Green Springs Eternal

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click to enlarge GREEN SCENE: The recently opened Green Springs Cafe and Gathering - Place is the  embodiment of the cozy, neighborhood cafe - Sean Deren
Sean Deren
GREEN SCENE: The recently opened Green Springs Cafe and Gathering Place is the embodiment of the cozy, neighborhood cafe

I'm rarely speechless, except when people ask, "What's your favorite restaurant?" How can I rifle through my memory, a mosaic made up of thousands of marvelous meals eaten at places all over the map, and pick one restaurant? It's impossible. But if someone would ask me, "What's your favorite kind of restaurant?" I could answer instantly. My restaurant of choice is a good neighborhood bistro.

Bistro is a word that was much overused in that defunct decade known as the '90s. I knew I'd heard its death knell as a functional label when I saw one of the worst restaurants I'd ever eaten at, a place so bad even the cockroaches were dying of food poisoning, replace the "Cafe" in its name with "Bistro." But I use the word now in its original European sense. A bistro's raison d'etre is to give the locals a place to come, often several times a week, to sit with a glass of wine, chat with the neighbors, hear a local musician and enjoy affordable, home-cooked meals. Let me clarify: that's "home-cooked meals" in the French sense, as in cassoulet or coq au vin, not in the American sense, as in Hamburger Helper.

There are no bistros in my neighborhood. If, in the quiet of the evening after a hard day, my man and I join hands and stroll down to the corner, all we will find to dine on is Slim Jims and Super Gulps. Perhaps that's why I'm so charmed by true bistros, like The Green Springs Cafe & Gathering Place in Safety Harbor. It's the embodiment of the charming cafe I long for in my own neighborhood.

Green Springs Cafe opened recently, just off the quiet Main Street of Safety Harbor, in an old wooden house that's as cozy as a bird's nest. A tiny outside porch is draped with swags of white holiday lights, illuminating the local musicians who play there. A brick patio with two or three tables is inviting on a cool spring night. As I climb the three concrete steps to the front door, I see someone has written "joy" on them, in rainbow colored chalks. When I leave, "joy" has faded away, and been replaced, most aptly, by "pleasure."

Inside, hardwood floors gleam in the soft light of dusk, just enough light to see the vibrant silk scarves draped over a pole, the exotic jewelry filling a tiny glass cabinet, and the whimsically hand-painted tables and chairs, each one unique. Everything that meets the eye is a celebration of the joyful spirit of local artists. That spirit of joyful creation tumbles over onto the menu as well. Green Springs is the creation of Kris Kubik and her husband Paul Kapsalis, a CIA trained chef (that's Culinary Institute of America, not Central Intelligence Agency). Working in the most rudimentary kitchen, he draws on his family as well as his culinary background to create his dishes. The menu, a short selection of appetizers and entrees, offers limited choices but unlimited pleasure.

Start with saganaki to savor an authentic Greek treat rarely found outside the deepest reaches of Tarpon Springs. A large slice of briny kefalograveria cheese is heated till it's molten, splashed with olive oil and a squeeze of fresh lemon and brought to your table, spitting and sizzling, to smear on chunks of brown bread ($6.25). Or go for Harold's 'shroom, a flavorful dish of portobello mushroom roasted with red peppers, fresh oregano, calamata olives, garlic and goat cheese ($7.75).

Main courses change frequently, but at the moment you can choose among seven deeply delicious dishes, like spicy shrimp and scallops, pan-seared, plated with spinach and sun-dried tomato ravioli, than swathed with a spicy garlic tomato sauce ($16). Or try vegetarian lasagna layered with spinach, roasted portobellos and imported feta cheese and served with a roasted tomato sauce ($12.75).

My favorite dishes on the current menu are the salmon and lobster sack, and the lamb "porterhouses." In a method called "en papillote," a paper sack is layered with thick slices of white potato, a large filet of fresh, firm Pacific salmon, asparagus and spinach, all bathed in a luscious lobster sauce ($16.75). Lamb "porterhouses" is a generous portion of rich, tender lamb, pan-roasted with an aromatic port wine reduction and served with wilted greens ($18.75). This rates "yum!"

Equally good choices are the roasted, de-boned chicken stuffed with a savory sausage dressing and served with a citrus mustard cream sauce ($15.25) and the big bowl of rustic, spicy gumbo, made with a deep, dark roux and loaded with chunks of juicy chicken, spicy andouille sausage and rough-cut vegetables like okra, all ladled over a big bowl of rice and served with crusty bread. It's a flavorful, filling meal for $11.25.

The brief wine list won't win any awards from the Wine Examiner, but normal folk will do just fine with the few well-chosen bottles (from $14 to $35) or with a pitcher of zesty homemade sangria ($10.50) to share around the table. Desserts are also worth sharing — if only so you can taste them all. Don't light a match, or the 1000-proof rum cake might prove deadly as well as delicious!

Festival for Fausto It was a sad day when cancer stilled the operatic voice of Fausto Chiappinelli, Clearwater's Singing Chef. Now, people who remember the man with the big voice and bigger heart are invited to attend a two-day tribute and fundraiser to benefit the American Cancer Society at Royalty Theatre, 405 Cleveland St., Clearwater. The first opera performance takes place 7-9 p.m. Friday, March 30, and 3 p.m. Saturday, March 31. Features professional tenors performing various arias. Afterward, the late chef/performer's wife, Loretta, invites you to dine next door at Cafe Concerto. Call the Royalty Theater at 727-441-8868 for cost and schedule information.

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