Winning combination

Creativity, skill and a seamless blend of flavors make Cafe Ponte a standout

click to enlarge STILL THE BEST: Chef Chris Ponte, photographed last year with devoted fans Annette and Bob Eriksen, who voted him Best Chef in our 2005 Readers' Poll. - Valerie Troyano
Valerie Troyano
STILL THE BEST: Chef Chris Ponte, photographed last year with devoted fans Annette and Bob Eriksen, who voted him Best Chef in our 2005 Readers' Poll.

This has been a lackluster year when it comes to great dining in the Bay area, at least for me. Lots of perfectly tasty dining, adequate dining and downright disappointing dining, but very little that has managed to get my culinary juices flowing. Damned if I'm going to end the year without at least one great experience. That's why I find myself at Cafe Ponte in Clearwater, hovering protectively over a plate of butternut squash ravioli like it's jailhouse Jell-O.

I'm not sure how this ravioli ($18) could get any better. It's an iconic dish, especially this time of year. The sauce has the same sage and brown butter you find everywhere, but this version is the Platonic ideal, the n'est plus ultra, the cat's meow. That rich butter is cut by an omnipresent but subdued herbaciousness that defines the dish.

The pasta is delicate, but with a discernible heft, and stuffed with a subtly spiced creamy mixture that tastes like autumn turning to winter. I'm certain that a chef, probably even chef/owner Chris Ponte, could fiddle with this dish and make something creatively spectacular, but when it comes to the fundamental butternut squash ravioli in sage and butter, this is it.

I've been keeping Cafe Ponte in my back pocket since I started writing reviews for the Loaf. I teased myself with a few trips to the bar this year, just a sample of what I might expect when I got around to giving the place its due. There was a lot of promise in those visits. Probably even a little expectation. Faced with the end of such a lackluster year, I thought I'd finally give it a chance. Turns out that my expectations were wrong. Cafe Ponte is even better than I anticipated.

I've been given a lot of shit for dwelling on the mistakes and problems that I encounter when dining out. My response? Try not making mistakes. It's difficult, sure. But my experience at Cafe Ponte shows that it can be done, with a casual elan that makes it appear absurdly easy.

Ponte's understanding of iconic dishes extends to mushroom soup ($5), which manages to portray the earthy power of fungus through a luxury of cream, each spoonful falling just short of too much of either ingredient. Barely. Or chocolate "souffle" ($8.50), which is the same molten-centered cake you find at almost every fine dining joint in town, but rarely with this dark intensity.

All this — in a strip mall no less. Cafe Ponte shares a common parking lot with a tanning salon and a steakhouse, the humble exterior belying the simple culinary successes happening inside.

Did I say simple? Sure, Chris Ponte's success is built — largely — on a simple foundation: He's great at the basics. Here's a recipe for fantastic food: Take excellent ingredients, season them appropriately and cook them correctly. Most restaurants I visit manage to stumble somewhere along that path on a majority of their dishes. Doesn't seem too difficult, but it is. Except here at Cafe Ponte.

Don't short the place on creativity, though. A deceptively straightforward pork chop ($22) is topped by a discrete layer of rosemary-infused butter and paired with fresh mushrooms sautéed with sweet scallions and joined by a savory apple cobbler. The sweet and tart stewed apples are topped with crunchy crumbs impregnated with cheddar cheese. In the end, though, all of that is mere accent for a piece of pork that glistens with moisture when a knife slices through its pearly pink flesh and tastes like meat that hasn't been bred for insipid leanness.

Pumpkin bisque ($8) is invigorated with a hint of curry, fragrant lemongrass and shreds of sweet crab. A towering salad of duck ($8) and cleverly layered greens are accented by gleaming ruby gems of tart pomegranate seeds, crisply roasted pumpkin seeds and juicy grapes.

Ponte coats sea bass ($29) in paper-thin slices of potato and balances it atop a mess of sautéed leeks, with a darkly fruity red wine reduction providing counterpoint. Duck ($26) is treated like the red meat it is, with just enough fat sandwiched between skin and rosy flesh to give it a luxurious, rustic quality — until you hit that wedge of quivering seared foie gras balanced on top. Not rustic at all, apparently.

Pizzas have always been one of Ponte's little trademarks, and they are tasty diversions, especially the one with Yukon gold potato, bacon and truffle oil ($12). It's a little stingy with the slices of buttery spud, but it's still a good pie. Better is a doughy tart topped with sweet red onions, sweet gorgonzola cheese and sweet fig paste ($8). Too sweet? Not with the addition of a slice of rich prosciutto and a pile of greens to add fat and bitter notes. This tart is light, fresh and balanced; I could eat it every day without tiring.

Most of Ponte's food is that way. Flavors and textures and weight blend seamlessly until the dish seems lighter than it should. Or maybe it just tastes so damn good that it's hard to pay attention to quantity and excess.

This food should be that good. Ponte has impressive chops: Johnson & Wales and the Cordon Bleu for education, stints in the kitchens of Taillevent in Paris and with Boulud and Payard in New York. That's a lot of fine dining cred to live up to.

Don't be intimidated, though. Ponte uses pizzas and Kobe beef burgers to remind us that great food can be a casual endeavor. Thus the interior — while rich and tasteful — won't make that guy in Bermuda shorts and linen shirt uncomfortable. Neither will a smooth waitstaff that can serve and describe and suggest with practiced efficiency.

I'm glad I saved it until December. I would have been even more disappointed in 2006 if I had been comparing everything to Cafe Ponte all year.

Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. Creative Loafing food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.

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