Harboring Contentment: Eric's New World Bistro

click to enlarge REGULARS: Eric's diners Hal and Stacy Colbassani - are served a black sesame-crusted salmon with a - cucumber wasabi sauce, bistro tomato salad and a - chocolate  truffle tart. - Sean Deren
Sean Deren
REGULARS: Eric's diners Hal and Stacy Colbassani are served a black sesame-crusted salmon with a cucumber wasabi sauce, bistro tomato salad and a chocolate truffle tart.

Driving recently through a summer storm with wind gusts of 60 mph, fiery daggers of lightning and horizontal rain, I began to look for a building that would provide the best protection from the elements.

Gas station: small roof apt to fly away.

Wal-Mart: For shelter OK, but lacks aesthetics.

Drainage ditch: Good only if you don't mind getting close-up and personal with a gator.

Convenience store: Front glass windows blow out immediately — prefer Dermabrasion performed by a licensed physician.

Then I remembered the solid, 1880s-era bank building that sits along the historic, one-block downtown of Palm Harbor, where I had dined the night before at Eric's New World Bistro. More than a century of wind, blazing sun and hurricane-force winds had left nary a scratch on it. Its fortress-like demeanor has clearly matched Mother Nature tit for tat.

Plus, while weathering a storm inside the indestructible old building, you could feast like a queen upon the bistro's inspired concoctions, drawn from a blend of Caribbean, Southwestern, Asian, French and Mediterranean sources. And go thoroughly blotto quaffing its stiff, James Bond 007 martinis ($7) while the blowout raged ineffectually outside ... a perfect solution to subtropical disturbances.

You could even go there in good weather, just to map out your hurricane emergency route, of course, and while you're there, do try Chef Eric Webber's fabulous boneless chicken wing appetizer with strawberry-jalapeño sauce ($6.75).

Just for safety's sake, you could sit at the substantial bar, still cordoned off by what years ago was the tellers' cage (incidentally providing added protection against flying objects) and devour yet another delightful appetizer, a portobello mushroom sporting a bikini fringe of fresh crab meat, lounging like a porn star in a sunny Gorgonzola cream sauce ($8.50).

Don't wait for the sirens to go off to visit this excellent restaurant. You could even go in perfect weather — the imaginative fare, unique setting and careful service are the only excuses you'll need.

The old building still proudly carries the emblems of its past: A wooden sidewalk like you might see on a Hollywood set filming a western, covered by a deep roofed porch and scattered with stolid, wooden rocking chairs.

As you enter the old-fashioned, double doors, you see the original, stamped tin ceiling tiles, along with bevel-framed, wooden windows, 6 feet high, carved fireplace mantel and plenty of marble and beadboard. This building was built to last.

Roomy booths line the front windows, and tables march toward the back. There are Tiffany-style lamps in bright colors, big brass chandeliers and framed mirrors that give the restaurant its Victorian feel.

One night we were there, a live guitarist played soft jazz while we dined.

We started with the aforementioned appetizers, along with a bowl of lobster bisque ($6), flecked with small bits of lobster meat and satiny with cream and sherry. Certainly not bad, but it needed a more assertive broth — probably the weakest of all the dishes we ordered.

My companion ordered the Caesar salad, with Asiago cheese and herbed croutons ($6), a verdant mound of greens cheered with cheese and lightly dressed with a simple vinaigrette. More than respectable.

Another night, I tried a dinner salad ($10.75), a big bowl of watercress with five meaty grilled shrimp peeking out, bits of mango, coconut and strips of jicama. It proved satisfying, with its unusual mix of seafood and fruity flavors, contrasting textures and tangy papaya vinaigrette dressing — light, but memorably delectable.

We also enjoyed the island-grilled pork filet, wrapped in bacon and slathered with papaya habañero marmalade ($16). The pork, a lean coin of meat, cooked exactly to medium rare, sat upon a golden pool of sweet potato mash. An artistically wilted bouquet of spinach accompanied the meat, which, though low in fat, was not too dry from roasting. Its sauce served as a spicy/sweet counterpoint.

We loved the crusty white oval dinner rolls — Spitzweck dinner rolls, handmade in Germany — flash-frozen and flown in, then thawed and heated. We swathed them with herbed butter, though the first night we were there, we missed the bread course altogether. Whether the waiter just forgot the bread, or whether the restaurant had run out of it, we don't know. But overall, service was prompt, friendly, reasonably speedy and consistent, with very few errors during our two visits.

Maybe because the decor at Eric's beams diners into another, slower era, we lingered over each course, and didn't care to budge from the comfort of our booth. We watched people sitting at the bar, and the buzz of their conversation and their occasional outbursts of laughter lent a lively subtext to our meal.

For dessert, we ordered a lavish Key lime pie ($5), its sheer filling sweet, but deepened with the tart bite of lime, its buttery Graham-cracker crust clearly handmade. It carried a topknot of real whipped cream, infused with shredded coconut. Only one slight misstep: The crust had lost its crunch to the humidity.

Another fine dessert was the chocolate truffle tart, white chocolate mousse and blackberry coulis ($6.50). The mousse was so vibrant its taste resembled Godiva bon-bons. The inclusion of the fruit coulis made for a surprisingly good pairing, and lovely to the eye, as the sauce was the same color as a shiny blackbird's wing.

Two fascinating, relaxing meals in a row sure got my attention. And if the weather takes a turn for the worse, I'll certainly be looking forward to a quick drive up the high road to Palm Harbor for dining choices as solid as the old bank building itself.

Contact food critic Sara Kennedy at [email protected] or call 813-248-8888, ext. 116.

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