Under the Microscope

For the food critic, dinner at Sauté Café is about more than a fun meal.

click to enlarge DARE TO COMPARE: Saut Caf's chicken marsala - is good and simple, but its Creole onion log - disappoints. - VALERIE TROYANO
DARE TO COMPARE: Saut Caf's chicken marsala is good and simple, but its Creole onion log disappoints.

I recently took two of my editors to dinner. (It's a good idea to include your bosses on the free food bandwagon every so often, if you are a critic.) One of them recommended the place - Sauté Café in the Feather Sound area of Clearwater. As dinner progressed, we found ourselves talking quite a bit about the process of reviewing a restaurant. Yep, there is a process. You don't just go in, have dinner and a few beers, then give a thumbs up or down. You have to examine every facet of the experience, the surroundings and the food. Everything goes under a microscope. A faux pas that might be overlooked when out for a fun evening with your co-workers becomes glaring and important when you have to decide whether to recommend a restaurant to readers.

The editor who recommended Sauté Café used to like the place. Then he examined it under a microscope, with me. Now, he's not so sure.

We sat down to eat at 8:30 p.m. on a weeknight. It looked like the people eating in the dining area were having a great time; the room is long and pretty, with lights that look like pumpkins above every table. But we were led to a table tucked into a little corner off the bar, with a view of a large servers' station and the open door to the kitchen. As we were leaving, we saw that the chairs had been stacked and the vacuums were running in the main dining room. It seems we got the cheap seats so the staff could get a head start on nightly cleaning.

On a review, you have to pay a lot more attention to the food than you would normally. Sauté Café looks and feels like a chain concept, even with the single location. Don't go there for culinary creativity; go for a good time with family and friends. Still, the food could be significantly better.

Our server extolled the virtues of the crab cake ($9.95) - "more than 90 percent crab, way more than most places!" Sure, but it is mostly shreds, with few large lumps. A meager hint of bay seasoning and a one-dimensional red pepper puree doesn't bring much to this shellfish patty.

A lot of Sauté Café's food has the texture and flavor of pre-packaged seasonings and ingredients. The osso bucco special ($24.95) is better than you might expect, the veal shank meltingly tender and the risotto creamy and al dente. Halfway through, though, the dark sauce starts to give the dish a cafeteria-like tang, the distinctive flavor of gravy from a jar or packet. It may not be, but it sure does taste like it.

Chicken chili ($5.75) has the same problem. The texture is good, tender white beans and little chunks of chicken suspended in a rich, creamy broth. There is a surprising burst of spicy heat, but the seasoning is from dried spices. The chili tastes a little tired, like something I would make from a tiny brown bag labeled "Old Grandpappy's 3 Alarm Chili."

Anything wrapped in bacon should be good, but the barbecue shrimp skewers ($7.50) at Sauté Cafe could be a lot better. The bacon is flavorful, but turns flaccid when covered in a thick layer of super sweet, brick red barbecue sauce that tastes straight from the supermarket shelves.

I might not have noticed some of these problems if I'd just been eating out with friends. Truth is, though, there are a lot of restaurants out there. Why spend your money - even considering the reasonable prices at Sauté Café - when you can go any number of places for a better meal at the same price?

Sometimes, that kind of comparison can damn an otherwise acceptable dish. Sauté Café's Creole onion log ($5.50) is certainly an impressive sight, a foot-long bird's nest of intertwined strands of deep-fried onion. But when it's under-salted, with onion slivers so tiny you are faced with a massive pile of bland fried breading, it's not a worthy alternative to the bloomin' counterpart at the Outback.

Our server was sweet, and when we asked for recommendations, she listed a few favorites. Then she stepped it up a notch and told us to stay away from one dish in particular. "It's just not very good," she explained. I appreciated the advice, but all I could do was think about the people who order it without the benefit of her counsel. If it's bad, why is it on the menu?

Then again, she may have been wrong, as when she recommended the "popular" lobster and shrimp thermadore pasta ($13.95). Linguine is covered in a white, floury gravy flavored with a splash of Dijon mustard, rendering the tender nuggets of good lobster and shrimp almost as inedible as the pasta. This would have been disappointing even if I hadn't been wearing my critic's clothes.

Sometimes, the best things are found where least expected, like Sauté Café's stuffed chicken marsala ($12.95). The chicken is simply cooked and filled with hunks of crumbly feta and salty black olive. With a pile of creamy and rustic mashed potatoes on the side, it's a pretty good representation of a commonplace dish.

By the end of the meal, we were relieved to hear that Sauté Café brings desserts in from an outside source. Godiva chocolate cake ($5.95) is essentially a giant, five-inch-high wedge of creamy fudge, not really cake at all. Better is the homey and satisfying apple crunch with ice cream ($4.95).

On the surface, Sauté Café is a pleasant, locally owned joint that feels like it wants to be a national chain. Service is unpretentious and food is meant to please the vast majority of casual diners, with a tiny Creole influence to keep it honest.

Under the surface, Sauté Cafe is just like hundreds of other restaurants in our great metropolitan area - just good enough to get by.

Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. He can be reached at [email protected]. Planet food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.

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