3.5 out of 5 stars
475 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. Appetizers: $6-$14; entrees: $7-$28; desserts: $7-$12; wine on tap: $7-$10. 727-258-8753; iberianrooster.com.
I must say it's a surprise and a pleasure to walk into a new restaurant in downtown St. Pete and not be overwhelmed by big screens — even at the handsome bar. Iberian Rooster's decor is welcoming and chic, and its colonial Portuguese fusion is a mashup of street food and simple tapas drawing on the "dynamic flavors... and harmony that exists between the culinary cultures of Mozambique, Macau, Brazil, and Goa."
We dive right in to the Goan patties that reflect the impact of travelers from the Indian subcontinent. They're a fusion version of a samosa, only flatter like an empanada. The flaky, baked stuffed puffed pastry is filled with either savory beef or a traditional potato-pea mixture. With just the right ratio of sweetness to tang, the mango chutney makes the dish. There's also a balsamic glace, which adds a welcome touch of acidity, brightening the patty on the your palate.
Even better is the perfect duck fat-braised pork belly; the sear alone is enough to make a grown man weep. It's topped with an interlaced stack of thin, crisp shoestring potatoes defying gravity. A pool of Madeira reduction dotted with saffron oil surrounds the pork. The combo is just DE-licious.
Another winning starter is the panko-fried cod croquettes laced with bits of green pea and potato. As with the Goan patties, the chutney is a kick in the pants — in this case, a smoky tomato chutney that not only sings, it practically tap dances. Add harissa aioli, as well as saffron oil, and you've got another great appetizer.
The entrees are equally seductive. Goan cafreal is another mashup with hints of India. We choose chicken over veggies, which melds nicely with the green and red curry sauce. It's mild, without a strong turmeric bent, plus coconut milk. The chunks of juicy chicken and sauce surround a mound of basmati rice like a moat. The rice castle rising in the center of the plate is topped with a cooling cucumber yogurt that's a lovely contrast.
Flaming red snapper escabeche features a pan-fried red snapper filet with crispy skin that's been flambéd with Bacardi 151. The high alcohol content of this particular rum surely has the kitchen aglow as the chef then slides the fish on a plate with sweet red pepper chili sauce, crisp julienned veggies and basmati. It showcases the fish in perfect balance with a kick.
My favorite dish of the of the evening, however, is not the most sophisticated one coming out of executive chef Ed Lowery's kitchen. It's just a bowl of comfort food from Macau (a Chinese province with long ties to Portugal) called "minchi," from the English "mince," indicating that it was introduced by Anglophone residents.
Whatever its origin, it has my whole table drooling. Fresh ground beef and spicy chorizo bits are in a sweet and savory gravy — which seems part soy, part molasses — and chunks of potatoes with onion and basmati. The whole thing is topped with a sunny-side-up egg. When you break the yolk and watch the egg drip slowly down, then mix it all together into a big bowl of comfort food, it warms the soul. The dish bursts with flavors carnivores crave. I feel like an orphan from Oliver Twist: "Please, sir, I want some more."
The dinner so far is a triumph of fusion flavors from the influences of Portugal's trading partners as the world discovered the Iberian Peninsula. Our server speaks highly of pastry chef Tyler Rose, whose traditional wares are on display in a glowing case by the door to lure in potential customers. While the cheesecake and tarts are lovely, we opt for some fused creations from the menu.
It's hard to pass up the Iberian chocolate cake, tamarind mousse or basmati rice pudding, although we're already happily stuffed. However, duty calls. We decide to try two sweets that sound tempting. Matcha crêpe cake, a multilayered stack of thin green tea pancakes that alternate whipped cream filling, is enrobed in a decadent dark chocolate ganache. The dessert's glaze is rich and fulfilling, making its rubbery crêpes and cream all the more disappointing. The green tea doesn't really register, and since it's served cold, the texture is odd. As for the cream, it isn't interesting enough to rescue this one.
A baked custard made with oranges and caramel dubbed "Pudim de Priscos" isn't as disappointing, but neither is it notable. The flavor is timid — the orange barely registers rather than announcing itself, which allows the fresh berry garnishes (raspberries, blueberries and blackberries) to really stand out and overshadow the main event.
Just downstairs, "but worlds away," the restaurant promises you'll be spellbound by Sub-Central, a modern speakeasy. I sneak a peek to discover that it's a stunning space reeking of the roaring '20s. In addition to the required dazzling craft cocktails, a wide range of programming showcases music inspired by Fado houses to jazz quartets, bawdy burlesque to silent film (with live piano accompaniment). I can't wait! Plus, I really need an good excuse for another bowl of minchi.
Jon Palmer Claridge dines anonymously when reviewing. Check out the explanation of his rating system.