Restaurants Reviews Revisited: Savannah's, Primi Urban Cafe, Rawbar Sushi

Last summer, Savannah's (1113 Central Ave., St Petersburg, 727-388-4371 or in St. Pete went through some sweeping changes. Although the core idea of the place -- Southern food, from Carolina low-country to Louisiana Cajun -- remained the same, a new chef and manager moved in and put their own spin on the place. One, it seems, made the place a little less Southern, while the other ramped it up.

General Manager Jeremiah Charles (formerly of Ceviche St. Pete and Bowled) took a firm hand with the drinks menus and came up with a few clever twists. Now, the beer list -- about two-dozen selections in the bottle -- features beers that hail from south of the Mason-Dixon line, including a couple from the Bay area. It's refreshing to have someone pay this much attention to fine-tuning the beer selection to fit a theme and cuisine, especially since it's a heck of a lot easier and more appealing for the average consumer to understand than wine.

Charles didn't ignore the rest of Savannah's libations, though, adding some tasty mojitos and a recharged wine list that's priced to move and geared almost entirely toward the restaurant's seriously spiced and seasoned cuisine. It's easier to find a pinot blanc, riesling, pinot noir or zinfandel than it is a chardonnay or cabernet here, which makes a lot of sense.

Although chef Sal Merola (formerly of the St. Pete Yacht Club) theoretically planned to expand and refocus Savannah's food -- perhaps toward a more low-country and old-fashioned style -- the menu looks a lot like it used to (Clarification: It looks a lot like it used to, but Charles informed me that 13 of the 33 items are new. Appearances can be deceiving.) All the favorites are there, including the fried chicken stuffed with goat cheese, the pulled pork napoleon and the shrimp and grits, as well as more odd dishes like low country egg rolls, all left over from when Edyth James guided the kitchen.

There are differences, however, in the new regime. While the old Savannah's had rougher edges that sometimes made the food exciting -- and occasionally resulted in a culinary mess -- Merola has a more elegant and restrained touch. That means more consistent food, if a bit prim, but on the whole it tastes familiar to anyone who ate at Savannah's under the old regime.

All in all, the changes at Savannah's are a wash. The food may be a little less exciting, but the drinks are better, and the place runs and looks much like it did before. (2007: 3.5 stars ~ 2010: 3.5 stars)

[image-1]Also in downtown St. Pete, Primi Urban Cafe (27 Fourth St. N., St Petersburg, 727-895-4909 or has long been one of my favorite secret spots. No matter how many times I pimped it in this paper -- with Best Of awards every year since it opened in 2006 -- its position off of Central on Fourth Street makes it almost hidden to average folks.

Last year owners Arno and Irene Von Waltsleben sold the place to Italian-born Saverio Macaluso. He planned to make only a few minor changes to the menu and the space, leaving much of the cuisine in place by keeping Arno's son George in the kitchen.

True to his word, Primi's menu has been stripped of some of the South African touches injected by the Von Waltslebens, with a few classic Italian dishes added by Macaluso. The beautiful bolognese is still there, and still just as tasty, available either with the fluffy cheese ravioli or with your pasta of choice. The restaurant's signature pesto rosso of sun-dried tomatoes -- sold at the St. Pete downtown market for a while -- still accents golden fried mozzarella wedges, and the curry-laced recco sauces still add a surprising touch of fiery curry and cream to chicken dishes.

Maybe I'm not down with Macaluso's desire to add televisions, or even his love of the piano bar concept on weekends, but at Primi the food is the thing. And, on the whole, the food is just as good under Macaluso's regime. (2006: 3.5 stars ~ 2010: 3.5 stars)

[image-2]There was a heap of buzz about downtown Tampa's Rawbar Sushi (777 N. Ashley Drive, Tampa, 813-422-5220 or before it opened last year, mainly because of the chef. In a town largely devoid of high-powered, celebrity chefs, Naohiro Higuchi was an amazing get for Rawbar owner James Devito. Higuchi had sliced and rolled at Nobu in the Bahamas, Restaurant le Pacifique in Monte Carlo and Sushi Samba in Miami Beach. And, in the beginning, he kind of lived up to the hype.

His menu was loaded with odd and interesting concoctions, like thinly-sliced yellowtail topped by cubes of gelatinized soy sauce, or a salmon roll laced with basil and topped by bright tomato concasse and a parmigiano cracker. Maybe -- alright, often -- the combinations came across more as clever than tasty, but the culinary vibe fit the blindingly black interior and upscale urban aura of the place.

Higuchi left a few months ago, after a number of problems with finding the acceptable kitchen staff, and was replaced in November with local and definitely non-celeb chef James Lee. With the change came a menu overhaul that transformed Rawbar from a crazy and innovative destination to a more staid and stable spot for straightforward sushi. Most of Higuchi's odder items were stripped away in favor of more typical twists of sushi standards. Instead of scallop and white truffle oil or salmon and tomato there's shrimp, prosciutto and pineapple or eel and coconut flakes.

The biggest loss came in the non-sushi small plates, which now read like a neighborhood Japanese restaurant -- although the salty fried shishitou peppers stuck around to liven things up. Boring? Only in comparison to Rawbar's first few months. More consistent? Definitely.

Rawbar also now offers lunch in the form of simple bento box combinations that clock in at $10 for three respectable courses. That's a more downscale move than Rawbar's original SoBe, velvet rope philosophy, but it's also smart. Sometimes, accessibility brings in more business than exclusivity.

Last year, I gave Rawbar 3.5 stars, mainly due to the promise of Higuchi's temperamental but exciting cuisine. (2009: 3.5 stars ~ 2010: 3 stars)

Follow all of CL's food coverage and more on Twitter -- @CL_food.

Savannah's and Rawbar photos by; Primi photo courtesy Primi Urban Cafe.

I like to think that my restaurant reviews are timeless, but that really only applies to the prose. Each one is a snapshot of a place during a brief period of time; as soon as it's written and printed, the moment is gone. So many things can change, from that smiling server who had a preternatural understanding of my needs to the guy who dropped the fries in hot oil. The owner might revamp or sell out, the chef might change the menu because of his summer vacation in Barcelona. Restaurants are like rivers — some move so fast you won't step into the same one twice.

So, what to do about all the people reading a potentially out-of-date, 18-month-old snapshot of a restaurant? I can't keep going back — there are just too many restaurants to cover — but sometimes it's clear that a restaurant needs a second look. Then I can peek my head in, taste a few dishes, try to gauge the impact of the changes and report back the results. More a revisit than a review.

Read on as I revisit Savannah's and Primi Urban Cafe in St. Petersburg, and Rawbar Sushi in downtown Tampa.

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