Downtown Bistro with a View

It was one of those weeks that starts out simple and ends with a riptide of dismaying complexities: new income tax filing rules, an out-of-town funeral, a balky computer demanding attention and a round of commitments beginning at 5 a.m. Even my cell phone needed fixing. So, it was with some relief that I contemplated that lovely ride over the Gandy Bridge — the bay so mercurial, its coloring first green and gold, then, imperceptibly changing to gradations of blue and gray. And I hoped my destination — the St. Pete restaurant called Mattison's, An American Bistro — would be able to deliver a couple of carefree hours with no problem-solving required.

I am happy to report it's a solid choice for those of you seeking respite from the wear-and-tear of living. It was pretty but not fancy, relaxed but not sloppy. The food, prepared by owner/chef Paul Mattison, was well done, but quite mainstream, and thus, we didn't have to make any culinary stretches; and the service was efficient and pleasant.

Add to those plusses a glam view out its big front windows, the starry charm of downtown St. Pete's newly vigorous skyline, a curvy bar, live music — and the two-minute walk to shopping, bars and movies at the BayWalk complex. It's not cutting edge, but it delivers a fresh, satisfying version of New American cuisine.

As always, we started at the restaurant's worst table, facing two blank walls. As always, we complained, and the hostess quickly rewarded us with a roomy alternative that offered a view of the Bank of America tower. In the foreground stood The Colonial, one of the many small hotels springing up downtown. You can look straight into its top-floor rooms, providing a delightful "metropolitan" feel we had not expected.

As always, The Martini Tester ordered his favorite libation: Bombay Sapphire gin martini with olives ($5.25). His assessment of Mattison's version: excellent. I wanted a pina colada, but alas, the bar lacked the proper equipment to make one, so I chose the same ingredients in a cocktail glass, but "up" on the rocks instead ($4.95).

Inside, the restaurant is stylish, with sophisticated, deep reds and taupes, its tables swathed in black cloths and topped with plain brown paper to keep them clean. There are two dining rooms, a patio and a bar area separated from the restaurant by hand-made stained glass.

We were already sampling an appetizer featuring grilled eggplant paired with provolone and ham ($8.95) when we noticed the mirrored ceiling, permitting one to discreetly watch what people at every other table are doing and eating. It was fascinating because you could really look at people's clothes, plates and gestures, without the normal social consequences.

The appetizer was delicious, tangy and chewy, but was not hot enough. The kitchen got double demerits for a hearty cup of minestrone soup sporting a forceful broth and a fun mix of veggies and beans ($2.95) that was also lukewarm; it would have been perfect with a steamy contrail.

I snarfed them both down, anyway, along with the crusty bread, which came with a yummy, piped ribbon of flavored butter.

When I saw a big white plate coming toward us overgrown with snappy, variegated greens, toasted pine nuts and Gorgonzola, and brightened with noticeably red, juicy and flavorful tomatoes, I wished I had ordered the small house salad ($2.95). It wore its balsamic vinaigrette dressing like Pamela Anderson wears Coppertone. I managed a single bite before its owner reclaimed it, and it did a sudden disappearing act.

Though the server was efficient, we enjoyed the leisurely procession of courses across our table. We would pause between courses, with time to sit and visit, daydream out the window, or sneak peeks via the mirrored ceiling to catch what people do together when they think they're unobserved. The place is so comfortable, it's fun to hang there — the perfect antidote to the annoyances of the previous week.

We had trouble deciding on an entree, which seemed odd because they were fairly standard choices: blackened salmon with capers and citrus butter ($14.95); Chilean sea bass with shiitake mushrooms ($18.95); chicken breast bathed in Marsala wine sauce ($13.95); pine nut-crusted veal tenderloin ($18.95); and, for non-meat-eaters, grilled portobello mushrooms with brie cheese, roasted tomatoes and fresh basil ($15.95).

We chose two of the simpler dishes, grouper piccata ($16.95); and grilled filet mignon, ($19.95). When the big, gleaming plates arrived, they carried a halo of steam. We were glad to get food that was really hot.

The grouper was fresh, its crust golden, and its sandy-colored lemon-butter sauce subtle, but still frisky with citrus and freckled with capers. Pale yellow spaghetti squash and purple cabbage gave it heft, with two seasoned spaghetti sticks as grace notes.

My filet arrived grilled exactly to medium rare, the way I like it. It was a succulent piece of beef tenderloin, so juicy, so tender, resting amid a rich pool of purple sauce strewn with sauteed button mushrooms. On the side was a tiny cup of bearnaise sauce. The filet was sided with milky mashed potatoes and a haystack of spaghetti squash.

You would think that, after all that, we would have the decency to quit, but we didn't. Why? To me, a meal cannot possibly end without dessert; it's like going to the final game of the World Series and leaving before the last inning.

We settled on Granny Smith apple pie ($5.50) and caramel macadamia nut tart ($5). The coffee came right away hot and fresh, but the server probably figured I had had enough, for she brought cream but no sugar; she also missed one refill of my water glass and one coffee refill. Still, the food was good enough that minor service errors could not mar the meal.

Best dessert honors went to the pie; its flaky cinnamon-and-sugar-dusted crust collapsed in an irresistible heap. Once in your mouth, the pastry's buttery shell fell apart all at once, like a soap opera plotline, its spicy filling an outspoken foil.

My macadamia tart sat on a crisp foundation of nut cookie crust, layered with chocolate and gooey caramel. It seemed enjoyably decadent enough, but halfway through I was distracted because I had to fight off my dining companion, who was invading with his fork and managed to snatch part of it away.

That must have been an eyeful for those around us, who were no doubt watching the battle play out in the ceiling mirrors. Still, it could be viewed as an unrehearsed compliment to the chef, who perhaps is accustomed to seeing small-time tiffs over the fare.



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