Restaurant review: So much to love about So Gourmet

Tampa's So Gourmet is a truly European eatery "where anything can happen."

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click to enlarge So Gourmet's vichyssoise is creamy and seductive topped with crisp croutons and flecks of green herb. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
So Gourmet's vichyssoise is creamy and seductive topped with crisp croutons and flecks of green herb.

click to enlarge So Gourmet's vichyssoise is creamy and seductive topped with crisp croutons and flecks of green herb. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
So Gourmet's vichyssoise is creamy and seductive topped with crisp croutons and flecks of green herb.

So Gourmet

4 out of 5 stars

3301 S. Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa. Soup and salad: $7-$13; Quiche and sandwiches: $8-$13; cheese and charcuterie: $22-$32; desserts: $5-$6; wines by the glass: $6-$22. 813-835-8045; sogourmetbakery.net.


Some months ago, I got a note on social media from my culinary friend, Kim Bailey (bon vivant, man-about-town, radio host and caterer extraordinaire). He thought a French bakery-café-wine bar on South Dale Mabry was worth CL's attention. I passed on Kim's enthusiasm to our intrepid food and drink editor, Meaghan Habuda, who has her finger on the pulse of the Bay area's culinary scene. She expertly juggles the culinary calendar, keeping track of trends and openings, and choosing which direction to send me each week. Finally, this wheel of fortune landed on lunch at Virginia Park's So Gourmet (since it's ceased dinner service).

Luckily, this coincides with a visit by a friend who shares my passion for French cooking and cuisine. We pick up some other guests from my rotating posse of dining companions and head to Chantal and Frederic Brillard's eatery. Their website hails it as a place "where anything can happen, fertile by its daily surprises." Labels don't matter "all that counts is what you eat, and who you eat it with." Noble sentiments, but the bakery-café-wine bar's triple focus makes it hard to brand for marketing purposes. Nevertheless, So Gourmet is a truly European spot, and regardless of where you reside, it's worth a trip.

We begin with two classic French stalwarts: vichyssoise and French onion soup. There is indeed a special alchemy that takes place when potatoes and leeks hook up; in almost any carefully wrought version, vichyssoise is a "swipe right." SG's is no exception. There's a balance of flavor, with both potatoes and leeks making their presence known. It's creamy and seductive, and topped with fresh buttery, crisp croutons and flecks of green herb. We prefer the classical cold soup, but the eatery also offers it warm if you wish.

Reflecting individual style while remaining true to its origin, each soup is served in a deep white and round porcelain bowl with small knobs on opposite sides. The top edge curves in as though you've cut through a sphere with a broad sword. For French onion, SG wisely chooses to float two small baguette croutons side-by-side. The crisp bread is topped by melted Gruyère that adds a grace note to the hearty onion-laced beef stock instead of burying the soup in a thick layer of uncooperative molten cheese. Chef Brillard's broth is slightly thickened and has just a touch of sweetness.

click to enlarge A French spin on grilled ham and cheese, croque-monsieur is a hit made more notable by side potatoes. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
A French spin on grilled ham and cheese, croque-monsieur is a hit made more notable by side potatoes.

My Francophile guest can't resist trying the croque-monsieur, France's spin on grilled ham and cheese on thin sourdough that calls for béchamel and a gratinée of bubbling cheese on top. It's a hit made even more notable by side potatoes. They're not typical long French fries, but, instead, cubes the size of dice, and every one is perfectly, evenly golden brown on all sides, as if they've been painted. The secret is that they're parboiled to cook them through, then deep fried to reach the perfect color. The result isn't crispy, just full of flavor.

The beef bourguignon special has the robust flavor that this dish promises from a slow braise with big beef chunks that shred with a fork. However, I miss the presence of some crisp bacon lardon, plus the sautéed mushrooms and brown-braised onions that Julia Child required me to master as separate garnishes. Still, there's more than enough flavor, and the accompanying creamed potatoes are part ethereal mash, part tiny dice as an extra treat.

The quiche crust is buttery and flaky, as you might expect from a proper French bakery, and its deep-dish filling is thick enough for the custard to set while still creamy something you can't achieve in a pie tin. There are multiple filling options to satisfy a wide range of tastes.

Desserts come by way of the glass display at the center of the dining room. It showcases a variety of eclairs, fruit tarts, chocolate confections and assorted pastries. After spending some time pondering while bent over peering through the glass, we settle on the glistening trianon and a picture-perfect raspberry tartlette.

click to enlarge So Gourmet co-owners Chantal and Frederic Brillard. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
So Gourmet co-owners Chantal and Frederic Brillard.

A chocolate wonder, the former comes either heart-shaped or as a classic rectangle. Its thin layers are like geologic strata, with almond biscuit topped by hazelnut praline and chocolate mousse. Then, the entire confection is covered with an ultra-smooth and shiny dark chocolate glaze. It's everything you could wish for  sweet and creamy and crunchy and full of explosive chocolatey goodness.

Not to be outdone, the tartlette's fresh, ripe red raspberries stand at attention. They're like fruity toy soldiers on a flaky circle of golden crust lined with a thin layer of sweet, eggy pastry cream. The whole tart has a light dusting of bright white confectioner's sugar. I can imagine these two as Pixar beauty queens, giggling together as they politely argue over which is the prettiest, each making the case for the other.

And, of course, French pastry requires coffee. So Gourmet does an excellent café au lait and espresso in cheeky ceramic versions of partially crushed plastic cups; I almost laugh out loud because they're that much fun. Of course, how can we leave when there are croissants, pain au chocolat and rustic open crumb baguettes calling our name? Be sure to plan on a box of stunning pastries for the road.

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

click to enlarge One of the Tampa eatery's dreamy-looking strawberry tarts. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
One of the Tampa eatery's dreamy-looking strawberry tarts.

click to enlarge One of the Tampa eatery's dreamy-looking strawberry tarts. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
One of the Tampa eatery's dreamy-looking strawberry tarts.

click to enlarge An exterior view of the bakery-café-wine bar, located along South Dale Mabry. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
An exterior view of the bakery-café-wine bar, located along South Dale Mabry.

click to enlarge Croissants are among the varied selection of pasty case delights. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
Croissants are among the varied selection of pasty case delights.

click to enlarge More treats from So Gourmet's glass display at the center of the dining room. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
More treats from So Gourmet's glass display at the center of the dining room.

click to enlarge More treats from So Gourmet's glass display at the center of the dining room. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
More treats from So Gourmet's glass display at the center of the dining room.

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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