Ponte Of No Return

Resistance is futile at the exquisite and affordable Cafe Ponte

click to enlarge TRES COOL: French-trained Chef/owner Chris Ponte - incorporates the best of classic and modern - techniques in Cafe Ponte's cuisine. - Sean Deren
Sean Deren
TRES COOL: French-trained Chef/owner Chris Ponte incorporates the best of classic and modern techniques in Cafe Ponte's cuisine.

You won't find many chefs in our modest burg who have trained at Taillevent, the three-star wonder considered by many food critics to be Paris' finest restaurant. But Chris Ponte's apprenticeship in France is obvious once you taste the fare at his new local establishment, Cafe Ponte.Disguised as just another eatery innocuously occupying an isolated corner of a Clearwater shopping center, Cafe Ponte (pronounced pont) is anything but: Its sophisticated, cutting-edge style provides a welcome change from the nearby wasteland of burger joints and megachains that clutter Ulmerton Road.

The food's unusual subtlety and creativity reflect Chris Ponte's long journey from culinary school at Rhode Island's Johnson & Wales University, to Clearwater's Pepper Mill Restaurant, then to Paris' elite Cordon Bleu culinary academy. Graduating at the top of his class there, he won an apprenticeship at Taillevent. Later, he toured the world as chef aboard a 130-foot motor yacht, landing finally in New York City, where he studied with acclaimed chefs Daniel Boulud and Francois Payard.

Bay area gourmands are lucky he loves Florida and chose to launch his own restaurant here; it opened with little fanfare and 163 seats in September. His wife, Jenny Ponte, handles the front office and the wine.

Inside, it's clean and glam with soft-color booths and a two-tier dining room. To one side is a curvy bar, crowned with a TV set. The big open kitchen occupies one whole wall of the restaurant, where the staff creates truly amazing dishes, ones you're unlikely to find anywhere else in the Bay area.

One of the nicest features of the restaurant is that, although the food is terrific and the service reasonably efficient, you won't need to take out a second mortgage in order to dine there. With an eclectic dinner menu offering everything from a humble, grilled chicken pizza ($9) to a complex, nine-spice duck breast with bok choy ($22), the cafe provides a number of reasonably priced options that will appeal to the frugal as well as the financially flagrant.

And at lunchtime, it's even more affordable. One day, I feasted upon elegant duck eggrolls ($5.75), expertly made and topped with a sweet and sour apricot sauce, followed by an entree of sesame tuna ($11) that featured seawater fresh, sushi-grade tuna encrusted with black and white sesame seeds and served with bok choy, wakame and a sauce flavored with the juice of the exotic Japanese fruit called yuzu. A delightful coconut-rice cake finished the dish.

My impressed dining companion that day enjoyed a tender, flavorful steak sandwich ($7.50), shaved filet fortified with onion confit and imported gruyere, and accompanied by crispy, perfect french fries. It was not much more expensive than Arby's, but from a culinary standpoint, it occupied a different universe.

"We didn't want to trap people, like some of these big, expensive restaurants do," Chef Ponte explained. "We wanted people to feel comfortable, whether they ordered pizza and wine and were out in 20 minutes, or whether they wanted to lounge here for a full-course meal that lasted two and half hours."

Since its kitchen remains open till 11 p.m. on weekends, Ponte provides an attractive alternative to those who might want to attend a movie, theater or music performance before they dine.

The restaurant's excellent wine list includes 90 selections, 21 by the glass. I chose a 2001 Renwood Viognier ($6.75 by the glass, $26 per bottle). It went down smoothly, aided by a rich appetizer of potato herb goat cheese terrine with tomato vinaigrette ($7). It was a little slice of taste bud heaven, and we demolished it in minutes.

If the fare had been mediocre, I would have had no trouble slowing down, but the wonderfully complex and almost digitally precise spring vegetable pistou ($3.50/cup, $5.50/bowl) had the opposite effect. I wolfed it down as if I had not eaten in a week.

The dish rendered me helpless with its 15 vegetables, including summer squash and zucchini, with a robust pack of oversize focaccia croutons.

My entree, roasted free-range chicken ($16), was the freshest white breast meat set among sauteed beet greens, with white truffle oil and a creamy lemon confit polenta, its subtle flavor accomplished Moroccan-style with dried lemon rind. A feast for the eye as well as the mouth, its colorful circus of taste and texture made it fun to eat.

For dessert, my companion ordered upside down chocolate souffle, a creamy, steamy dome of gooey, rich chocolate sided with French vanilla ice cream ($7), pretty close to perfection.

But I was disappointed in my strawberry tart ($6), crust crowned with sweet mascarpone cream, pistachios, strawberry sorbet and a drizzle of aged balsamic vinegar. The filling was fine, the strawberries maybe a bit off ripe enough, but the crust was unacceptably mushy, as was the crust on some of the petit fours ($5), tiny bite-size treats we took with us as we left. Top chefs use a variety of methods to keep pastry crisp even in Florida's 90 percent humidity, and there's no reason Cafe Ponte can't produce pastry desserts just as fab as the rest of its food.

Still, it seems such a minor complaint compared to the overall quality of the restaurant. I can heartily recommend Cafe Ponte, an elegant newcomer with a distinguished French pedigree.

Food Editor Sara Kennedy dines anonymously, and Weekly Planet pays for her meals. She can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888, ext. 116.