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Inquisitive Tongue's Outtatown Dish: Nanette Wiser @ Downtown St. Pete
Downtown St. Petersburg used to be a sleepy burg like the Gaslamp.Season starts slowly in October, when the snowbirds return from Canada, Michigan and parts North. Why not? The water is still 82 degrees, the air balmy, the humidity wanes and outdoor music lollapaloozas such as the Clearwater Jazz Festival dominate every weekend.
Add to the attractions the world-class Dali museum in a space-age new building, the annual Grand Prix, Chihuly's extraordinary glass museum, First Friday street parties monthly and you have the rumblings of a casual chic downtown surpassing Tampa across the bridge.
A culinary revolution is brewing as well. The Saturday Farmers Market grows more plentiful, ethnic cuisines percolate from Vietnamese to Pacific Rim, Floribbean coastal cuisine is tastier than ever and rocking pubs feature local beers, especially Dunedin's Red Haired Ale and Cigar City's IPA.
I love Steve's restaurants - the water wall at Parkshore Grill, the small planes zooming out of the Hangar and docking my Sea Ray at the Pub for blackened salmon Caesar salad. But when I want to reward my inner child ( a merciless gourmand), it's 400 Beach for Sunday brunch (10-3; $23.95) or lunch.
Free valet parking makes meeting friends for lunch painless. Start off by eating with your eyes: the aquarium illusion (televised tropical fish tank), Neptune-inspired art, clubby art moderne bar and waterview. Chef Tyson and Steve food/beer/wine alchemy is amazing and ahead of the trends. From local IPA (Cigar City) to Henny's favorite (Stella), there are always two featured drafts. I'm fond of tangy Magic Hat #9 and Dogfish IPA (thanks to owner Bob, my Angry Pepper tutor).
If you can't decide on a boite, there are dozens of wines by the glass, from Central Coast chardonnay Wilson Daniels and Russian River Sonoma Cutrer to elegant reds such as Carneros Steel Pinot Noir, Napa Rombauer Cab or Cline ancient vine ZIn. I could spend an afternoon matching wines with their Gulf or specialty raw oysters or the Roasted blue cheese, galicky parmesan leek or Oyster Rock concoctions, worth slurping with a spot of sparkling Zonin Prosecco.
Usually I'm torn between the Avocado Ranch Dressing Chicken Cobb Salad or Seafood Louis, but no one does a better classic iceberg Wedge salad (both small and large). Pair that with the grilled sea scallops dipped in sweet chili, lobster mac and cheese or coconut ginger stir-fried mussels scented with lemongrass and share both with a pal.
The lunch special caught my tastebuds. A small amuse bouche of spicy clam chowder and a tantalizing Caesar salad, doppled with strong blue cheese chunks and topped with some of the best blackened grouper in town. For those who love catch of the day, seafood arrives in a dozen dresses. Florida Grouper Oscar topped with jumbo lump crab, Hollandaise with potato hash is divine, as is the Asian infused miso-glazed salmon, the blackened tilapia with papaya mango salsa, Tandoori spiced mahi mahi and sesame seared teriyaki tuna.
Seasonings never repeat. Each dish sings the praises of delicious herbs and clever flavors. You can't go wrong with the Mediterranean chicken breast (sundried tomatos, boursin cheese, artichokes, olives) or a smoked bacon sage pork chop. New Englanders will find a taste of home in the lobster roll or fish and chips (battered haddock), while crab lovers kvell about the crab cakes (goat cheese, sweet corn, salsa).
Want a sandwich? Luscious burgers, blackened fish tacos with charred lime aoili, shrimp BLT wrap, oyster or shrimp Po' Boys and a comforting tuna salad wrap come with choice of potato planks or creamy cole slaw. And yes, there's beef--filet mignon at dinner, blackened tenderloin skewers at lunch. Leave dieting home and chow down on the garlic mashed potatos for serious pleasure.
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