One Cool Café

The uber-hip Café Alma proves hard to pass up

click to enlarge IN THE RAW: Caf Alma's steak tartare doesn't disappoint. - LISA MAURIELLO
IN THE RAW: Caf Alma's steak tartare doesn't disappoint.

I am not going to run on about Café Alma's famous Saturday brunch. The creamy French toast, blue crab eggs benedict and the fresh corn cakes are really not on my agenda. Nor is the fantastic spread of ingredients out on the Bloody Mary bar, with enough horseradish to wake up a sleepy town and enough garnish to take the place of breakfast. It's a damn good brunch. But what about the rest of the week?

It's also not my mission here to detail how Café Alma is extremely cool. The restaurant stays up late, turning into a DJ-driven dance club after 10 p.m., and serving food until 1 a.m., which provides valuable sustenance in a Bay area bereft of late-night dining. Did I mention it has free wireless Internet access? In a fancy restaurant? How cool is that?

No matter how hip an experience Café Alma is, no matter how many neat things it offers, the place is still a restaurant. It has to serve food and it has to be good. With the departure of chef Christian Briner about six months ago (he moved over to cook with Tyson Grant at O' Bistro around the corner), it seemed a good time to push past Café Alma's bells and whistles and take a good look at what is on the plate.

Getting to those plates is pretty cool, too. You have to descend a flight of steps from the sidewalk to get to Café Alma, and the first thing you see is the enticing brick patio, isolated from the street but with an urban feel that makes you forget you're still in St. Pete. Brick walls and wooden beams outline the interior.

Once I paged through the binder filled with lunch and brunch menus, I found that the dinner fare is more subdued than when the eatery opened about a year and a half ago. The Mediterranean influence (with a north African bent) is still evident, but the menu reads more and more like typical eclectic American than anything with a specific theme. There were still interesting notes - pomegranate molasses, apricot-chili compote, pistachio & carrot curry - but the menu (and the food, it turns out) was a little boring compared to the rest of what Café Alma does.

The best example of this was the blue crab and avocado napoleon ($12.50), a giant cylinder composed of three layers. At the top were tiny cubes of raw tuna marinated in a mustardy vinaigrette. The middle was a thick layer of cubed and crushed ripe avocado, like guacamole, but without any discernable seasoning or acidity to bring some flavor out of the featureless green richness. At the bottom were large lumps of sweet blue crab, sadly as unseasoned and insipid as the avocado. The napoleon was so minimally prepared, there was nothing to help the stellar ingredients express flavor. It was a tower of bland.

There were other missteps. A ribeye ($19) was devoid of sear; a few meager grill lines marked the gray flesh, and were accompanied by a dark sauce that resembled a demi-glace but tasted like nothing but a bit of caramelized nothing. Café Alma's take on a Caesar salad ($6) was filled with chunks of pungent blue cheese, which completely overpowered the parmigiano-laced dressing. Why even call this a Caesar? What did the Caesar ever do to you?

Café Alma can do the classics, though, as shown in the excellent steak tartare ($8.50). The coarsely ground raw beef was exceptionally tender, well seasoned, and laced with spicy peppers to give it some kick. A small touch of mustard aioli made it perfect.

The duck breast and crispy duck confit ($22), although not perfect, was damn good. Dark and sweet pomegranate molasses and a bit of tarragon tied the flavor of chunks of luscious duck confit to the medium-rare slices of seared breast meat. The confit wasn't crispy, but I didn't care. Another favorite was the lamb meatballs ($8) - dense, filled with subtly sweet spices that matched the gamey meatiness well, sitting on a puddle of bright basil and marinara. The whole dish was encased in a parmigiano crisp that was devoured before the meatballs.

Besides these few dishes, though, there wasn't much to light a fire in the belly. A snapper special ($24) was slightly overcooked, the flesh seasoned with chili powder and accompanied by a typical fruit salsa. Jumbo sea scallops ($10) were cooked well but drizzled with a featureless buttery pan sauce. Typical nutmeg-y poached pears and a big dab of goat cheese added slight interest to a spinach salad ($6) dressed with a flat berry vinaigrette. These dishes weren't bad, but average isn't really the goal, is it?

Chef Briner's replacement, Scott Stone, has been at Café Alma from the beginning, serving as sous chef before stepping up to take the reins. There is a lot of potential to this food, but a lot of the culinary excitement exhibited by the restaurant a year ago seems to have receded.

Café Alma is like a Hollywood triple threat: dancer, singer, actor. Part club, part bar, part late night nosh pit, it does more in a week than three other restaurants. The heart of the place is still the food, though, and the exciting experimental Med cuisine that used to wow us has become a bit overworked and tired. Still, even with food that doesn't always live up to its potential, Café Alma is hard to pass up.

Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. He can be reached at [email protected]. Planet food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.

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