Restaurant review: Rustic adventure at The Mill

Downtown St. Pete's The Mill takes diners on an exciting culinary ride with New American surprises.

click to enlarge With an attractive bar and industrial decor, The Mill is unpolished yet refined. - David W Doonan
David W Doonan
With an attractive bar and industrial decor, The Mill is unpolished yet refined.

The Mill may have a rustic name, but the slick new restaurant inhabits a shiny, urban Central Avenue office complex. Trouble is, it’s hiding in plain sight, like pheasant under glass. The good news is that managing partners Jason Griffin and chef Ted Dorsey’s food is worth Sherlock Holmesian investigation.

The restaurant’s mid-block between Second and Third, with the canny approach east on First Avenue South. When you turn left into the huge fountain-circling drive under the Merrill Lynch sign, a complimentary valet awaits your keys.

Sadly, there are no reservations, but you may phone ahead to be placed on the waiting list. The word is out, however, and on a busy night, you’ve got to get in line — for up to an hour. Luckily, The Mill is well worth any delay. As you head inside across the business lobby, communal tables welcome you for drinks while you cool your heels. It’s a pleasant enough diversion since cocktails are a calling card.

Once you finally get a spot within the inner sanctum, there’s plenty to please the eye: a wall of large gears, an attractive bar and a giant mill wheel wine rack. Hanging light beams peek through burlap sacks; tables are wooden, with seats covered in old blue jeans.

click to enlarge The restaurant offers 12 signature cocktails classically, as well as on draft. - David W Doonan
David W Doonan
The restaurant offers 12 signature cocktails classically, as well as on draft.

Here, craft cocktails rule, and the bartenders put on quite a show, raising their forearms skyward with a drink in each hand like a one-on-one Shake Weight battle. From the north side of the bar, be sure to peek through into the kitchen’s frameless glass corner à la architect Frank Lloyd Wright. It’s akin to silently peering into an enormous fish tank to study the culinary sharks.

They ply their craft, snatching a handle from a stack of sauté pans, moving metal to cooktop, throwing in a pinch of this, a squeeze of that, grabbing for a seamless flip and jerk that sends the contents flying, only to land expertly back on the heat with nary a tidbit out of place. The gastronomic dance of the inked forearms (which seem to be de rigueur for today’s chefs) is fascinating to observe.

More importantly, when we’re seated to taste the fruits of these labors, most everything is a real joy to eat. There’s a lot of sophisticated thinking going on, with many treats to surprise your palate.

The Mill’s menu follows the small-plate trend with three escalating tiers leading to entree-size portions. Watermelon bruschetta is a smart and delightful twist on this popular favorite. Crisp slices of rustic loaf are spread with whipped feta, then topped with a whirlwind of diced heirloom tomatoes, European cucumbers and watermelon in a smoked pistachio-añejo agave syrup. The result is bright and fresh on the palate. My companions are swooning and exchange furtive glances that can only mean they are strategizing about how to sneak one of the last remaining pieces after we’ve tasted all around.

The trio of savory tarts is an open-faced affair. The crust resembles pretzel dough; it’s chewy and requires work. The toppings, however, are marvelous. Each blends a touch of sweet fruit with savory elements, which dazzle with every bite. English Stilton marries with soft, earthy mushrooms touched with thyme, intertwining with frisée and blueberry, and finished with a restrained drizzle of raw honey. The second plays beets against sweet peaches and the tang of goat cheese. Accents of black pepper, chervil and 30-year-old balsamic make it pop. My favorite, though, is a heavenly combo of salty prosciutto and lush figs with Grafton Cheddar and blackberry coulis.

click to enlarge Lamb shank pot pie arrives with bone peeking through a veggie-packed shell. - David W Doonan
David W Doonan
Lamb shank pot pie arrives with bone peeking through a veggie-packed shell.

The larger second plates are not as easy to share; think of them as normal appetizers. They offer some protein choices that set the menu apart: pork cheeks, quail, boar, rabbit and wild game sausage. I zero in on The Naughty Bits, which turns out to be one of my favorite dishes of the year. It demonstrates to any open-minded eater why the French worship foie gras and sweetbreads. The seared proteins sit, lush and golden, atop dark and savory pork pomegranate molasses. The big surprise is an anise-tinged blueberry corn muffin. The flavors are arresting. The dish’s edge cradles confit of soft scallions. They’re fire-tamed until their brashness fades and they become a malleable garnish for an inspired plate.

Plump diver scallops are perfectly seared, bursting with flavor. What’s extraordinary is the synergy of curried cauliflower purée juxtaposed with sun-dried tomato and exotic mushroom ragout and carrot-pomegranate molasses. Dollops of preserved lemon tzatziki sit on the bowl’s lip, and a pile of thin, crisp ribbons dubbed “carrot hay” span the dish like a sweet ‘n’ salty veggie colossus.

Ancient grain risotto (perhaps barley?) is the base for braised torn beef. It’s a stick-to-your-ribs-type dish with contrasting asparagus, snap peas, sweet onion, black garlic and some butter-herb foie gras melange just for good measure. Plus, two pieces of grilled focaccia ensure you don’t miss a drop of the sauce, which is why we love braised dishes in the first place.

Perhaps most surprising is the aptly named lamb shank pot pie, with bone sticking out of its picture-perfect puff pastry. Peel away the flaky shell and you’ll uncover a tangy thyme-laced chèvre béchamel loaded with garden-fresh peas, carrots, celery, sweet onions and yummy fingerling potato bits, complementing the tender lamb that easily shreds to fall off the bone.

Chunks of seared tuna share their plate with wonderful contrasting elements: charred carrot-ginger purée for a touch of sweetness and deliciously bitter notes from radicchio marmalade that make your taste buds dance. It’s all tied together with Florida orange vinaigrette and yummy brown-butter confit potatoes.

click to enlarge Carrot hay tops diver scallops with sun-dried tomato and exotic mushroom. - David W Doonan
David W Doonan
Carrot hay tops diver scallops with sun-dried tomato and exotic mushroom.

The desserts are equally ambitious, but not as successful in execution. The honey black pepper cheesecake with graham cracker crust needs a flavor infusion. The brûléed figs, local honeycomb and bee pollen brittle garnishes are lovely, but the main event needs more punch. You’ve got to top New York cheesecake memories in texture and taste to justify new directions.

The deep-dish walnut pie is akin to its well-known pecan cousin, double-decker style. It’s less sweet, but for my taste, the bottom half of the filling isn’t interesting enough to justify the extra depth, which is largely nut-free. The bitter orange cream Chantilly-and-Fireball-ginger reduction are welcome grace notes, though.

The strawberry lemonade tart sings. A short crust — free-form like the savory tarts — has distinct hints of vanilla. It’s tiled with overlapping macerated strawberries and decorated with a lattice of sharp lemon curd. Spectacular, translucent candied Meyer lemon slices hug the edge. I assume the advertised “Muscato” (sic) reduction is drizzled somewhere, but the wild dogs at my table decide this is their favorite, and it’s gone before I can proceed with due diligence.

Still, we leave extremely happy. There’s attentive service — overseen by Tim Guzinski, who works the dining room — and exciting, adventuresome farm-to-table cuisine at our fingertips. A quick return is already part of my thinking.

As if that isn’t enough, our friendly valet presents us with homemade packages of sugar cookies and mini muffins that I must save ‘til the next day lest I explode. This is a delightful exclamation point at the end of a memorable meal. 

Jon Palmer Claridge dines anonymously when reviewing. Check out the explanation of his rating system.


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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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