The space that's home to St. Pete Brasserie, on Central Avenue in downtown St. Petersburg, has been fraught with difficulties over the past couple years. It started when The Table — formerly a highly-regarded Sarasota restaurant — opened a second location there. The Table closed the same day it won CL's Best New Restaurant readers' poll award. Then a parade of owners and chefs tried to keep the new The Table open for another year and a half, in easily the worst economic environment for restaurants in decades.
Enter Andrew Wilkins, aka Wilko. Formerly of Mad Fish and Ceviche, Wilkins was brought in as a new managing partner by George and Linda Rahdert (restaurant partners and owners of the building). They knew they needed a change, and after throwing a whole bunch of ideas at the wall (and into the local press), they finally found one that stuck: an inexpensive French brasserie with classic Gallic comfort food, and a name — St. Pete Brasserie — that's slightly more descriptive than The Table.
"I had some deals working, but now that I have my own restaurant I wanted to do what I wanted to do, which was a brasserie-style restaurant," explained Wilko. "You can't have a foofy restaurant in St. Pete right now." He says that the Rahderts will likely phase out of restaurant ownership, excepting the high-quality organic beef George Rahdert supplies the restaurant from a ranch he owns north of Tampa.
If you've ever eaten at any of the humble neighborhood restaurants scattered in every town across France, St. Pete Brasserie's menu will be familiar. Onion soup, onion tart, salmon mousse. Cassoulet, confit and steak frites. Simple, hearty dishes, with that extra bit of elegance that's been lost from American comfort food. And, as promised, just about everything is under $15.
But don't think that means paltry portions. Plump, tender escargot, swimming in a broth that's dosed with a refreshingly light touch of garlic, are plentiful. Salmon mousse is a thick pink spread that conveys the soul of the fish across every rich schmear on planks of buttery crostini. And the Alsacien onion tart is a giant, with a flaky, flavorful crust adding crunch to every bite of creamy, cheesey onion filling. It's a gorgeous dish — almost a meal by itself for $7 — that epitomizes the homey fare that Wilkins is aiming for.
Let's give credit where it's due, though. St. Pete Brasserie's chef is J. Ward. He was in on the most recent version of The Table and has made the switch from the ceviches and short ribs of "Atlantic Rim" cuisine to the restaurant's new French inspiration with seeming ease.
You can see his competence and confidence in a simple filet of cod dressed with brown butter, the fish exceptionally tender, the sauce a subtle way to flavor the mild flesh. Halved brussels sprouts on the side get a dose of garlic and more brown butter, cooked a bit more crisp than I like but addictive regardless thanks to the flavor.
The Brasserie's steak frites is stripped down to the basics — just a thin slab of flank steak and thin, crisp fries. The meat is cooked spot on and seasoned just shy of perfect. Duck leg confit is tender and almost — but not quite — too salty, tempered by thick sections of braised cabbage seasoned with vinegar and a pile of rich mashed potatoes.
Besides the appetizers and entrees, St. Pete Brasserie offers a wide selection of sides, most drawn from the veggies and starches accompanying the entrees. Iconic dauphine potatoes are exceedingly rich and and gooey, exactly as they should be, while the ratatouille is loaded with intense and bright flavor. The only disappointment in the sides (and in the entire St. Pete Brasserie experience) is cassoulette, a smaller version of the cassoulet entree. It's a bit thin, with little of the intense meaty flavor that makes this bean stew a world-class dish during the colder months.
Although the new menu has been available for about a month now, vestiges of The Table still remain. The space still has the modern, black-dominated decor, which is pretty and generic enough to stick around for a long time. You'll still find a few popular dishes from the old menu on the new, including the tasty short-rib spring rolls and some ceviche cones. And the wine list is still more centered on the vast world of wines, instead of focused on picks that match the new cuisine.
Those are all minor issues in the resounding success that Wilkins has managed in a very short amount of time. He identified a goal — affordable French brasserie — and hit it dead on, giving St. Pete one of the most accomplished and inexpensive places to eat that downtown has seen in years.