Ovo Rated

Ovo Cafe still manages to please. But it could do better. Much better.

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click to enlarge CHOP CHOP: Ovo General Manager Brandon - Bergman presents the california chopped salad and - smoked mozzarella pasta pillows, two of Ovo's most - delicious and popular items. - Sean Deren
Sean Deren
CHOP CHOP: Ovo General Manager Brandon Bergman presents the california chopped salad and smoked mozzarella pasta pillows, two of Ovo's most delicious and popular items.

When Ovo Cafe opened in Ybor City, it was one of the first to offer New American Cuisine in a casual setting that siphoned a streetwise glamour from its grimy, unapologetically urban locale. That was more than a decade ago, and owner Marcie Hoffman Porges was a Tampa artist whose instincts were ahead of the curve. Her Seventh Avenue restaurant prospered as Ybor City became a hot destination.In 1997, she was again at the head of the pack when she opened a sister Ovo across the bay, among the first of a bevy of smart, sophisticated venues in suddenly redeveloping St. Pete. Once again, the area almost immediately confounded naysayers by blossoming into a vibrant, spirited downtown, complete with all the amenities.

A third, well-timed entry opened in 2000 in Sarasota.

But maybe good timing is not enough. Sadly, the first, ground-breaking Ybor City restaurant closed recently. And I was surprised to find that, even though the St. Pete restaurant is busy with the youngish, hard-charging business set that has invigorated the city with its considerable talent, the quality of the restaurant's fare and service in recent visits was uneven. Ovo lacked its previous cutting-edge flair, and a couple of the dishes were so flawed, we didn't want to eat them.

Oh, I guess if you toss down enough of the restaurant's primo martinis — everything from one flavored with Godiva white chocolate liqueur ($7.95) to one floating a spicy pepperoncini ($7.95) — the food might seem irrelevant. With an unusually attractive bar that even shelters a few intimate tables in case you're trysting, it's an awesome place to hang. But once we got past the drinks, my meals suffered from noticeable culinary errors that top restaurants would not tolerate.

For instance, we started one day with a Costa Rican quesadilla ($8.50), its filling gooey with shrimp, crab, scallops, spinach and mozzarella, wrapped in a baked, soft tortilla; but its edges were so badly burned, they were black. Another day, we tried a 10-inch, "white bar-b-que pizza" ($8.95, lunch/$9.95, dinner), a steamy layer of mozzarella and smoked Gouda cheese studded with healthy chunks of white-meat chicken and nicely flavored with caramelized red onion, barbecue sauce and fresh thyme; but the crust had all the crackle of a soggy dishrag.

For years, I enjoyed Ovo's salads, which were typically lively and original, but this time I left its Chinese chicken salad ($7.95) practically untouched on the plate. The salad greens were hacked to shreds with a knife, so they resembled slaw, and the accompanying chicken and Mandarin orange slices were so minimal as to barely be there. The dish also needed a crunchier topping.

A plate of "Kiss Me" sourdough rolls ($2) trailed a garlicky, hot cloud, and sat in a generously fattening dipping pool of herb butter, but again, they were marred by a slight burn across the buxom top of the buns, which reminded me of the way men look with a one-day-old growth of beard.

We got one so-so dessert: a Cuban coffee cheesecake ($4.95), chocolate and Cuban coffee matched with creamy filling and set with real coffee beans on top. And we got one really good dessert: "The Cable Car" ($4.95), premium chocolate ice cream served in a coupette (a footed glass dish), wearing fat blackberries on top and freshened with mint leaves. Disappointingly, the café con leche ($1.95) that arrived with it was thin rendition of the real thing.

Oh, there were some redeeming standouts, like a cup of tomato-mushroom bisque ($3.50 cup/ $6.25 bowl), served in a crystal sherbet glass, smoothly delectable. Its sprightly broth posed a culinary question and its fresh basil seasoning provided an amicable rejoinder. Then there were the lip-smackin', chicken mushroom pierogies ($7.95), stuffed Polish noodle dumplings served with white meat chicken, baby garden peas, sweet red bell peppers and mushroom sauce.

And we liked the herbed pasta pillows ($9.95), stuffed with a ricotta blend, glazed with garlic virgin olive oil and herbed rosemary and thyme. Their bright and tangy tomatoey accents left a sharp memory in the mouth.

The restaurant's homemade, fruity cold tea — crystal clear and clinking with ice as its sat in a big, clean glass — sure did hit the spot after all that pasta. Sometimes, your thirst slips up on you, and a dram of something cool and tingly tastes just right as it washes over your tongue, a restorative torrent.

During our first visit, the service was noticeably slow and disjointed. The waitress seemed to forget us for long periods, and then, in a flurry of activity, suddenly find us again. The second visit was better, featuring a calm, friendly server so briskly efficient that we were in and out in less than 45 minutes.

After you eat, it's fun to stroll up leafy Central Avenue past the antique and consignment stores, their unusual wares set out in the sun — stuff like dusty, terrible paintings and weird, saucer-shaped coffee tables from the 1950s.

Nearby, Tropicana Field's white, skewed top is perched like a gigantic mushroom overlooking Central Avenue.

As you walk, you'll encounter several restaurants that resemble in spirit and style the Ovo Cafe, imitators that comprise a healthy assortment of new businesses gracing St. Pete. They reflect the robust atmosphere of a downtown district that has finally, despite all the nasty jokes about heaven's waiting room and a long curse involving green park benches, awakened from its blight to glimpse a bustling future.

Contact food critic Sara Kennedy at [email protected] or call 813-248-8888, ext. 116.

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