-sized fritters. It's obvious from both dishes that, problems or no, Whittlesey doesn't hold back.

Unless, of course, subtlety matches the ingredients he has available. Chez Bryce's gigantic diver scallops ($27) are gorgeous and need little help, just a few caramelized sections of endive to pull out the naturally sweet flavor of the shellfish and fennel to add some contrast. Same with a perfect, medium-rare duck breast ($23) rimmed by a layer of luscious fat rendered just enough to fill the meat with flavor. Confronted with that hunk of meat, the grilled bok choy and soft sautéed squash on the side are almost superfluous.

Whittlesey also does comfort food with restraint, like elegant, simple hanger steak ($25). The gamey cut of meat is slightly overcooked but exceedingly tender, with potatoes puréed into a delicate, creamy mass that seeps into the restrained reduced red wine sauce.

Truffled mac and cheese ($9) is another example. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, heavy-handed local chefs make it dangerous to order anything with the dominating flavor of white truffle oil. Here, it's barely noticeable, adding the merest touch of earthy oomph to tiny ditalini pasta, bright cheese sauce and crunchy, browned breadcrumbs. Cooked in an individual baking dish, there are even crisp bits of browned cheese clinging to the bottom and sides that elicit spoon fights at the end of the course.

Desserts can be a letdown, so stick with the well-chosen and nicely priced cheese plate ($9), accompanied by quince paste made in-house.

At lunch, Chez Bryce is all salads and pizzas, with a Kobe beef burger thrown in as if by rote or because burgers are inevitably popular. There is also a raw bar with stone crabs, of course, and oysters topped by a masterful mignonette that sums up Whittlesey's skill: It's flavorful but never overwhelms the joyous briny flavor of the raw shellfish.

No matter when you eat at Chez Bryce, you'll find accomplished food that has the potential to get even better once Whittlesey gets comfortable in his new kitchen. But will it be enough to break people of that psychological barrier that separates Davis Islands from the rest of Tampa?

Whittlesey's confident.

"Once they give us a chance and see that it's just a five-to-seven-minute drive from restaurant row on Howard, they'll come," he says. In the meantime, those Davis Islands regulars will still be drinking in the bar and stopping in the dining room for the occasional nosh, loyal as ever.

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