Restaurant review: Stillwaters Tavern's enticing potential

Modern American fare at downtown St. Pete's Stillwaters Tavern needs work to dazzle.

click to enlarge Pho rolls at Stillwaters Tavern feature house-made boa, chili hoisin and more. - David W Doonan
David W Doonan
Pho rolls at Stillwaters Tavern feature house-made boa, chili hoisin and more.

Hogfish are a reef species whose natural habit is the gulf’s offshore ledges, where their pig-like snouts vacuum up bottom dwellers. When you first set foot into the handsome new Stillwaters Tavern in downtown St. Pete, you can’t help but notice its striking “hog-fish” logo dominating the south wall. A close look at the enormous 19th-century-engraving-style line art reveals a zoomorphic culinary hybrid right out of ancient lore.

You see, this is a visual mashup, with a hog head and a fish tail along the lines of the mythical centaur. It anchors a restaurant design that follows the current industrial-chic trend: black steel, reclaimed wood, warehouse-esque windows and nautical rope pendants. Clear, amber-filament Edison bulbs twist and loop above your head, and the high-top booths of tufted dark leather keep the noise down. You can actually hear at your table.

The setting’s hip and thrilling, so it raises my expectations that the food will follow suit. Trouble is, despite the visual appeal of Beach Drive’s tree-lined waterfront pathway, my gastronomic history on this popular stretch has too often been pretty yet underwhelming. The bold, satisfying flavors seem to be more the purview of repurposed spaces popping up along Central Avenue. I’m eager to explore what Stillwaters has to offer.

I can’t sell my table on the intriguing “all aboard” seafood charcuterie that boasts smoked trout rillettes, scallop chorizo, olive-cured snapper, salmon pastrami, pickles, mignonette aioli, and saltines crafted in house. Instead, we opt for puffy white pho rolls of house-made steamed bao and marinated spiced beef in a chili hoisin sauce that’s finished with sprouts and Thai basil. They really pop on the palate and are an exciting way to begin.

click to enlarge The restaurant's industrial-chic interior with its hybrid "hog-fish" trademark. - David W Doonan
David W Doonan
The restaurant's industrial-chic interior with its hybrid "hog-fish" trademark.

Due to the bold flavors of our first tastes, perhaps the cheese fondue seems timid. The beautiful, soft baguette-like pretzel rolls are the perfect vehicle to break and dunk into the lusciously textured sauce of local lager and sharp cheddar. My initial impression, post pho, is that it needs salt. However, after several bites and forkfuls — when I run out of pretzel — my conclusion is that the dip calls for sharper cheese. It is, indeed, timid.

Executive chef and Top Chef alum Jeffrey Jew told CL in June that his smoker, used for proteins like chicken and pork, “pretty much runs 24 hours a day.” One result is the smoked pork, braised low and slow, over gumbo fried rice, featuring perfectly al dente long green beans, a drizzle of pan jus and some scallion oil. There’s plenty of savory smoke to the pork, yet the rice follows the fondue’s shy flavor profile. If I hadn’t recently returned to South Tampa’s Roux for its Best of the Bay gumbo, I might be happily seduced. Instead, I’m longing for more punch.

The excellent “tavern filet,” served tender and juicy, is slow cooked and grilled, while the accompanying “everything mashed potatoes” seem to be just good taters. Hunter’s sauce is a nice addition to the dish, though the roasted mushroom garnish is tiny. My tasters wish the farm-fresh roasted veggies, which our server describes in enticing detail, came with their entrees, but we don’t realize they’re a $5 a la carte extra until we’re well into our plates.

The “key west pinks” sit on a huge portion of Bradley’s Country Store cheddar grits with Mustard “Q” wine butter and dots of scallions. Although the shrimp are presented without shells, the dish’s garnish is a shrimp head that my posse sees as a pest to be shooed away with a broom. Pretend you’re in NOLA and slurp the delicious nectar, full of wonderful flavors. My tablemate is reluctant, so I am re-lucky. Once the shrimp are gone, the pile of remaining grits seems mundane.

click to enlarge Lager cheese foundue is paired with soft baguette-style pretzel dippers. - David W Doonan
David W Doonan
Lager cheese foundue is paired with soft baguette-style pretzel dippers.

As the restaurant’s website hails, “the heart of any tavern is its beer selection.” In addition to four wines and two cocktails on tap following a current trend, the rotating list of 20 craft beers spins before your eyes on two split-flap displays like those used for years at train stations. There’s one on each end of the bar, and they’re oh-so-much fun.

Dark chocolate and cherry brioche bread pudding is gigantic with a pleasing ball of vanilla bourbon ice cream. It fills the rectangular cast-iron skillet, easily feeding two to three. The table is mixed, but I think it’s a personal choice whether you’re a fan of the bitter and dark fruit notes that the insides offer. My issue is that the dessert’s barely warm. Its charm severely diminishes.

Unfortunately, the same holds true for the apple and blueberry crumble. The compote filling is made fresh daily, sprinkled with a sweet topping and, in our case, what also appears to be the bread pudding’s ice cream rather than the menu’s “whiskey cream.” The item loses allure by arriving lukewarm rather than piping hot.

Once again, for me, Beach Drive pulls its punches. Stillwaters Tavern has tremendous promise if the kitchen goes full tilt instead of timid and tepid. Take the gloves off.

Jon Palmer Claridge dines anonymously when reviewing. Check out the explanation of his rating system.