Downtown letdown

DeSanto is a beautiful place, but the food has a long way to go.

click to enlarge EITHER FISH OR FOWL: Salmon xico (foreground) and duck enchilada at DeSanto Latin American Bistro. - Shanna Gillette
Shanna Gillette
EITHER FISH OR FOWL: Salmon xico (foreground) and duck enchilada at DeSanto Latin American Bistro.

Shit! Five seconds after I walk into DeSanto Latin American Bistro, I know I've been made. It's our server's first night, and instead of opening with a "Welcome to DeSanto" or "Can I bring you one of our signature margaritas?" her face widens in recognition, and she simply says, "Hi Brian!" I worked with her at a restaurant once in the olden days. Humph.

Instead of leaving and taking DeSanto off my list for a while, I decide to stick it out and see how this new restaurant will handle the pressure. In my experience, there are two ways it goes down when I think I've been tagged by the restaurant staff: Either they bump up their game and I get an especially good experience, or they fall apart at the seams.

After tasting the food on this night — and returning for a second try three weeks later — I'm not sure if the kitchen at DeSanto can pull it together for either a food critic or the average schmo.

The place, however, is gorgeous, set in an old brick building in downtown St. Pete, with a breathtaking courtyard complete with flora and burbling water. The interior is almost as impressive, but hard surfaces abound, from the tile floor to the beautiful barrel-vault ceiling to the decorative panels that separate a small lounge area from the dining room proper. That means the room is loud, and when it fills up, conversation becomes an effort.

The waitress-in-training who blew my cover is soon relieved of our table in favor of a more experienced and extremely capable server. She's textbook brilliant, rattling off menu descriptions and explanations without pause.

Sadly, her expertise is hampered by the product coming out of the kitchen.

DeSanto's pan-Latin menu has a decidedly Mexican bent, the classics gussied up for a high-end clientele. But rarely do the flourishes and innovations add up to much more than a distraction. And the fundamentals that form the base of those dishes are distinctly lacking.

The epitome of DeSanto's kitchen problems is the salmon xico ($16.95). It's a simple filet of pink salmon, cooked just about right, on top of a puddle of brown mole. Atop the salmon is a sauce that is pure white, looking like nothing more than the fondant on a wedding cake. It's actually whipped rice, slightly sweet but largely flavorless, just like the mole. It tastes white.

There is also none of the banana purée promised on the menu, and the side of "sautéed vegetables" turns out to be a thick pocket of melted cheese containing a few slivers of squash and zucchini. When we ask our server what it is, she has to go back to the kitchen to find out, returning to tell us that the chef is in conflict over the veggies. He's experimenting.

The rest of the meal follows a similar pattern: Latin dishes that don't taste particularly Latin, with the occasional surprise substitution.

Appetizers are largely forgettable. DeSanto's ceviche sampler ($10.50) ranges from disturbingly pungent scallops to bland tuna to a veggie salad tossed with lime. Chimichangas ($9.95) are filled with fishy marlin; tostadas ($10.50) are topped with an unattractive schmear of overcooked shrimp and crab; fish tacos ($7.95) are merely boring.

With the entrées, the simpler the better at DeSanto. Basic roast chicken ($14.95) served with crisp tostones, rice and soft yucca is perfectly acceptable, even with more of that soulless mole served as a sauce. "Peruvian chicken stew" ($14.95) isn't stew, but it is tasty — moist, braised half-chicken served with small potatoes and carrots cooked separately and drizzled with a subtly sweet jus that complements the meat. Short ribs ($19.95) are almost tender enough, with a fine trio of mashed root vegetables.

Like the salmon, the more complicated the dish, the more potential for problems at DeSanto. Scallops ($17.95) are seared just right but paired with an intensely rich cream-and-mushroom sauce accented with way too much vanilla. It's difficult to make vanilla work in the best of conditions, and this chaotic kitchen can't pull it off.

On my second visit, I manage to go incognito. The mole has improved, but the gist of the food doesn't change: black bean soup sieved until there's just a bland broth left; salad marred by lettuce that hasn't been properly dried; obscure, inedible garnish on the snapper. I ask my server what a mysterious pile of black granules is on one plate, and he thinks for a minute before replying "decoration." Indeed.

I'm torn on DeSanto's desire to push "margaritas on tap." No one wants their cocktails pre-mixed and swirling in some modified Icee machine or glorified ice tea rig, but the 'ritas are tasty. DeSanto also pushes a tequila selection, but it's a meager list compared to some other local places.

When owner Doug Illman came by the table during my first visit, he was visibly nervous and a bit scattered. It was obvious that he cares about the place, but he told us that most of his experience has been in the high-end lounge business.

That's one of DeSanto's selling points. Upstairs is Push Ultra Lounge, with a dance floor, DJ/performance space, VIP areas, an outdoor bar and a cool roof deck. Our server tells us that they brought in a DJ from Miami recently, and the line stretched down the block at 1:30 a.m. Eat at DeSanto and you get into Push for free, without fear of being turned away by the quality-control bouncers.

In the end, Illman has most of his ducks in a row — beautiful location and décor, largely capable staff, extremely reasonable prices and the nightclub. But if the kitchen can't live up to the promise of the menu, there's obviously still a lot of work to do.

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