Global influence

Tampa gets good fare with international flair at Sidebern's.

click to enlarge TANTALIZING TASTES: At $4.51 each, the dim sum is perfectly priced (and sized) for sampling. - Lisa Mauriello
Lisa Mauriello
TANTALIZING TASTES: At $4.51 each, the dim sum is perfectly priced (and sized) for sampling.

Sidebern's is Jeannie Pierola. The story of its success is the story of her rise — if not from complete obscurity, then from moderate local success to national recognition. You can chart it on your way to the restaurant's bathroom, in the framed magazine articles lining the small hall. She took the bastard offshoot of a stagnant and tired Bern's Steakhouse and turned it into one of the most lauded fine-dining joints in the Bay area.

Sidebern's began as an extension of Bern's successful dessert room, a little outpost to serve the throngs of modern folk who wanted a casual and quick taste of the beloved institution without entering its velvet-lined halls. It had wine — always the pride of Bern's — as well as desserts and some light fare. Then chef Pierola was brought on board.

Pierola has labeled her style of cuisine "one world under food." That's mostly marketing, but it does indicate that she seeks new flavors and foods from around the globe, pulling useful ingredients out for her menu. Often, the dishes at Sidebern's refuse to be pinned down to one, two or even three national influences. It's food that may seem normal for New York or Chicago, but for Tampa cuisine, it can be pretty revolutionary.

Sidebern's menu is mesmerizing, the descriptions loaded with dozens of adjectives describing a cornucopia of ingredients. Sometimes the food even lives up to the pomp, like a risotto ($16.91) where each grain of rice teeters on that razor's edge between creamy and crunchy, the gooey mass packed with plump, tender oysters that burst between your teeth, shreds of smoky bacon and long strands of bitter, wilted spinach. There is a lot of all of it, which means each bite is gifted with everything necessary for a raucous party thrown by Pierola's culinary engineers.

Not every plate is a lively bash, though. Tuna "evolution" ($12.91) is a menu staple — which means it's only altered occasionally, unlike the almost nightly re-imagining the rest of the menu goes through — and is positively restrained. Bright red sashimi coated in dark sesame oil, simple spring rolls and tuna tartare piled atop subtly spicy fresh kimchi share a large plate with a few restrained sauces. It's clean and spare.

Such calm dishes are a bit uncommon at Sidebern's. Most plates start to feel a little noisy after a while, as if the newest combinations of ingredients are more important than considered and composed dishes. Beautiful lamb chops ($36.91) crusted in spiced peanut and pepita are nestled against a large pile of grilled zucchini, charred kernels of sweet corn and diced tomatillo, dry roasted mushrooms and more. A large portion of luscious duck confit ($14.91) — at turns moist and crispy — is paired with a couple of sweet corn cakes and a corn-and-bean hash loaded with a half dozen other ingredients.

Both of these dishes highlight the Cuban ancestry and early culinary influences of Chef Pierola, whose self-taught cuisine usually veered toward Nuevo Latino in her first few ventures. At Sidebern's, that Latino influence is more prevalent than in most fine-dining establishments, although it's hard to call it a theme.

Chef Pierola is also known to be very demanding of her kitchen staff, but there are still a few hiccups. That lamb mentioned above came to the table lukewarm at best, as did one of our soups. A huge pork chop ($32.91) stuffed with chorizo and briny olives was cooked well past done (it was ordered medium), a three-inch-thick chunk of dry, tough flesh. The accompanying mashed plantains (they call it "fu fu") suffered from a surfeit of powerfully aromatic truffle oil, which also overwhelmed the sharp mustard and sweet port of the sauce puddled around the plate.

Then there were the dishes that seemed destined for mediocrity: fried avocado ($13.91) topped with bland lobster salad; "citrus chile" grouper ($32.91) that tasted solely of cumin; two soups that relied on the garnish piled in the center for all of their flavor. Nothing revolutionary there.

My favorite expression of Pierola's cuisine is the nightly dim sum menu ($4.51 each). Like the rest of the menu, the roster changes regularly, with 17 items perfectly sized for sampling. "Mojito" beef salad was more salad than beef, the tiny cubes of citrus-washed meat almost lost in mild pockets of lettuce and shredded vegetables. But others were more forceful. A stir-fry of calamari and Chinese sausage was almost too rustic for some at my table to eat, although others loved the spicy discs of fatty sausage and chewy squid.

Steamed veal dumplings were exceptionally delicate expressions of tender meat and paper-thin pasta, while medallions of fish and slices of potato were battered and fried in Asian fish and chips, each seasoned separately with the perfect amount of salt. Pork lumpia — essentially North African eggrolls — came wrapped in puffy fried dough speckled with grains of both salt and sugar, like a meaty, sweet and savory beignet. You can lose yourself in the little silver steamer trays the dim sum is served in.

These days, the bar area can be busier than the dining room, even spilling out past its boundaries on the weekends. (Here's a tip: Try not to get booked into the tables nearest the bar after 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. You might end up too close and personal with the outer layers of the cocktail crowd.)

Our server made that recommendation one night when we coaxed him into conversation. Bartenders and servers at Sidebern's walk the line between restrained and familiar, changing style based on cues from each table. In all cases, however, they are surprisingly knowledgeable about the menu, most of which changes every day.

And need I say anything about the wine list? Even though the selection is not nearly as extensive as its granddaddy's, Sidebern's wine is well-chosen, well-priced and perfectly served.

Desserts are made by Bern's corporate pastry chef, Jason Laukhaf — ours with mixed success. "Ode to Valrhona" ($10.91) was a quartet of chocolate expression, from a down-to-earth, gooey spudnut to ethereal blood orange chocolate fog. A deconstructed Milky Way ($9.91) was too precarious to eat with any grace, the layers so distinct there was almost no unity of flavor. Then there was a doughy brown butter beignet ($8.91) drowned in cloying sabayon broken only by a few tart berries. The milkshakes uniformly kicked ass, although $8 might seem a little steep.

In the end, Sidebern's is both more and less than what you might expect. Food that promises in print to be innovative — revolutionary even — occasionally is so. But only occasionally. With Chef Pierola now the culinary chief for all of Bern's — and new enterprises in the works for their SoHo empire — Sidebern's may be becoming just another cog in an admittedly delicious machine.

Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. He can be reached at [email protected]. Planet food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.

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