What's new at O'Bistro?

A reliable favorite with a creative chef.

click to enlarge O, THAT LOOKS ROMANTIC: O' Bistro's grilled flat-iron steak with caramelized cippolini onions, cabernet demi glaze, and crispy new potatoes. - Shanna Gillette
Shanna Gillette
O, THAT LOOKS ROMANTIC: O' Bistro's grilled flat-iron steak with caramelized cippolini onions, cabernet demi glaze, and crispy new potatoes.

Years of change haven't fazed St. Pete's O'Bistro one bit. There was the fire in 1998. Then two expansions, the latest in 2004. Chefs have come and gone — locals Tyson Grant and Christian Briner, among others — and come back and gone again. The only thing that doesn't seem to change is the menu.

In the hands of a capable chef like Peter Gonzalez, the latest to head O'Bistro's kitchen, consistency can be a good thing. Checking the daily specials, though, is highly recommended.

On a Wednesday night, the place is bustling enough to count as busy, for the middle of the week. O'Bistro is split into three rooms — the long black bar in the foyer hides the kitchen, followed by two rectangular dining rooms. The layout is more cozy than grand, which suits the strip-mall location and comfortable food.

The second dining room is almost filled with groups of older ladies and middle-aged couples — manager Vlad Markov says that 90 percent of his clients are regulars — enjoying the same kind of food they've been getting from O'Bistro for 12 years. At dinner, there's meatloaf, roast chicken, seafood pot pie and faux pot roast. It's all familiar but updated stuff with a French bent that turns the name of the restaurant into more than just a clever moniker.

Then I see the specials. Pork belly? Although every part of the pig, from snout to tail, is enjoying a renaissance in more enlightened restaurant cities across the U.S., in these parts it's a rarity. On O'Bistro's rather staid and reliable menu, it's a revelation.

Pork belly comes from the same area of the pig that gives us bacon and looks like a big hunk of that king of breakfast meats, with a layer of meat, a thick layer of fat, another layer of meat and another healthy dose of fat. For cooks who aren't used to dealing with cuts that are more adipose than protein, cooking belly can be problematic. Render the fat too much and the slab disintegrates into greasy pulled pork. Render it too little and the diner has to gnaw through chewy fat. O'Bistro's Gonzalez has it nailed.

His belly ($18.95) comes to the table with a glorious crust of caramelized orange juice. The meat practically melts in your mouth; the layers of fat — with the texture of custardy whipped meringue — actually melt the instant they hit your tongue, disappearing with a whiff of porcine essence and a barely perceptible hint of OJ and allspice. You'd expect the final product of such a rich cut to be heavy, but this version is far from it. Think light, airy and, all too soon, it's gone.

After years of eating lean chops and tenderloin medallions, O'Bistro's pork belly serves as a reminder of the true value of the pig. Primal and decadent and, in Peter Gonzalez's hands, decidedly elegant.

The rest of the dinner is capable and consistent, even though it never rises to that single incredible special. Crab cakes ($10.95) are crisp and, even though there aren't many big lumps of claw meat, taste like the crab they were formed from. A napoleon constructed from three pieces of crostini topped by a schmear of boursin and a slice of smoked salmon ($9.95) is assembled nicely, with giant caper berries providing a nice variation from more typical, tiny, over-brined capers.

O'Bistro's Thai beef salad ($13.95) isn't especially Thai, and the soba noodles are too insubstantial to hold up in the salad, but the steak is grilled nicely to order, and the peanut dressing is addictive. A big hit of chili spice and strong notes of ginger give it more complexity than most.

Break through a flaky pie crust and you'll find the lobster pot pie ($26.95) to be hearty and homey fare that would be welcome in any Cape Cod fish house, with big hunks of meat and bits of carrot and corn. The giant sections of artichoke are a little distracting, but Gonzalez finds a way to shoehorn that particular veggie into a number of dishes. "Grown up chicken fingers" ($16.95) are really a cutlet covered in a crisp pecan crust and sliced into strips, downscale but satisfying when paired with rich mac and cheese dotted by tiny shreds of andouille sausage.

Only the "Tuscan" pot roast ($16.95) disappoints. The brisket is tender but spongy, and is served in long strips instead of hunks. Potatoes are whipped into liquid and largely lost in a sea of innocuous red-wine gravy, except for the occasional distracting blast of horseradish infused into the mash.

What really separates O'Bistro from the sea of struggling fine-dining supper clubs in St. Pete are the hours the restaurant is open: breakfast, lunch and dinner, seven days a week. That's tough on staffing but helps brand the place as a neighborhood hangout. Heck, it almost justifies the "Bistro" part of the name.

Breakfast is rather upscale, with benedict served on those tasty crab cakes ($13.95), "crème brûlée" french toast scented with vanilla ($5.95) and crepes stuffed with spinach and doused in hollandaise ($7.95). A few unusual variations — swiss, sauerkraut and corned beef? — spice up the omelet menu, or you can stick with a plate of eggs and, um, "O'gratin" potatoes. Hmm.

Lunch is largely a sandwich affair, with almost two dozen options, all executed with the same consistency and competence as dinner.

After a few visits, I can see the draw for those return visitors. And although O'Bistro has created a business out of a familiar, long-standing menu, I can only hope that Gonzalez can squeeze some of his own creations into the mix. In the meantime, I'll be asking the servers "What's new?" every time I sit down.

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