Party on, Z Grille

The menu at St. Peterburg’s Z Grille continues to be a totally amazing, excellent discovery.

click to enlarge EGG-CELLENT: Z Grille’s notorious deviled eggs tested high on the noshability factor. - CHIP WEINER
EGG-CELLENT: Z Grille’s notorious deviled eggs tested high on the noshability factor.

Zack Gross, the “Z” in Z Grille, has a reputation for having an attitude. And all I can say is, “Thank goodness.” It permeates the décor gracing the walls of his restaurant and, more importantly, the audacious flavors that shape every dish coming out of his kitchen.

It's clear as soon as you cross the threshold into the sleekly designed space that this restaurant is not about Mom and apple pie. The molded white wraparound plastic swivel chairs scream Mid-Century Modern, and the ceiling curves like an inverted skate park ramp, ultimately bending again at the floor to create a bench as it tucks under one of the brushed stainless steel tables. When the canvases on the walls are skateboards and the iconography is skull-laden, you know the food’s flavor profile won’t be demure either.

As you peruse the menu’s edgy new American cuisine, you can’t do better than to land on the Best of the Bay-winning slider, the gluttonous gordita. The toasted brioche bun with a luscious slab of crisp pork belly, sweet and spicy orange jalapeño jam, and creamy La Belle Farm foie gras is topped off with a fried quail egg dripping yolk. It’s the Mount Everest of appetizers.

Two other taste-laden stalwarts among the starters are the Dr Pepper fried ribs and Dirty D’s deviled eggs. The fall-off-the-bone tender baby back ribs come, wisely, with a moist towelette. This gives you permission to use whatever means possible to be sure that not a single drop of Chef Zack’s magical rib elixir is left behind. The thick and gooey sauce that coats the meat is sweet with Dr P and spicy from Thai chili, ginger and garlic. The crunchy sesame slaw is a colorful accompaniment that nicely balances all the flavors.

Z’s deviled eggs always come in a trio of bold choices. The California egg is so popular that the recipe is featured on the website as part of the chef’s blog. Its creamy avocado-lime-cilantro blend gains memorable dimension through red onion, cumin and Serrano pepper with a tiny bacon garnish. These are eggs to savor, but my table fails miserably as we rush to try each of the troika. Before we know it, the remaining delicious Greek feta-olive and jalapeño popper eggs are gone. Next time, I promise to eat slowly and relish each and every bite; these eggs deserve it.

My late mother would be pleased that there’s a menu category called “roughage,” anchored by beets with baby arugula, spinach with fennel, asparagus with romaine, and a classic iceberg/blue cheese wedge. I can still hear her exhortations from my youth. But she’s not here, so I choose the foie gras house-ground steakburger. It’s a monster: a half-pound of ground ribeye and brisket with grilled onions and roasted garlic tomatoes. As if that’s not enough, it’s topped with artisanal Nueske bacon and a perfectly seared foie gras slice. The kitchen goes past my requested medium rare, but the ingredients are prime, so I really don’t care as the juices drip down my chin; I close my eyes and enter a food-induced coma. The burger comes with “WTF fries” elevated with truffle salt, grated Manchego, and minced chives — as the menu says, OMG.

A dining companion succumbs to the allure of sweet potato masa gnocchi. The dish features a wonderful mélange of vegetables in a creamy sauce: parsnips, carrots, corona beans, fennel, and blistered grape tomatoes. As our server points out, the mix is slightly different from what's listed on the menu, but the veggies are brimming with taste. The gnocchi themselves are less impressive, dense with muted flavors. But you almost don’t notice, since the rest of the dish sings.

The fresh fish of the day rocks. A plump fillet of pecan-crusted red snapper sits on a pile of creamy grits with succulent shrimp and spicy andouille sausage. Perfect pencil-thin al dente haricots vert complete the plate and remind you of how tasty these French-style green beans can be when done right.

As we relax after the entrees, I explore another Z Grille triumph. Along the back wall is a framed group of 12 vertical skateboards, each with a separate robed figure sporting a lucha libre wrestling mask. Riffing on Leonardo’s iconic Last Supper fresco, it's called The Last Fiesta. The “apostles” drink Mexican beer and the Jesus-esque figure at the center of the action gracefully balances a taco. It’s a brilliant piece of satirical folk art so fitting for the space.

I waddle back to my table and consider the delectable-sounding dessert choices — chocolate crème brûlée, Butterfingers ice cream, raspberry chèvre cheesecake. We opt for the absolutely scrumptious caramel toffee cheesecake spring rolls. The filling overflows with soft butterscotchy goodness, which oozes from the warm, crisp wrapper that’s thoroughly covered with cinnamon and sugar. The three-piece serving comes to the table with a knife and fork, but I heartily urge you to eat this with your fingers and dip into the accompanying whipped cream with every bite.

That was my table’s strategic decision, one that we each agreed was the right choice as we return to the car licking our fingers with a smile and a laugh.

About The Author

Jon Palmer Claridge

Jon Palmer Claridge—Tampa Bay's longest running, and perhaps last anonymous, food critic—has spent his life following two enduring passions, theatre and fine dining. He trained as a theatre professional (BFA/Acting; MFA/Directing) while Mastering the Art of French Cooking from Julia Child as an avocation. He acted...
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