Med masterpiece

Café DePaz is Dunedin dining done right.

click to enlarge MEZE MED: An assortment of dishes from Cafe DePaz's Mediterranean-inspired menu. - Shanna Gillette
Shanna Gillette
MEZE MED: An assortment of dishes from Cafe DePaz's Mediterranean-inspired menu.

There’s nothing new at Dunedin’s Café DePaz, which opened in October, but that’s what makes this restaurant refreshing. It takes a familiar style of eating and does it right.

Café DePaz’s atmosphere is reminiscent of The Living Room, which was housed in the same space until moving into Dunedin’s main downtown district about a year ago. DePaz's location is up the street from downtown, far enough away to be clear of the crowds but close enough that it doesn’t feel isolated, in a converted gas station and garage that still bears the bones of its past.

The interior is wide open and cozy, with a long bar along one side, high tables and enveloping booths, lively and loud with energy that’s more invigorating than distracting. Rich woods and low lighting keep everything under control and elegantly casual, creating an aura more of house party than sit-down restaurant. Outside, a semi-enclosed patio makes for fine al fresco dining, albeit without the vibrancy of the interior.

As welcoming as Café DePaz is, the food is really the draw. Chef/co-owner David DePaz has created a menu in the small plate/tapas mode, accented by brick-oven pizzas and a few hearty entrees. The ingredients and creations are drawn almost entirely from the Mediterranean basin, from Morocco to Spain, Italy to Greece. And once you taste it, you realize he knows his stuff.

Start with DePaz’s platters, like the simple but impeccably composed selection of French cheeses paired with sweet figs, juicy grapes and vivid scarlet pomegranate seeds, or an equally standard array of salumi alongside fennel, asparagus and artichokes striped with grill marks, adding a smoky note to the dried meat.

The focaccia is crisp and rich with fruity olive oil, and comes topped with grilled chicken, tomatoes, mint and tahini — bright and light and eminently satisfying — or another with all the fixin’s you’d find in a gyro, albeit of much higher quality. Some of the most unique and filling of the small plates are stuffed pastries called “bourekas” — Israeli treats consisting of flaky puff pastry surrounding seriously seasoned beef redolent of cumin, or feta and spinach. Think high-end Jamaican beef pockets or elevated spanakopita.

DePaz’s pizzas are more of a mixed lot, from an overloaded meat-lover version to an astounding funghi pie topped with just the right amount of beautiful roasted mushrooms and rich Fontina cheese. One of the best pizzas combines ingredients that seem to exemplify the Med theme, with eggplant, artichokes, crisp fried capers, fragrant preserved lemon, creamy feta and a scattering of olives, tied together with excellent olive oil into a sea-spanning summation of the restaurant’s culinary philosophy. It’s tasty, too.

Like many restaurants that concentrate on small plates, DePaz’s entrees seem almost an afterthought, thrown in for diners unwilling to commit to the cause. A filet is cooked right, but under-seasoned, with a potato gratin that’s near raw in parts. Pasta stained black with squid ink and tossed with garlic, clams and tomatoes is similarly unexciting. Admittedly, that’s mostly in comparison to the otherwise exciting and engaging menu.

Those entrees also don’t engage as well with another thing that DePaz does well — drinks. The basics are done right, with martinis coming in under $10, a small but decent selection of beer, and a wine list that’s expansive and surprisingly inexpensive. The specialty drinks, however, can be a thrill. Brandy, muddled with lime, basil and strawberries, is the restaurant’s version of a Med caipirinha; fresh orange juice and Prosecco add an amazing jolt to gin; and lemon and lime juices combined with tequila and a splash of beer is much better than you might think.

And those drinks show better than anything else why Café DePaz is one of the best places to grab a bite in Dunedin — it’s a fun place to be. The food may not be unusual, but it’s executed well and perfect for sharing over a quick drink and conversation or a long group get-together. Everyone’s reaching for the next tidbit, entering each other’s space, making the meal a part of the interaction.

DePaz’s energy makes you feel like you’re part of something, with the edge-of-downtown location keeping your focus more on being inside than wondering what’s out the windows. And keep the drinks coming, whether you’re sitting down to dinner or hanging at the bar.

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