After the shock and the numbing sight of people and buildings in flames following the World Trade Center attacks, I was not the only one who sought solace in the familiar pleasure of friends gathered around a table and the reassuring rituals of dining. My solution to the melancholia was a straight shot up West Shore Boulevard and into the glistening new buildings of Tampa's $200-million International Plaza. I, along with thousands of other people, jammed into the sleek concourses and chic stores, fingering the merchandise, checking out the comfy chairs, trying collectively to reassert some semblance of normality.
Parties marking the openings of what will eventually be 18 restaurants set among the shopping center's 200 stores were canceled or postponed, but restaurateurs are a determined lot, and most opened as scheduled — and were immediately mobbed by huge crowds. It was at a restaurant named Profusion — every bit the culinary bouquet its name implies — that I chose to try and replenish my senses.
If it's escape you're seeking, this is the ticket. The roomy, 12,000-square-foot restaurant, which seats 250, is one of two operated by its owners in the U.S. It sits on the west side of the mall, equipped with drive-up valet service and a classy front entrance. Its gorgeous double dining rooms — one so spare with shiny wood and bright reds, the other carpeted and carrying a more restrained sand color — are cleanly modern.
On our first visit, we arrived with longtime friends we had not seen for a while, and wished we had set aside time for a detour through the dusky bar adjacent to the lobby. Its centerpiece is a curvy counter snaking a path front to back, lighted with little designer lamps that cast muted spotlights on drinkers' hands.
The hostess led us to a dining room with lipstick-red walls and a casually elegant crowd, buzzing with chatter and the nonchalant clatter of china and silver. The room included a mix of tables and banquettes, and it was fun to gaze directly into the open kitchen where the chefs were frantically working. Though a glass wall mercifully protects patrons from spatters and some of the more unappetizing necessities of food preparation.
Our waiter arrived immediately, but alas, it was a busy Saturday night, and food and drinks eluded us for nearly an hour. I had to change my drink order after the rushed server confessed that the bar could not yet prepare a piña colada. Still, once the bar delivered, its goods proved to be potent: My martini-tester friend, who has been sampling all over the Bay area, rated Profusion one of the best, even though the olives arrived a few minutes after the drink ($6.95) — and in a bowl, with no implement to spear them.
It was a slip typical of a restaurant that has been open only a couple of weeks, especially one that is still undergoing final construction, such as the installation of permanent light fixtures. Service tends to be erratic or slow; the staff is still learning where everything is and who solves the problems. No big deal: Our foursome, though we behaved like desert refugees once the drinks began to arrive, needed a little time to relax and catch up on each other's news.
The restaurant's wine list has only 100 selections now, but its general manager said it will eventually include 700-800 choices. The restaurant is still completing its "wine cellar in the sky" — patrons will be able to view the wine bottles from a lovely staircase leading to the second floor.
The real test, though, is in the quality of the food the kitchen produces, which Profusion passed with ease. On the eclectic menu is a nice assortment of fusion-inspired dishes, like the sushi selection ($16.88); General Tao's Chicken with sun-dried chilies and ginger ($13.88); and three-mushroom risotto with lemon and parsley sauce ($11.88).
The best appetizer was the hunan dumpling, chicken and pork couched in a delicate noodle wrapper and bathed in a spicy sesame and peanut sauce that was absolutely addictive ($5.88). Profusion does a nice version of Szechwan hot and sour soup ($3.88) and light eaters should enjoy the Vietnamese seafood rice noodle soup ($12.88) which could double as a meal in itself.
During the first visit, the seared five-spice duck breast ($17.88) with sweet potato puree and spiced orange plum sauce was overcooked on one side and undercooked on the other, but it was still good, and I ate it, anyway; on another day when the restaurant was virtually empty, the kitchen produced a nearly perfect version, tender meat splashed with tangy sauce. Others in my party ordered sauteed black pepper chicken with an unusual crispy spinach border ($14.88) — very good; and the seared salmon ($16.88) — simple, but done just right.
Desserts included a delicate creme brulee; a fancy cake dish with ice cream and vodka-flavored apples; and a fruit plate, an assortment of fresh fruit sitting in a puddle of creme Anglais ($5.88). Just sweet enough, and calorie counters will feel full at the end — and truly virtuous.
Chocoholics' Eponymous. Those of us who are not so virtuous are counting days until the opening of Neuhaus Chocolatiers, slated for about Oct. 15 at International Plaza. Neuhaus has a reputation as one of the world's finest producers of chocolates. Its fabulous products are created from the finest ingredients, layers of chocolate and fillings sandwiched together in each complex piece. In May, its products were awarded the "royal crest" from the king and queen of Belgium, signifying the company is honored purveyor of chocolates to the Belgian royal court. Tampa will be home to its only company store in the southeast U.S., a 1000-square-foot shop.
In the meantime, chocoholics are lucky to have a hefty new 1,000-square-foot Godiva Chocolatier Inc. store at the plaza, showcasing delicate shell-shaped candies, chocolate "starfish" harboring raspberry filling and all manner of decadent sweets made with high-quality chocolate. And we also can stop by the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, which makes a festive array of chocolates, handmade fudge in a half-dozen flavors, cookies and huge fresh apples dripped with caramel and chocolate, with toppings like marshmallows and nuts.
If that isn't taste-bud blasting escapism, what is? .