Restaurant review: Grace is definitely worth the detour

Grace

4 out of 5 stars

120 Eighth Ave., St. Pete Beach. Appetizers: $6-$19; entrees: $12-$36; desserts: $7; beer, wine and cocktails: $3.50-$12. 727-317-4770; gracestpete.com.


As I've noted before, the beach dining options along Gulf Boulevard distinctly skew toward quick and casual. There have been a few stabs in recent years toward more finesse with mixed results, so when I see the menu for Grace, the 10th restaurant that chef Marlin (as in the fish, not the actor) Kaplan has opened, I'm excited about the possibilities.

First of all, the bill of fare's graphic design is sophisticated and has a sense of, well, grace. Kaplan's food also promises surprise. When's the last time you saw a Bolognese with lobster? Or shepherd's pie with duck? Like, uh, never. So, as I drive past St. Pete Beach's Don CeSar and head south on the loop road that leads to Pass-a-Grille, I'm undeterred by the multiple detours around roadwork that make the journey to Grace seem like we're inside a game of Pac-Man. However, my keen-eyed passengers point out that there are some "very cool" houses along the beach that we normally don't see.

Just south of the Hurricane, we turn east on Eighth Avenue, and there it is. Kaplan's partner, Lisa Masterson, is working the crowd seated along Grace's facade, which is lined with seven two-tops for al fresco dining. A ball of fluff sits by one table, later identified as "Furby," one of the neighborhood dogs whose presence during construction prompted Kaplan — who's cooked at the James Beard House four times and was also recognized by Esquire magazine as a chef to watch for in 2007 — to name his entire creative cocktail list after Grace's new canine pals.

As we step inside, there's an upscale-casual vibe, with one-of-a-kind wagon wheel chandeliers made from rigid, faceted crystals and leading; the same design feature is used for the restroom mirrors. As we move to our table, I very nearly laugh out loud. The walls, you see, are festooned with Seth Casteel's fabulous photos of underwater dogs. The images capture that split-second shock when canines realize they're not mermaids — complete with bulging eyes, air bubbles and paws akimbo.

The pack of cocktails we sample are inventive and delicious. Our little friend Furby is represented by a sweet concoction of Bacardi, banana liqueur, cherry brandy and pineapple juice. Namesake Grace is not only a swimming dog (pictured on the wall), but also a tall glass with a colorful blend of 360 Vodka, lemonade and a kick of lavender-blueberry syrup. The Watson arrives like sunset in a martini glass: Boodles British gin, Aperol, St-Germain and white peach balsamic topped with prosecco to add some welcome fizz. Needless to say, my table is abuzz.

That same quirky, askew sensibility is reflected in the food. Each dish has a twist to surprise the mind and the palate. The rare tuna taquito has pristine, seared bright-red fish sitting on lemon crema slaw and seaweed salad with pickled ginger. The tuna has a subtle, but notable, chili pepper dry rub that makes sense on a house-made crispy corn tostada. Dotted with wasabi aioli, the perimeter of the plate tames the fire and puts this Japanese-Mexican mashup into perfect balance.

By salt- and sugar-curing red and green heirloom tomatoes, the kitchen concentrates flavors, adds a touch of sweetness, and then tops the fruit with fried pistachios for crunch, adding an inspired hint of orange blossom water to EVOO for a scrumptious dressing. This salad is totally seductive.

The lobster cocktail is another fusion delight — sort of Japanese nachos. Small, diced fresh Maine lobster mingles with avocado purée, and white corn tortilla chips form a circular architectural structure. The whole thing is drizzled with sweet soy glaze.

Our entrees are no less inspired. Lobster Bolognese enrobes toothsome fettuccine in blush tomato sauce with all the veggies you find in Italy. But, instead of red meat, there are lobster bits and a mini coral-tinged split lobster tail garnish, plus a sprig of fresh basil leaves.

Less surprising yet just as on point are the tender pan-roasted sea scallops, showcased on a bed of rice dotted with bright peas and green onions bound with avgolemono, a Mediterranean lemon-egg amalgam, that adds both lushness to the rice and brightness to the dish.

The gem of the night, however, and my vote for vegetarian dish of the year, is roasted stuffed acorn squash piled high with a mound of Israeli couscous and quinoa, loaded with crunchy pistachios, fresh mint, sweet raisins, peppery arugula and earthy carrots tied together with a perfectly balanced honey-serrano vinaigrette. It's room temperature, but an arresting combo that elevates all the ingredients into a masterful selection that's pure delight.

Desserts are less showy, though made with care, and end the meal with a sweet flourish. The trifle tops pound cake with marzipan, key lime custard, lightly whipped cream and fresh blueberries in a martini glass. Strawberry shortcake is actually built around puffy pastry shells made fresh daily by the same wizard who comes each morning to make fresh tostadas. The trick here is that the fruit is macerated in Cointreau, and there’s a touch of blackberry liqueur, which adds dimension to the berries. Oh, and, of course, the whipped cream has its own allure.

As if the invention and aspirations of Grace weren't enough to entice you, sit close to the windows and you may see across the dunes, through the beach grasses reaching skyward, to Mother Nature's nightly show of shows. If I didn't know better, I'd swear there was some kind of collusion, because the afterglow is particularly disorienting on this night. In any case, Grace is definitely worth the detour.

Editor's note: Additional reporting for this story was done by Nicole Abbett.

CL Food Critic Jon Palmer Claridge dines anonymously when reviewing. Check out the explanation of his rating system, or email him at [email protected].

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Lobster Bolognese — when's the last time you saw that? — arrives with fettuccine, blush tomato sauce, veggies and lobster tail at Grace.
Nicole Abbett
Lobster Bolognese — when's the last time you saw that? — arrives with fettuccine, blush tomato sauce, veggies and lobster tail at Grace.
The new restaurant is located south of the Hurricane in St. Pete Beach's Pass-a-Grille area.
Nicole Abbett
The new restaurant is located south of the Hurricane in St. Pete Beach's Pass-a-Grille area.
Seven two-top tables line the facade for al fresco dining.
Nicole Abbett
Seven two-top tables line the facade for al fresco dining.
Salt- and sugar-cured heirloom tomatoes are totally seductive.
Nicole Abbett
Salt- and sugar-cured heirloom tomatoes are totally seductive.
As one of the restaurant's salads, it also features fried pistachios, extra-virgin olive oil and orange blossom water.
Nicole Abbett
As one of the restaurant's salads, it also features fried pistachios, extra-virgin olive oil and orange blossom water.
Tuna taquito, a Japanese-Mexican mashup, is in perfect balance, with help from wasabi aioli.
Nicole Abbett
Tuna taquito, a Japanese-Mexican mashup, is in perfect balance, with help from wasabi aioli.
The namesake Grace cocktail is a tall, colorful glass of 360 Vodka, lemonade and lavender-blueberry syrup.
Nicole Abbett
The namesake Grace cocktail is a tall, colorful glass of 360 Vodka, lemonade and lavender-blueberry syrup.
Inside, diners will find Seth Casteel's fabulous photographs of underwater dogs.
Nicole Abbett
Inside, diners will find Seth Casteel's fabulous photographs of underwater dogs.
Featured throughout the upscale-casual interior, the images capture that split-second shock when canines realize they're not mermaids.
Nicole Abbett
Featured throughout the upscale-casual interior, the images capture that split-second shock when canines realize they're not mermaids.
Our restaurant critic very nearly laughs out loud upon his discovery of Casteel's photos.
Nicole Abbett
Our restaurant critic very nearly laughs out loud upon his discovery of Casteel's photos.
Grace is the 10th restaurant that chef Marlin Kaplan has opened.
Nicole Abbett
Grace is the 10th restaurant that chef Marlin Kaplan has opened.
Detours around roadwork make the journey to the restaurant seem like you're in a game of Pac-Man. But it's definitely worth it.
Nicole Abbett
Detours around roadwork make the journey to the restaurant seem like you're in a game of Pac-Man. But it's definitely worth it.

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