New Florida Cuisine, Old Florida Setting

I planned to write about Perch, not shark, but this morning, while kayaking around Shell Island, I watched a 15-foot hammerhead butcher a tarpon mere yards from my tiny boat. I was in water so shallow it exposed half the beast, his freckled, sandy back, flailing tail and towering fin, as he spun and thrashed and tore the giant fish into three big gulps. It was both awful and awesome to see, and I felt excruciatingly small and vulnerable as I paddled, Roadrunner-fast, back to shore. So I know something, you see, of the chill that settles in your spine. When you share the water with something larger and hungrier than you — that's how independent restaurants in downtown St. Pete must feel about BayWalk.

But even in the looming shadow of BayWalk, downtown continues to develop into a destination for eclectic, upscale drinking and dining of a kind unseen in St. Pete since the glory days of the 1920s. Back then, moneyed folk flocked to this beautiful Bay area city, and luxury hotels like Ponce De Leon sprang up to accommodate them. Over the years, that hotel fell into disrepair. Even now, in restored condition, it houses only humble folk ... except in the restaurant. That has been fully restored as a grand space for sophisticated drinking and fine dining. The name is Perch and the place elicits wows with an eye-popping metal sculpture that overlooks the bar and a spacious verandah with views of park and bay.

Perch oozes aesthetics, from the cool, creamy walls and pale woods to tables set with fine china and pleasantly hefty silverware, even shellfish forks. Those tables are frequently set too with fine food, of a style called "New Florida cuisine" whose much-appreciated mission is showcasing indigenous ingredients from around Florida. Food is presented with as much artistry as the room itself, garnished with everything from translucent slices of tomato to cups spun from blue sugar. However, this is a cuisine still under construction (dishes and prices have changed several times and may again by the time you read this) and I sampled as many hits as misses.

Hits: the namesake lake perch, a meaty freshwater fish with mild flavor and good flake, glazed with Florida orange-blossom honey and served with polenta cakes ($17). It's classy cracker cuisine, fish and cornmeal dressed up for Sunday best, and a grand way of showing that Florida's indigenous flavors don't have to take a back seat to anyone. Another fine selection is bouillabaisse ($20) a big bowl of mildly spiced Creole broth rich with diced tomato, a clam, three mussels, tiny cocktail shrimp, bits of spiny lobster and grouper, garnished with a clever butterfly created from toast points and a batter-fried, head-on shrimp.

The kitchen welcomes you with an amuse bouche (amuse the mouth), one night a bite of Belgian endive stuffed with gorgonzola, walnuts, dried cranberries and a drizzle of fine olive oil, another night a wonton cracker topped with vinaigrette-dressed hearts of palm, a longtime staple among Florida's earliest residents. More Florida natives show up among the appetizers, where some of Perch's best work is to be found. Farm-raised conch ($9.50) whose tender meat doesn't need to be pounded into submission, is served in three snail-size cuts stuffed, escargot-style, into small shells and dressed with a Pernod-flavored butter sauce, to be plucked out onto crispy wonton points.

Another knockout appetizer is the salmon tartar ($6.95) cured with mild Indian spices and served atop a pumpkin Belgium waffle with a drizzle of orange blossom honey. It offers plenty of interplay between tastes and textures, along with the excitement of something we haven't seen a thousand times before. Or go for the seared scallops, served with a roasted red pepper ratatouille and a warm, spiced mango coulis ($7.95).

Sadly, misses were most apparent on entrees. Blue crab-stuffed spinach pasta crepes with lobster basil cream sauce ($17) went uneaten, the pasta too heavy, the sauce too gloppy, so heavy-handed with Parmesan it blocked out all other flavors. Overcooked pork porterhouses ($22.25) came out desert dry, without a hint of juice, served with three raw carrots and a pyramid of good wild rice cooked with dried fruits. Misleading menu descriptions are a major bugaboo. The bouillabaisse is described as an "enchilada," though no one could explain why, and pan-seared dolphin was described as "served with marsala-glazed, roasted vegetables and smoky, garlic mashed potatoes" but arrived with — the house must like these — wild rice and raw carrots. A crab and conch chowder ($3.50) was, like most of the sauces, quite thick and glutinous, and bore the unannounced flavor of Gorgonzola, which came as a rude surprise to my blue cheese-hating companion.

Service ranged from excellent to inept, but I saw serious efforts toward training, which makes me hopeful. My first server was well informed and made excellent suggestions from both the menu and a good wine list. (Try Banfi Principessa Gavi with mild fish for $28 a bottle.) He even kept the silverware replenished (Sir, I kneel to you.) At meal's end, he offered a beautiful dessert platter and suggested a lovely, understated mocha flan ($6). Good choice. Weeks later, another waiter apologized for not knowing which desserts were available. When I mention he might bring out the dessert tray, he said, "That's no good. Most of them are sold out." I ordered port, instead, and black coffee ($2) but waited in vain for a refill. Still, problems can be corrected, and Perch already shows plenty of reason for returning, not the least of which is an elan that escapes BayWalk and the pleasure of watching a good chef explore the potential of our long-neglected native cuisine.


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