One day Greg Anastasas and Tom Golden were playing pool at the earthy Tiny Tap Tavern in Hyde Park and contemplating the fate of Golden's gourmet restaurant — the critically acclaimed but financially struggling Blue Gardenia on Platt Street in Tampa. They were trying to figure out how to attract a bigger crowd.
They knew there was a way to do it while remaining true to quality fare, but how? That's when they hit upon a new formula that appears to have put them back in the game with a vengeance: A gourmet restaurant with nine fancy mahogany pool tables, video games and 13 TVs tuned to the NFL.
Anastasas is Golden's business partner in the new enterprise, renamed The Rack. It opened with an attitude in October, its fare still top-notch, but the place now sports dartboards and multiple bars. Though it continues to attract gourmands, they have been joined by a whole new clientele — a vibrant, young crowd that emits a palpable field of restless energy.
Start on the restaurant's little front patio, its homely view of Platt Street fouled by car fumes. I propped my size 10 dogs up on the blue chairs and threw back a few drinks. Then I tried primo, slow-roasted pork ribs sided with crispy onion rings (1/2 slab, $7.99; whole slab, $14.99). I loved the sushi, a California roll ($4.25) stuffed with crab, crunchy cucumber and avocado, rolled in rice and finished with black and white sesame seeds.
Oh, yes, the new menu stoops to junk food bait: Under the label "baskets of fried stuff," you'll find so-so french fries ($3.50), cheddar fries ($4.50) and breaded mushrooms ($5.50) for customers looking for bar food. Still, there are plenty of highbrow edibles, in the form of salads, classic grouper sandwich (market price, $7.25 one night recently) slathered with pink rémoulade sauce and steamed mussels with crostini ($7.50).
Seven 17 SouthIn the last few years, the glam SoHo building where Seven 17 South is located has changed hands more often than Joan Rivers has had her face lifted, but maybe this time, it'll stick. Certainly, the restaurant puts out some of the finest fare in the city, unanimously honored by critics, among Florida Trend magazine's "20 Best New Restaurants," and attracting a sophisticated crowd of discerning diners.
Oh, we could go on about the spellbinding interior with stark blue accents and shiny wood, its 120-item wine list or the see-and-be-seen bar that provides an alluring setting for a sultry date; but the crux really resides in its excellent fare.
The menu features two very different cuisines, Italian and Pacific Rim. That means you can tour The Boot via an eggplant appetizer ($5) stuffed with ricotta, fontina, mozzarella and parma proscuitto in rosé tomato sauce; followed by a tender, homemade fettuccine with dill, caper aioli and grilled salmon ($18); or an accomplished veal scaloppine ($21). Across the table, your dinner companion can take the South Sea Route with a tempura prawn martini ($8), Szechwan chicken drizzled with peanut sauce and served with shiitake mushrooms and bok choy, followed with a few sips of hot sake ($7).
Either way, leave room for an All-American finish — apple pie á la mode ($7). It was so awesome — it reminded me of all the years I picked apples from my grandmother's trees for her handmade pies. When it emerged from the oven, the fruit had baked down to an elemental layer of melted, cinnamon-infused filling, crowned by a flaky, golden crust.
St. Bart's Island HouseFor years, Le Bordeaux was one of the few decent French restaurants in the bay area, but recently it had begun to fade. Owner Gordon Davis renovated and recently reopened it as St. Bart's Island House spotlighting French Caribbean fare.
The food is light, flavored with tropical fruit and rum, fulsome with seafood, its flavors drawn from nuevo Latin and classic French cuisine.
I started with a delicious hot appetizer, escargot St. Martine ($6.95), fat snails with onion, spinach, goat cheese and tomato concassé baked between thatches of phyllo dough. One night, my dinner companion got a spiffy mushroom and onion tart ($4.50), its crisp pastry redolent of butter.
Another night, we enjoyed the papaya, avocado and heart of palm salad ($6.50), which came with a healthy assortment of dense greens and a shower of light Dijon vinaigrette. We also were pleased with the house salad that accompanies each entrée; greens interspersed with fresh orange.
Crispy glazed duck with orange tamarind ($17.95) was less successful because the meat was limp, the sauce sparse and its accompanying cashew rice mushy and bland; but another entrée, crab-crusted snapper fillet ($17.95) served with boniato, white sweet potatoes, was nicely done.
The desserts were also inconsistent. Crêpes Suzette ($7.95) needed some work, its pancakes were too thick and too much liqueur obscured the sauce's delicate citrus flavor. The banana creme brulée ($4.95) was better, its topping a solid layer of rich brown burnt sugar.
Congratulations are in order to St. Bart's chef, Jon Eric Kern, who on May 13 took top honors during La Maison Gourmet's annual "Best Chef of Tampa Bay" contest, benefiting the Ronald McDonald House.